Advertising Principles - Evidence-based principles

Review of the paper “Evidence-based Advertising”

An excerpt from the  “Editorial” in the journal, Social Business, 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

by Michael J. Baker, University of Strathclyde, UK

Advice on how to achieve [effective communications] is contained in a recent paper by J. Scott Armstrong in the International Journal of Advertising (2011) in which the author presents his findings from an analysis of 687 sources drawing on more than 3000 studies that took 16 years to complete. While the title of the paper, ‘Evidence-based advertising’, and the source are concerned primarily with the practice of advertising, the subject of the paper is how to create effective communications. As the author states in the opening paragraph:

This paper is concerned with only one aspect of advertising - that being persuasion. I use a broad common-sense definition of persuasive advertising: it is the attempt to use primarily one-way communication to influence attitudes and beliefs. And by influence, I mean to either change or maintain attitudes and behaviour.

The importance of this research is that it concerns knowledge that is based on evidence and the fact that this evidence indicates clearly that it has largely been overlooked or ignored by practitioners concerned with the creation of persuasive i.e. effective communications. One explanation for this is that ‘practitioners do not like rules’ and rely upon their experience and creativity. Which prompts the observation “If you believe that you can only learn from experience, how can you learn that you cannot?”

However, Armstrong has long been known to his colleagues as someone who is critical of much academic research on the grounds that it is a) not useful (less than 5% of papers published in leading academic journals are), b) is couched in obtuse and arcane language that is inaccessible to most people, and c) reports results that have not been confirmed by replication. He concludes, “As a result, it would not be sensible for practitioners to study the academic literature”.

One of the reasons why progress in some scientific fields has been more rapid than others is because “For fields that study complex phenomena about which there is much uncertainty, experimentation is needed”. Such experimentation is typical of the physical sciences, where alternative reasonable hypotheses have been tested, but is less common and more recent in the case of the social sciences, especially where these involve human beings as subjects. Medicine is a case in point in which “diseases are so complex that doctors were unable to learn from experience about which treatments would be best for a patient”.  Accordingly, progress was slow until around the 1940s when experimentation became common in medicine and evidence-based findings reported in scientific journals began to be applied in practice.

However, the management sciences were slower to follow suit and, in order to encourage a more ‘scientific’ approach in management research and education, in the late 50s and early 60s the Ford and Carnegie Foundation’s committed a significant endowment to train academics in methods and techniques associated with such an approach. The effects of this are clearly apparent in academic research in terms of its adoption of quantitative analysis and modelling, but has not led to the testing of multiple reasonable alternatives or replication in the management sciences. Based on an analysis conducted in 2001 Armstrong and his colleagues concluded that only about 2% of studies in marketing were well-designed to advance knowledge in marketing. The great majority of marketing studies examined were dominated by an advocacy approach that promoted the researchers own preferred solution and ignored or even tried to suppress evidence that contradicted this point of view.

Nonetheless, there is still a large body of evidence and we are fortunate that Armstrong has undertaken such an extensive survey of this and derived 195 principles which are detailed in his book Persuasive Advertising (2010). At first sight a list of 195 principles may seem excessive, but it is quickly justified on the grounds that in order to diagnose and prescribe a course of action one must carefully consider the particular conditions associated with the problem that one is seeking to address. Each of the principles is described in some detail in the book and provide a checklist which may be used both to stimulate creativity in the design of communications as well as to evaluate and improve on them before their use in practice.

As noted earlier, Scott Armstrong is a distinguished scholar who has published widely in academic journals, and known to his friends (and others) for his candid and critical comments on much of the material that appears in them. More specifically, he disapproves of the arcane and often opaque language so typical of many academic papers, and a lack of relevance and impact upon the practices that they purport to analyse and offer advice on. As he comments in the preface to his book:

To date, much of what is known about advertising has been hidden in obscure academic papers. The objective of this book is to put useful knowledge about persuasion into an understandable and easy to access format. Therefore, I use everyday language. For example, customers ‘think about a product’ instead of ‘engage in cognitive processing of stimuli’.

His objective is to identify:

Useful knowledge about persuasion that has been obtained over the last 100 years from the experience of advertising experts and from empirical studies in advertising and other fields including psychology, consumer behaviour, law, mass communication, politics and propaganda.

Based on analysis of about 3000 empirical studies and 50 books, as well as previously unpublished material, he has identified what he regards to be evidence-based advertising principles that underlie persuasion.

While his primary audience is persons who actually create and evaluate advertisements, he believes that the same principles apply to any context in which someone is seeking to persuade another to act in a particular way:

The principles in the book relate to attempts to persuade in many forms, with or without the motive of financial gain. The principles can be applied to a broad range of activities, including but not limited to selling products, gaining votes, helping to pass legislation, obtaining support for causes, and convincing people to avoid behaviours that are self-destructive or detrimental to others. They extend beyond advertising per se. In sum, the principles apply whenever there is a need to persuade someone to do something. (p. 2).

In other words, the objective is effective communication.

In the paper Armstrong gives three examples of principles and cites the evidence on which they are based. For example, based on an experiment involving donations to Save the Children in which:

a narrative description of a victims plight led to higher donations than when the description also included statistics about how the donations would help. Apparently, the latter information inhibited the emotional effect and led people to think about how their efforts would help; it also led them to determine that their contributions would be negligible.

The principle, “Do not mix rational and emotional appeals”, is confirmed by evidence from other studies.

Further examples of such principles are:

if resistance is expected, use indirect conclusions when the arguments are strong and obvious

Do not invite customers to evaluate their satisfaction while using the product

The rest can be found in Persuasive Advertising, but you may like to access before making the modest investment to secure a Glossary Link copy.

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