How do we perceive the ads?
A recent review of current theories about cognitive information processing by Alan Swindells and Debbie Newbould for an Esomar paper has made them reassess advertising.
Two elements are key. The first is bottom-up and top-down processing and, the second, episodic vs semantic analysis and storage of information. Almost everything we perceive is prompted by a bottom up process (stimulus driven), triggered through one of our five senses. This, in turn, drives attention and perception of what is happening in the world.
Top down processes (driven by experience and thought), meanwhile, can help re-organise our perceptions and understanding of sensory experiences. Understanding this has a significant bearing on the advertising development process and the part played by qualitative research.
We process sensory experience only so far as we need to making sense of the world at a particular moment in time, and handling any reactions which are needed from us. This is also true about the way in which we take in advertising. We can either see ads (particularly TV) as an entertaining piece of film, or we can think of them as a message about a product.
We do not constantly examine and rationally consider all that we see much of what we take in is as a collage of images. We process things only so far as we need to make sense of them.
This has an important bearing on advertising evaluation, as we need to access episodic memory .
Episodic memory is more active when considering TV ads, usually recalled as a sequence of images and events. These are converted into semantic knowing at the point of sale, or via discussion with others when more active, reasoned thinking is invoked.
TV ads have become more visual, as campaigns for such brands as Orange, Levis, Peugeot and O2 have demonstrated. This underlines the need to understand the processing of images, and to access episodic memory as well as semantic knowing.
All of which has a key bearing on the qualitative techniques that we use within the creative development spectrum. Individual interviews are essential to access episodic memory. They are closer to real life viewing.
When individual interviews are used to access episodic memory they have to be perceptual by design, encouraging respondents to articulate the fragments of audio and visual memories that they have held on to.
Group discussions do have their place within the advertising development process but these must be confined to the earlier stages of creative development where we are dealing with a discussion of the advertising ideas, rather than the manner in which they happen to be executed.
The group should, therefore, be set up to optimise discussion of the advertising idea. We have had significant success at working with smaller groups and quads where respondents are given sufficient opportunity to work together to help maximise the advertising idea, e.g. re-ordering key frames, different emphasis on rational proof points, different stimulus to help articulate meanings.
Interviewing people twice, first within short interviews to capture episodic memories, and secondly within quads to discuss the advertising idea appears to access both processing mechanics. It fosters an understanding of how the individual connects with what they have seen and what they would say about a particular ad if they were talking about it in the pub or having a conversation over coffee.
Developing the correct research tools to access episodic memory is also important. Episodic memories are autobiographical, often visual and sensitive to the effects of context. We have to consider a range of research tools to unlock them.
We have worked on generating stimulus to allow for re-constructing the idea as the respondents perceives it and also encouraging drawing pictures of what they have just seen. Crucially, an individual interview must be short and perceptual in style; those that are too long will uncover the semantic.
In conclusion, understanding the way in which advertising is seen and interpreted in real life, based on learnings from cognitive psychology, indicates that there is value in using individual interviews as well as group discussions within the creative development process.
Together they make a powerful tool within the advertising development journey and a bridge towards great advertising. Such understanding also gives a more realistic reflection of what might happen in the marketplace.
Managing Director, Flume
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, January 2003
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2003