In 1965, an ex-US Air Force psychologist called Herb Krugman wrote
a critique of US TV advertising research.
In it he bemoaned the fact that, in regard to pre-testing, ’the model in
use is the familiar one that assumes high involvement ... What has been
left out, unfortunately, is the development of a low involvement model
In the 34 years since Krugman wrote these words, no-one has rectified
this omission. Perhaps no surprise, since Krugman’s ideas involved the
uncomfortable notion that, despite being able to use two sets of senses
(eyes and ears), consumers paid less attention to TV than they did to
press. The response of the US advertising fraternity was to smile
politely and adopt the mantra ’If you want your TV ads to work, you have
to wake up the consumer.’ (Which is why so many US TV ads in the 70s and
80s featured a presenter shouting at the audience.)
But they ignored Krugman for another reason. His thinking not only
attacks the traditional concept of learning being about paying
attention, but also undermines the idea that consumer decision-making is
predominantly rational. Low involvement processing is what is referred
to as ’right-brain thinking’, where information is absorbed in chunks
and stored as such. When you see an ad for Abbey National featuring Alan
Davies, you store Alan Davies and generally don’t try to work out why
he’s in the ad or what relevance he has to the advertiser.
If you doubt this notion, just try for a second or two to work out how
long it takes to rationally analyse everything you see and hear in just
one single TV ad. Then multiply it by 40. Then add in the posters, press
ads, radio ads, direct mail, names, packs and logos you are exposed to
every day. It can’t be done. Krugman was right, like it or not.
But is this bad news? Only for all those who think the neat verbal
proposition they agree with the ad agency is communicated to, and
received by, the consumer as a neat verbal message and then acted on. It
is not bad news for those who realise it is more often the creative
elements added in by the ad agency which endure and build into powerful
motivating brand properties. For them it is good news, for three
First, low involvement processing is not switched on and off at will
like high involvement processing. It goes on all the time. Second, it is
not selective: I use neither sanitary towels nor cigarettes, yet I can
tell you the names of several brands of both, and can describe a number
of features they have. Third, low involvement processing is extremely
To illustrate this, just recall what you do when you drive a car in a
busy street. You speed up, slow down, change gear, indicate, check the
mirror, monitor the dashboard, all without ’thinking’.
This is the mechanism we use to process advertising. Even a hard-bitten
left-brain marketer like Procter & Gamble is starting to realise this,
as shown in its new advertising for Vibrant. But it is not the mechanism
on which most of the quantitative research we use to evaluate
advertising is based. Extraordinary as it sounds, the information we
store about brands using low involvement processing is almost completely
overlooked by traditional research approaches. This is why highly
effective commercials frequently seem to fail in tracking.
What is even worse is that traditional tracking can totally mislead over
how your advertising really works. Take Heineken, for example. The
endline Heineken used was, ’Refreshes the parts other beers cannot
reach.’ Many still believe that the success of this famous campaign was
that it allowed the brand to appropriate the core benefit of lager -
refreshment. And on early tracking studies, Heineken scored higher on
refreshment than other brands.
However, when drinkers were asked in qualitative research if they really
thought Heineken was more refreshing than other beers, they denied
And if you asked them what the endline was, most of them erroneously
said: ’Reaches the parts other beers cannot.’ The truth is that the
Heineken campaign was a success because of its effective and popular
humour, not because it communicated superior refreshment.
So why did Heineken score so well on refreshment in image tracking?
Simply because it was an easy answer to give. Confronting someone who
has never thought about a market with an association grid of image
dimensions is a bit like giving them an exam paper for a subject they’ve
But since most research respondents are obliging folk, they will try
their best to answer the questions, even if they don’t really believe in
the answers they are giving. They tend to endorse big, familiar brands
unless there is another easy and obvious choice. So any statement with
’refreshing’ in it was answered with Heineken, just as in banking, any
statement with ’listening’ in it used to be answered with Midland
Using shifts in image grids in advertising tracking is a prime example
of how the ’old’ high involvement theory of advertising has perpetuated
bad research practice. Low involvement processing fundamentally
challenges the emphasis that traditional quantitative research places on
measures like these, and others such as message recall, prompted ad
awareness and executional liking.
This is why Icon has developed a new approach to research - which
recognises the importance of the myriad sensory associations that
advertising attaches to brands and that define brands in consumers’
minds. It has already shown the success of advertising campaigns which
appeared to fail using traditional tracking.
Robert Heath is the managing director of Icon UK. His award-winning
theory of how advertising works was published earlier this year.