And nothing was more symbolic of market research’s coming of age than the Starch Test – the first serious attempt to measure the effectiveness of ads in newspapers and magazines.
It also helped formalise a discipline that has existed in some form for hundreds of years. The Phoenicians studied demand for their exports of purple dye, glass, metalwork, embroidery, pottery and foodstuffs. And the 11th-century diary of Marco Polo talks about the marketing studies he conducted while working for Kublai Khan.
The first attempt at using market research to crack an ad brief was in 1879. NW Ayer, needing to draw up a media schedule for an agricultural machinery manufacturer, wired state officials and publishers across the US asking for information about grain production.
But it was not until around 1910 that market research became a serious business activity. Interest was fuelled from US universities, where Starch, an educational psychologist, became increasingly fascinated in how psychology could be applied to advertising.
One of his assistants at Harvard Business School later recalled Starch’s steely resolve that belied his easygoing persona: "I came to know that behind his quiet, kindly reserve were determined drive, thoroughness and steadfastness in carrying through any project or in seeking an answer to any problem that he tackled."
It helped define a philosophy that remains relevant in today’s digital world. An effective ad, Starch wrote, has to be seen, read, believed and acted upon.
Things you need to know
- People taking the Starch Test would be shown publications and asked if they recognised or remembered any of the ads in them. The results enabled companies to compare the effectiveness of their ads with rivals’.
- Before Starch, advertising was largely a hit-and-miss business where copywriters created ads they hoped people would like while serving as a call to action.
- Starch ran his own market-research company for 50 years, retiring aged 90. He died five years later in 1979.