MARKET RESEARCH: THE WRONG MEASURE - Most research ignores the fact that consumers process ads using irrational, right-brain thinking Robert Heath explains a better way.

In 1965, an ex-US Air Force psychologist called Herb Krugman wrote a critique of US TV advertising research.

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

never studied.

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.