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Effective advertising requires more than originality

I believe originality is an important quality of effective advertising, but originality must do more than earn people's attention. That is not just my opinion. A meta-analysis of 67 academic papers comes to the same conclusion.

A meta-analysis of when and how advertising creativity works
The meta-analysis was published in the Journal of Marketing and written by Sara Rosengren, Martin Eisend, Scott Koslow, and Micael Dahlen. It provides further evidence that, in advertising, originality is not an end in itself. In brief, the paper's authors use a meta-analysis to test different theoretical explanations for the effects of advertising creativity. The paper concludes that creativity is most influential when it comprises a combination of both originality and appropriateness.

Advertising creativity is both original and appropriate
While not giving an extensive definition, the authors do at least summarize what they mean by creativity and appropriateness,

  • Originality is when the content is perceived as new, different, surprising, and innovative.
  • Appropriateness is when the content connects the ad to consumer problem-solving goals, e.g., it is perceived as relevant and useful.

To cut a long story short, the authors find that the data confirms their hypothesis that advertising creativity is "bipartite." They state,

"Creativity is more than originality, and by incorporating appropriateness consumer response will be more positive."

This conclusion is consistent with my experience (although I note Paul Feldwick's reservation that advertising might only need to be original enough earn attention from the audience). Advertising is most effective when it is original and distinctive enough to earn and hold attention and then uses that attention to deliver a memorable and motivating impression of the brand. In addition, given the continued debate over the value of pre-testing, I am gratified to see that one analysis finds that the assessment of creativity by consumers beats out that of experts and award shows when it comes to the impact on brand outcomes. The best test of whether an ad will achieve its objectives is to see how the intended audience responds to it (I may have said that before somewhere).

Key findings
In the chart above, I have amended the representation of Rosengren, Eisend, Koslow, and Dahlen's final model. The biggest change is that I have re-ordered the effects based on their impact on brand attitudes. I also dropped weaker paths, so that all the paths shown have a statistical significance of 99.9% or higher. Finally, I amended the descriptors to make them more easily comprehensible, hopefully without changing the intended meaning. (I am sure this adaptation is a definite academic and statistical no-no, but in this case, I place ease of understanding over rigor on this occasion.)

Affect transfer has the strongest effect
The strongest effect on brand attitudes came from affect transfer. In other words, when positive feelings evoked by the ad lead to a positive impact on brand attitudes (coefficient of 0.373 in the chart). Related to this finding, of all the variables examined, humor evoked the strongest response, thus confirming that a return to more humorous advertising would be a good thing for many brands.

Advertising creativity signals quality
The study finds that perceived sender effort or signaling has the second strongest influence on brand attitudes. Creativity therefore works in part as a signal of brand quality, which influences brand perceptions directly (the coefficient in the path model is 0.304). This finding supports the belief that craft – how well an ad is executed – is important in making advertising effective. A similar signaling effect is achieved by advertising in broadcast events known to be expensive like the Superbowl. Implicit in the fact that a brand can afford to advertise in these events is that it is not only popular, but also successful.

Advertising creativity generates brand interest
The third influence on brand attitudes was the ability of creativity to get consumers interested in the brand directly (0.234). The description given feels to me like a measure of persuasion. If so, it confirms that persuasion is not the primary means by which advertising influences behavior. Whether an impression creates conscious interest in a brand is as much dependent on the recipient as the intended message. If someone thinks the content is new, credible, and relevant, then it is likely to make them more interested in the brand and may move them to take immediate action. A further finding was that there is also a strong reciprocal effect between processing and affect transfer (.206). In other words, a positive feeling evoked by the ad can lead to more processing, and processing evoked by the ad can lead to a positive feeling.

Attitudes to the ad do not necessarily anticipate attitudes to the brand
The full model found that creativity has a stronger effect on attitudes to the ad than attitudes to the brand, and that attitudes to the ad have little influence on attitudes to the brand, which is why I have dropped "attitudes to the ad" from my amended chart. In other words, it is perfectly possible to love the ad, but that response may not change how someone feels about the brand.

Once again, this confirms my assertion that creativity must be applied to benefit the brand. To be effective advertising must influence how people think of or feel about the brand. So, what matters is not how they react to the ad in the moment -unless it gets them to act then and there – but whether the ad leaves a memorable and motivating impression of the brand. Based on all the research I have seen over the years, when it comes to advertising effectiveness correctly associating the impression with the advertised brand is second only in importance to earning attention.

The effect of advertising creativity is stronger for high involvement categories
The second new learning was that the effect of advertising creativity on brand response is stronger for high-involvement versus low-involvement products. This finding supports the idea that consumers will be more open to new information about a brand and more likely to delay definitive judgment when processing advertising messages that are communicated creatively. This finding potentially has important implications for high-risk purchases and long purchase cycle product categories, including B2B which in my opinion has some of the least creative advertising out there. Just because an ad is useful, i.e., meaningful or relevant, does not mean it will be effective. Originality is required to help the ad earn attention and leave a memorable impression. 

What should the advertiser conclude from this work?
  • Originality is worth striving for, but only if it is harnessed to influence how people feel about the brand. Creativity for creativity's sake might win awards, but it is unlikely to influence behavior; you cannot assume that because people love your ad, they will also love your brand.
  • While positive feelings evoked by advertising creativity have the strongest effect on brand attitudes, the signaling effect is almost as strong, confirming that it is not just what you say but how you say it that matters. Investment in advertising is perceived to be a signal of popularity and confidence in a brand.
  • Advertising creativity is even more important for high involvement products, helping to defer judgment of the relevance of the ad. This is particularly important for long purchase cycle product and service categories where someone might not have an immediate need for the brand. If an idea is not judged, but is remembered in relation to the advertised brand, then it has to the power to influence the recipient at a later date.

What were your takeaways from this research? Please leave your comments in the box at the end of this page. 

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June 24, 2024