Overcoming barriers to create effective advertising

By Jerry W. Thomas, President and CEO, Decision Analyst

The advertising industry has the poorest quality-assurance systems and, turns out, the most ineffective and inconsistent products (ads and commercials) of any industry in the world. This might seem like an overly harsh assessment but it is based on testing thousands of ads over several decades. In our experience, only about half of all commercials have any positive effects on consumers’ purchasing behaviors or brand choices. Moreover, some ads have negative effects on sales. How could these assertions possibly be true?

Unlike most business activities, which are governed by numerous reliable feedback loops, the advertising industry receives little objective feedback on its advertising. Few ads and commercials are ever tested among consumers (less than 5 percent, according to some estimates). So, no one – not agency or client – knows if the advertising is any good. Sales response to advertising once it runs is a very poor indicator of ad effectiveness. If no one knows when and why a commercial is bad, how can the next commercial be any better? 

Barriers to great advertising

Advertising pre-testing (the terms pre-testing, testing and test are used interchangeably in this article) could provide a reliable feedback loop and lead to much better advertising but many obstacles stand in the way. 

The first barrier to better advertising is self-delusion. Most of us believe, in our heart of hearts, that we know what good advertising is, so there’s no need for any kind of independent, objective testing. Agencies and clients alike often think that they know how to judge good advertising. No need for advertising testing. Case closed. Another risk is posed by “love.” Parents feel love for their new baby. Likewise, agencies and clients often fall in love with their creative “babies.” Once agencies and clients start to fall in love with a proposed advertising campaign, they quickly lose interest in any objective testing of the new creative.

Another barrier to better advertising is the belief that actual sales performance will reveal whether the advertising is working as hoped. Unless the sales response to the advertising is immediate and overwhelming, it is almost impossible to use sales data to judge the effectiveness of most advertising (some direct marketing ads are the exception to this rule). For the typical mass-distributed and mass-advertised consumer product, many variables are at play (let’s call this “noise”) so it’s impossible to isolate the effects of media advertising alone. The “noise” in sales data comes from competitive activities, seasonal changes, business-cycle effects, pricing variations, lag effects (some advertising works quickly, while other ad campaigns may take years), media effects (sales response times vary greatly, depending on the media mix), weather patterns, etc. 

The big creative ego is also a barrier to good advertising. It’s a combination of the “not-invented-here” syndrome and the belief that only the “creatives” in the ad agency can create advertising. The conviction that creativity is the exclusive domain of the creative department in agencies and that no one else has any right to creativity or creative input often leads to bad advertising. The big egos tend to abhor advertising testing and all the benefits thereof. In our experience, great advertising tends to evolve, with lots of hard work, fine-tuning and tinkering, based on objective feedback from target consumers. Big creative egos tend to resist such evolutionary improvements. We have seen great campaigns abandoned because agencies would not accept minor tweaks to the advertising. Big egos allow emotions to drive advertising decision-making instead of reason and consumer feedback. 

Poor marketing strategy, or the lack of strategy, is a big barrier to better advertising. Often, clients have not done their research homework and have not thought deeply about their brands and the long-term future of those brands. Rarely do clients craft and test communication strategies for their brands or provide this essential guidance to their advertising agencies. The client tells the agency to go forth and create great advertising without providing useful strategy guidelines. The agency is left to guess and speculate about strategy. Great advertising is rarely created in a strategy vacuum. 

The last barrier to better advertising is poor copy testing by research companies. Many advertising testing systems are limited to a few markets and therefore cannot provide representative samples. Some systems are so expensive that the cost of testing exceeds the value of the results. Research companies are often guilty of relying on one or two simplistic measures of advertising effectiveness, while completely ignoring many other important variables. To judge the effectiveness of an ad, several key variables must be measured and linked.

Creating better advertising

Given these barriers and complications, how can clients, ad agencies and research firms work together to create more effective advertising? Some thoughts:

1. The client must develop a sound strategy for its brand, based on facts and evidence. The client must carefully define the role of advertising in the marketing plan and set precise communication objectives for the advertising. What exactly does the client want the advertising to accomplish? Once strategy and positioning alternatives are identified and tested, the strategy should be locked down – and rarely changed thereafter. 

2. As creative executions are developed against the strategy, each execution should be pre-tested among members of the target audience. The greater the number of executions tested, the more likely it is that great advertising will emerge. Pre-testing the creative provides a reliable feedback loop that helps agency and client alike make better creative decisions and become smarter over time about how to consistently improve the advertising. 

3. Use the same testing system consistently. There is no perfect advertising testing system. Some are better than others but any system will help improve your advertising. The secret is to use the same system over and over so that everyone learns how to use and interpret the testing results.

4. If budget permits, test the advertising at an early stage in the creative process (i.e., the storyboard or animatic stage) and test at the finished commercial stage too. Early-stage testing allows rough commercials to be fine-tuned before you spend the big dollars on final production. Early-stage testing tends to be predictive of finished commercial scores but often the creative evolves as it moves toward a finished state, so testing the final advertising is always wise. Testing finished commercials gives you extra assurance that your advertising is working as planned.

5. Build your own “action standards” over time. As you test every execution, you will begin to learn what works and what doesn’t work. Think of the research company’s norms as very crude, rough indicators to help you get started with a testing program. But, as quickly as possible, develop your own action standards for your category and your brand as advertising effectiveness measures vary by product category and brand. The goal is to build your own database of scores for your ads. Then, use your own brand’s scores as the most accurate and reliable set of benchmarks to gradually improve your advertising. 

6. Use a mathematical model to derive an overall score for each execution. The key variables must be put together intelligently to come up with a composite or overall measure of advertising effectiveness. Don’t fall into the trap of using one or two questions to evaluate your advertising.

7. Use the testing results as a guide or as an indicator and do not become overly trusting of the mathematical model’s results. No model or system can anticipate every marketing situation or give a 100% perfect solution every time. Informed human judgment remains important.

8. Continuous improvement of the advertising is important. Test every execution and fine-tune based on consumer feedback. This ensures that your ads are “on strategy” and working as best as possible.

The ultimate goals of advertising testing are to identify the elements and ideas essential to communication effectiveness and to make sure that those elements are consistently communicated by all advertising.

The power of advertising

We believe in the power of advertising based on thousands of studies in our archives. Advertising has the power to persuade, the power to set the agenda in the consumer’s mind, the power to convey information and the power to shape a brand’s identity. Advertising has short-term power (conveying new information, building awareness and enhancing credibility) and long-term power (conveying brand image, attaching emotional values to the brand and maintaining awareness). The true power of advertising is seldom achieved in practice but we can’t give up. The potential and the promise are too great. The companies that master the creative guidance and the testing systems to consistently develop and deploy great advertising will own the future and the fortunes that go with it. 

Decision Analyst 2023 logowww.decisionanalyst.com