Mixed Messages
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Marketing Apr 14, 2007

Mixed Messages

Context is critical to make advertising dollars deliver best return, says Kellogg School marketing scholar

Based on the research of

Angela Y. Lee

Aparna Labroo

Each morning we wake to our favorite music blaring from the alarm clock and grab a cup of coffee. At lunch we search the crowd for friendly faces to chat with while we enjoy a type of sandwich we’ve eaten many times before, perhaps since childhood. And after a long day, we turn in on worn sheets that feel deliciously comfortable after dozens of washings.

We are creatures of habit who delight in the familiar. And, truth be told, many of us are a little bit lazy.

Such human behavior, says Kellogg School Marketing Professor Angela Lee, determines whether advertising messages hit or miss their intended targets.

“No one ever decides to develop a $500,000 advertising campaign to show it only once,” Lee says. “Besides cost effectiveness, there’s a good reason: The more we are exposed to things, the more we choose them.”

Here’s why, according to Professor Lee, who studies human information processing and memory.

The first few times people see a new advertisement, they puzzle over it, trying to make sense of the message and product. Then consumers decide if they understand the ad and accept what it is saying. These individuals soon grow more critical, exploring whether the message is persuasive, until finally, after a few more viewings, they tire of the message altogether and demand additional novelty.

Lee investigates ideas such as perceptual fluency, “liking without conscious awareness” that develops through sensory exposure, and conceptual fluency, preference that develops when something comes to mind easily. A pioneer in the field of advertising context effects - how the environment surrounding advertisements governs their effectiveness - Lee’s recent research indicates advertisers should pay attention to the messages featured in proximity to their own, even if those messages are about products in a different category.

Imagine watching your favorite sitcom and the show goes to commercial break. First up is a mayonnaise ad in which a family sits around a kitchen table making sandwiches. A ketchup commercial follows.

Consumers, Lee says, are more likely to evaluate the ketchup favorably after having viewed an ad for a similar product. In her words, the mayonnaise spot “primes the ketchup” by helping consumers tap into their network of memory associations. Because ketchup is part of the same associative network, Lee says, it becomes ready to be processed when consumers view the mayonnaise commercial. And consumers favor brands that can be easily processed.

Similarly, something Lee calls “goal fluency” - the orientation of ads toward either “promotion” or “prevention” messages - also affects the way viewers evaluate them. Picture a commercial for a lice-killing shampoo that urges viewers to scrub with a special soap to kill the pests (a prevention message). When followed by an advertisement touting a conditioner that develops silky hair (a promotion message), viewers have more difficulty processing the conditioner message and, consequently, are less likely to develop favorable attitudes toward the hair conditioner.

But when the lice shampoo ad is followed by a pest spray commercial with another prevention message, consumers experience greater processing ease and develop more favorable attitudes, Lee’s research shows.

“Angela’s research illustrates the old adage ‘there’s nothing so practical as a good theory.’ Her depth of understanding regarding how memory operates provides the foundation for unique strategic insights about how to develop more effective persuasive messages,” says Professor Alice Tybout, chair of the Kellogg School Marketing Department.

The Journal of Marketing Research has published Lee’s conclusions in its May 2004 edition, and more of her work is forthcoming in the same periodical. In addition to its scholarly impact, her research has practical applications for advertisers, who typically negotiate to ensure competing products or even the same type of products are not featured in the same commercial block, but don’t give as much thought to the messages that are part of the same spot.

The processing shortcuts Lee describes in her research likely developed as part of an evolutionary shift to help humans quickly gauge whether something is beneficial or potentially dangerous. Such shortcuts are not necessarily a bad thing, she says.

“Habits are formed after we put in an initial effort,” Lee says. “We do the work up-front. We are pulled in so many directions that we have to be efficient, and we often end up relying on unconscious cues.”

About the Writer
Kari Richardson, freelance writer. Article featured originally in Kellogg World, Spring 2006.
About the Research
Lee, Angela Y. and Aparna Labroo (2004), "Effects of Conceptual and Perceptual Fluency on Affective Judgment," Journal of Marketing Research, 41(2), 151-165.
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