Research finds compatibility in conflicting advertising laws

Like fusion power and a human landing on Mars, here is something I thought I would never see in my lifetime: a unified theory of how advertising works.

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It comes in the form of an IPA report under the authorship of Peter Field and Les Binet, two of the truly great and good of British account planning. It’s called ‘The Long and the Short of It’, and if you’re involved in marketing communications and you’re serious about what you do, I recommend you run to your computer and download a copy of it now.

So what makes this 82-page report so exciting? First, a little history is necessary. For the last 50 years or so, advertising has been riven by a dispute between the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ force factions. 

The former have as their champions the likes of John Philip Jones, a charismatic and pugnacious researcher who has used single source data to show a definitive and strong correlation between ad exposure and an immediate switch to another brand.

The latter group worship at the altar of Andrew Ehrenberg, a brilliant statistician who proved that the main effect of advertising is to ‘nudge’ repertoire buyers into choosing the promoted brand more often over the long term. 

Sadly, Ehrenberg died three years ago, but his cudgel has been taken up by Byron Sharp, who contends that loyalty is a function of brand share, and that brands grow by increasing their share of repertoire over the long term.

Persuade or nudge: this has been the battleground on which the factions have fought. 

Binet and Field have finally brought an end to this clash of arms. Through a forensic analysis of the IPA’s historical effectiveness awards data bank, they have demonstrated that both sides are right, but in different ways.

Advertising which cleaves to the rational ‘persuasion’ model (I beg to differ over the authors’ conflation of the words ‘direct’ and ‘promotional’) has a strong short-term effect in increasing volume sales.

Advertising which is more emotional in its content has longer-term effects, less on volume, but more on profitability and price maintenance. The ideal programme of advertising contains a mix of the two, roughly in a 60/40 split in favour of advertising aimed at longer-term effects.

The authors cite the example of a campaign I particularly admire, that for Aldi. The brand’s continuous advertising makes charming emotional play of the thought ‘Like brands, only cheaper’. Meanwhile, its periodic promotional campaigns take exactly the same thought and deliver it in more rational, persuasive terms.

The same argument could be made about the much-applauded marketing strategy for John Lewis. One strand of advertising focuses on emotionalising the brand, while another concentrates on the mundane but necessary task of shifting fridge-freezers (albeit very elegantly).

These empirical findings support the hypothesis of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Namely, that the brain processes information using two systems: The always-on, low-engagement ‘System One’, and the higher-functioning, higher-effort ‘System Two’. Long term advertising works on System One. Short term advertising relies on System Two.

Binet and Field go further and argue in favour of a composite kind of advertising they describe as ‘brand response’, a term I think was first coined by the direct response creative Steve Harrison. While Binet and Field don’t touch on this, Kahneman’s work provocatively suggests that we are more susceptible to System One stimuli when our System Two faculties are engaged.

This would be an interesting field for further neurological research, from which the direct
and digital marketing communities would certainly benefit.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I am profoundly excited by this work, which brings together two apparently irreconcilable theoretical models with the help of a solid base of evidence and some profound academic thinking.

Having authored this report, Field and Binet may have some time on their hands. In which case, perhaps they may wish to direct their conciliatory efforts towards supporting the resurgence in the British economy.

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