Numbers or intuition?
The courage to rely on intuition and unusual communication methods despite practical knowledge or evidence-based advertising.
Yet another campaign with a "hallelujah image"? No, Not only one, there were two, as we discovered during the research for our last competition. "Hallelujah image" is what we call pictures showing a happy person (often with silver-gray hair) stretching their arms to the heavens – or better yet, photoshopped into an image of a beach at sunset. In the past two years, we have found over 20 such ads. But even we hardly remember what products they advertised. The target groups of the ads have the same response. Companies who use such advertising can safely book it as money thrown out the window.
How can this be avoided? How does one know if advertising really works and if it achieves the desired goals? Why do marketing managers – who are increasingly judged according to ROI – opt for uninspired campaigns and deploy them globally with a great deal of media outlay and fanfare?
Presumably, most hallelujah ads have been tested by market researchers and found to have good results. After all, people hardly rely on their own experience or expert opinions any more, but back themselves up with statistics and standards.
In recent years, experience and intuition have generally come into disrepute. Common sense is no longer considered healthy. Even expertise is no longer in such high demand. Cognitive researchers have scientifically proven the inadequacies of our brain, showing how we draw false conclusions or make errors in attribution. In addition, prejudices, distractions and preconceived expectations lead individuals to make bad decisions.
Statistics and figures are thus experiencing unprecedented hype. People prefer to rely on computer results (trading), automation (industry), statistics (policy), click rates (communication) and guidelines (evidence-based medicine). This is a good thing – if we keep in mind the weaknesses of statistics and figures and the evidence-based decisions derived from them.
Although market research relies on people's experiences, researchers question many individuals and calculate statistical averages in the hope that their results will be less susceptible to distortions of memory, perception and decisions. If researchers ask the right questions and interpret the answers correctly, their outcomes can offer valuable guidance. But precisely this "if" is the crux of the matter. Formulating questions and interpreting data is based on the researcher's personal experience. And as described above, different researchers may consciously or unconsciously reach quite different or even false conclusions. Nothing points this out better than the witticism attributed to Winston Churchill: "Never trust any statistics you have not falsified yourself".
Another hidden problem involves the calculation of average or median values. In global market research, for example, great cultural differences are often apparent. In this case, the lowest common denominator must be found, which results in an average. By definition, an average excludes the outstanding or unusual. Excellent and innovative approaches fall completely by the wayside
In search of excellence
Excellent advertising cannot be assessed in terms of how much the public likes it, but in how it actually affects the target group's behavior.
The effect of advertising, however, has not yet been adequately researched. Advertising is a complex system containing many situational factors. In contrast to the medical field, in which decades-long differentiated, randomized and controlled studies have compared the efficacy and side effects of one treatment to another, hardly anything similar has been done in the advertising world.
S. Armstrong, a marketing professor at Wharton USA, collected approximately 3000 studies based on experimental and empirical field research as well as 50 books covering theoretical approaches to advertising effectiveness from highly diverse academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, business administration, marketing, market research, communication science and behavioral economics. He concluded that almost none of these studies met the requirements for traceability or precise definitions of the initial conditions. Despite this, he attempted to formulate effective advertising principles based on these materials. With a nod to the medical world, he calls this "evidence-based advertising". Some of his advice is contradictory and some is controversial, such as his handling of appeals to anxiety, but his rules for effective advertising in selected situations are the first to be scientifically substantiated.
Other researchers are also working feverishly to explain how advertising works. Evaluations of countless promotion data from the digital environment also provide "recipes for success". Providers of automated e-mail, for example, examine the success of such e-mail and its dependence on the formulation of the subject line. Although opening rates still say nothing about changes in the actual attitude and behavior of recipients, the cumulative power of big data, acquisition software and the progressive refinement of the evaluation process will soon give us even better insights.
At this point, however, we are not far enough along to say that evidence-based advertising actually and demonstrably delivers better results, or that numbers, statistics and science can fully explain its effects.
Recent brain research is increasingly providing information about the effects of advertising. This research suggests that purchasing decisions are primarily determined by implicit, intuitive processes. This may be why so many people love hallelujah images. Pictures of happy people generate sympathy through certain stimuli that implicitly affect our subconscious and evoke feelings by comparing them to our memories. Unfortunately, a second part is missing: anchoring such a feeling to a product. It is a misconception that when consumers see happy people in an ad, they will conclude that they also have to buy the brand to be happy. Sympathy, joy and life are messages that every industry or manufacturer can use.
A compliment to experience and intuition
As yet, there is no firm validation for evidence-based advertising that can protect against all systematic errors in reasoning. As long as no good studies exist, we must rely on the practical experience, gut instinct and intuition of experts. Despite all reservations we may have, things are not nearly as bad as number- and statistics-fetishists would have us believe. Experts know very well that advertising requires clear differentiation and that a product anchor is critical. To create successful campaigns, creative directors intuitively apply the experience and knowledge they have acquired in thousands of hours of round-the-clock work. This is why we appreciate outstanding creative directors – just like doctors, who we prize for their practical experience with patients.
The intuition of top creative directors ensures the discovery of new and unusual solutions. Evidence-based rules, however, support leveling and boredom. An orientation to conclusions ostensibly proven as the most effective – simply because they are the result of large studies with many figures – ultimately leads to standardization. This is good in medicine because it provides more security, but it tends to be counterproductive in communication. If everyone says the same thing and represents it similarly, there will be nothing left to notice. Experienced marketing managers and those in agencies also know that if market research doesn't result in conflicts, there is no new idea. The information overload on all channels that we experience today makes innovative and unusual ideas even more imperative if we want to interest target groups at all. Forward-looking ideas arise only when we explore dimensions far beyond our comfort zone. Such ideas develop intuitively, even though they are based on hard work, a great deal of experience and an excellent knowledge of the alternatives. Before and after developing these ideas, good creative directors and strategists apply knowledge from studies and research. At issue is docking the new onto the familiar. According to neuroscience (Schreier, referring to Nobel laureate Kahneman), the brain's autopilot – which is responsible for processing information rapidly and efficiently – is helpless in the face of something completely new that it cannot fit into a ready-made cubbyhole.
In any event, we do not recommend hallelujah images but instead, the courage to follow novel and innovative paths, even when market research has again recommended the trusty lowest common denominator.