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Ad Liking and Brand Buying a Neurological Perspective

Research - Trends and Insights

n 1990 Alexander Biel published a paper in Admap titled: 'Love the Ad. Buy the product?'. This paper reported the results of the Advertising Research Foundation's Copy Research Validity Project which showed ad-liking to be the most predictive measure of advertising effectiveness, as reported by Russell Haley and Allan Baldinger in the Journal of Advertising Research (April/May 1996).

Subsequently there have been a number of papers by research companies that felt their research methodology for advertising testing is threatened by this 'loving of advertising' proposition, arguing against the Biel proposition that loving the ad can lead to buying the product.

Among those arguing against the effects of ad-liking and its value as a measure of an advertisement is Butch Rice who argues in the Journal of Advertising Research (May/June 1998) that, 'Liking does not cause noting, neither does noting cause liking. Usage causes both.' In other words, people who love the ad do not buy the product, but people buying the product love and note the advertising.

The basis of this rebuttal of the 'love the ad' proposition has to be taken back to Prof. Ehrenberg's work that people who buy a product are more inclined to note its advertising, the so-called 'double jeopardy' effect. In the extreme position of this argument one has to feel there is a ridiculousness in stating that advertising only works on the converted - but then the question becomes: where does this converted come from? A very chicken-and-egg situation.
A less extreme position, against ad-liking, is taken by Nigel Hollis, also in the Journal of Advertising Research (September/October 1995) claims that 'Like it or Not, Liking is not Enough'.

These days, whilst nobody proposes that advertising effect is a series of sequential steps that occurs in the consumers' mind (hierarchy of effects), both the above views imply a one-dimensional, sequential model of effects. The Rice model implies that the sequence of effects is: Brand Usage leads to Ad-Noting and Ad-Liking. The Hollis model appears to imply implicitly that there are unidimensional advertising effects, of which ad-liking is only one.

What if everyone is right? The Advertising Research Foundation, Russell Haley, Alexander Biel, Butch Rice, Nigel Hollis, Prof. Ehrenberg, Prof. Jones and the Dutch SPOT study? What if they were looking at the same multi-dimensional phenomenon from different angles, just univariately?

In this paper :

  • We show the modern neurological science and cognitive science views about how the brain processes information, as expounded by modern Nobel Prize winners.
  • We show that the modern view is not emotional versus rational processing, but that rational processing takes place inside an emotional context.
  • We show that emotional reaction not only sets the context for rational processing, but it also acts as a gateway to attentioning.
  • Having explained the brain science which would predict a close interaction between brand usage, ad-noting and ad-liking, we proceed to show empirical evidence that this is indeed what exists.
  • We present empirical data that ad-liking relates to ad-noting (which has previously been shown in Admap).
  • We present new empirical evidence that brand usage leads to higher ad-liking.
  • We present new empirical evidence that brand usage leads to higher ad-noting.
  • We will point out that whilst users of a brand have higher ad-liking and ad-noting, the difference is not that great, and that there is an egg-and-chicken logic involved.

Snakes and Attention
At the forefront of neurological research and understanding is the development of understanding how attentioning works. Prof LeDoux (Professor at the Centre for Neural Science at New York University) is acknowledged as the leading exponent of this new insight. He explains:

"When you walk in a forest and see a shape that could be a twig or a snake, you will freeze for a moment, identify it to be a twig shaped like a snake and then walk on normally; maybe your heart will pound a bit as a result of this experience. You might say: "I was startled", "I had a fright", etc."

We all know that what happened was we saw something that could have been a snake, it gave us a bit of a fright and we froze momentarily (an emotional reaction), we looked closer (attentioning), realising it was only a twig (rational interpretation), we walked on.

This little story could have had a different outcome. We see something shaped like a snake and we 'freeze' (developing perception), we get a fright (emotional reaction), we look closer (attentioning), we realise it is a snake (rational interpretation). At this stage our life has been saved by the fact that we froze when we saw what might have been a twig or a snake, but turned out to be a snake.

How attentioning works

The Neurology of Attention, Liking, Interpretation
What happened, neurologically, is that your eyes captured the light waves on the retina, stimulating the occipital nerves, which transmitted the signal to the occipital regions in the back of your head, from where these stimulated nerves stimulated other nerves. Remember your primary school physiology class about a neuron transmitting an electrical impulse and causing other neurons to fire depending on the limit of the synapses? (See Exhibit 1).

This process whereby neurons recruit other neurons is based on previous stimulation of the neuronal sets, i.e. experiences, and is what we understand 'interpretation' to be about. As the recruitment of neurons moves from the occipital region towards the frontal lobes interpretation is refined, and this is increasingly based on experiences.

Thus, whatever we see is presented (interpreted) against past experiences to the frontal lobes for conscious processing.
However, the process of interpretation passes the limbic system, which is situated between the occipital region in the back of our heads and the frontal lobes. The limbic system in the brain is recognised to contain our basic emotions. It also contains the amygdala, which is the unit that sends 'readiness' responses to the body.

Readiness responses basically mean an increase in blood pressure, an increase in adrenaline, etc., i.e. readying the body for attention to something.

In the example of twigs shaped like snakes, the forming image from the occipital region is 'interpreted' via this process of neuronal recruitment. When this process of recruitment gets to the limbic system it is a half formed perception, i.e. could be a twig or a snake, because snakes elicit an emotional response of fear, this will cause the limbic system (specifically the amygdala) to fire, getting the body into a state of readiness to respond. The developing interpretation continues towards the frontal lobes, but now has an emotional tag (or contextualisation) which demands attention. It gets to the frontal lobe as a fully formed image, and the logical processing decides that the image is a twig, not a snake, instructing the body to relax.

Whilst LeDoux explains the role of emotion in attentioning, Damasio (Professor of Neurology at the Iowa University College of Medicine) published an even more important conclusion based on his experience with modern-day neurological patients:

'Emotions are not a luxury, they are essential to rational thinking. Far from interfering with rationality, the absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality and make wise decision-making almost impossible.' What he says is that unless a perception is emotionally encoded it will not be rationally useful.

We have shown how the physiology of interpretation of a perception passes the limbic system where an emotional attentioning reaction takes place. Also that at this point the perception receives an emotional tag (or contextualisation). Thus, when interpretation takes place the processor knows 'I like what I see, because I enjoyed it before', or, 'I fear what I see because it previously caused pain or discomfort', etc.

Because of this knowledge of previous experiences' emotional results, people react rationally: i.e. they do things that make them feel good rather than bad.

When we get to researching the effects of ad-liking / brand usage then we need to look at a simultaneous interaction of the brand liking and the ad-liking and the ad-noting and the behaviour, and how these affect noting and interpretation separately. The influences are separate, but simultaneous, and inter-active and simple.

Back to Gordon Brown
An understanding of the way in which perceptions of advertisements and brands are developed neurologically should not stand outside Gordon Brown's views about the practicalities of shopping and viewing advertising.

People do not consume advertising, they sit in front of television sets and passively view ads and programs. Sometimes they will give attention, and sometimes not. They are more likely to give attention to advertisements they like, and since they are more likely to like advertisements for brands they use, more attention is given to these advertisements.

They are unlikely to do a lot of processing about the advertisement at the time of exposure. They are unlikely to be reviewing their perceptions of the brand each time they see a new commercial. No-one will sit through a commercial break of 8 ads and change their perceptions of brands every 30 seconds. People are just not like that.

Gordon Brown said that people are simply storing the advertisements for later use.

Whilst this sounds like some conscious memorising process, it is not. The brain simply stores memories by way of exposure. All memories are stored due to exposure. Conscious learning is only a considered approach to repeated exposure.

Brown explained that shoppers go to a shop, walk down the aisles, being prompted by the area that they are in to consider 'we need dog food'; 'we have enough preserves'; 'we don't have babies so we don't need baby food'; etc.

When they identify a need for a product category, they will mostly pick the brand they used before - simply because the brand they used the last time 'comes to mind'.

Once in a while the consumer will stop to think about which brands to buy. The process of scanning the brands on the shelf will involve interpretation, which is an involuntary process of neurons being recruited, which includes the interpretation being 'encoded' with emotional reactions.

Ad-Liking = Brand-Liking = Ad-Liking
The argument about whether brand-liking creates ad-liking or ad-liking creates brand-liking is really just looking at the same issue through a mirror.

When one understands that what we are measuring in research is the cognitive interpretation of something that to the consumer is an interpreted observation, then one will also realise that the interpretation of the consumer happens inside the emotive context of the observation - or stimulus.

The stimulus to be interpreted by the consumer will be the brand on the shelf when she is shopping, the advertisement on the television when she is watching, the brand name in the questionnaire when we ask questions, or, the words of recommendation when her neighbour mentions the brand, etc.

In all cases the emotive experiences come to the fore to set the context inside which the rational interpretation takes place. Each time, the experience - whether it be product usage, product purchase, friends' comments, children or husband's comments, advertising exposure - will also add to the emotional context of exposure to the brand, which therefore sets the context for the interpretation of the next interpretation of the exposure.

The Empirical Evidence
ADTRACK is the largest advertising database in the world, containing measurements of over 20 000 television advertisements.

Exhibit 2 shows the extent to which people are more likely to remember advertisements that they like.

Relationship Ad-Liking to Ad-Noting

For the past few years ADTRACK has been looking at to what extent people like advertisements for products they use. Exhibit 3 shows the result, and Exhibit 4 shows the extent to which users of a brand note advertising for their brand compared to non-users of the brand.

Brand Usage and Ad-Liking

Exhibit 3, based on ADTRACK, shows:
  • The average liking score for an advertisement among users of the brand is 7.2, and among non-users 6.5;
  • It does not really matter if the percentage of users in the sample is small or large;
  • The biggest variation appears to be that as the percentage of non-users in the sample become less, they are again even less likely to like that brand's advertising. (The bigger the brand, the more anti the brand are the non-users.);
  • There is a potential Catch-22 in this data, ignored by Rice and Ehrenberg, that the advertising would be targeted at the market segment the brand appeals to, which means it is designed to appeal to the users more than non-users.

Ad-Noting among Users and Non-Users

Brand Usage and Ad-Liking
Exhibit 4 is based on the same data as exhibit 3:
  • On average, among users of the brand ad-noting was 27.8% and among non-users 19.4%;
  • Again one needs to be careful of a Catch-22 reasoning. Advertising should mainly be aimed more at the brand category user, and then probably biased to people similar to the actual brand users;
  • It is true that the average noting for an ad increases as there are more users in the sample;
  • If the analysis is intended to be evaluative of an advertisement, one should consider the results relative to the proportion of the sample that are users and that are not;
  • If the analysis is intended to optimise media spending patterns (as ADTRACK and most continuous tracking studies do), then one should only 'be aware' of the phenomenon;
  • These results do not suggest a conclusion that advertising 'only works among users because only users note the advertising'; at best it says that advertising has to work harder among non-users.
What is Ad-Likeability?
Part of the problem that causes the debate about ad-liking is that many believe ad-liking is purely emotional (or that it necessarily implies entertainment in the commercial). This is not true. Both our own work and the Dutch SPOT study found that ad-liking is created by 7 factors:
  • Entertainment value of the commercial;
  • Relevant news values;
  • Empathy with what the commercial portrays;
  • Feelings about the brand being advertised;
  • Uniqueness of the commercial;
  • Lack of confusion and irritation.

Exhibit 5 below shows a Correspondence Analysis chart of how these factors relate to advertising likeability.

Correspondence Analysis chart

The important implication is that ad-liking is not a single dimension of an advertisement separate from these mentioned here, but is a composite measure of an advertisement.

Referring back to the Hollis paper we mentioned in the introduction this demonstrates the problem experienced by researchers trying to address the issue in a uni-dimensional way, or, at least viewing ad-liking as just another dimension of advertising measures, rather than a composite measure.

What this tells us about the Brands and Advertising
Neurology, in conjunction with the empirical findings of the major industry studies of our time, shows what great marketers always believed: Big Brands, and Big Advertising, over time have great synergistic effects.

The brand influences the advertising, and the advertising influences the brand. Interpretation of the advertising occurs inside the context of memories of the brand, and interpretation of the brand occurs inside the context of memories of the advertising. The tone-setter for the context of interpretation comes from the memories of the emotional memories of the brand or the advertising.

Some marketing philosophers interpret the empirical evidence of marketing as if there is a sequential effect between the brands and advertising based on the empirical evidence. The neurological evidence is that ad-liking and brand-liking are highly integrated processes.

The marketer influences both: how people experience the brand and the resultant emotional memories; and how people experience the advertising and the resultant emotional memories. Big brand marketing comprises the management of the emotional memories of both the brand and all its communication.

Biel, Alexander, L., 'Love the Ad. Buy the product?', Admap, September, 1990
Haley, Russell I. and Allan Baldinger, 'The ARF Copy Research Validity Project', Journal of Advertising Research, April/May 1996
Rice, Butch and Richard Bennett, 'The Relationship between Brand Usage and Advertising Tracking Measurements: International Findings', Journal of Advertising Research, May/June 1998
Hollis, Nigel S., 'Like it or not, Liking is not Enough', Journal of Advertising Research, September/October, 1995
LeDoux, Joseph, 'The Emotional Brain - The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life', Simon & Schuster, New York (1996)
Damasio, Antonio, R. 'Descartes' Error', Avon Books, New York (1994)

Erik du Plessis and Charles Foster
Impact Information (Pty) Limited

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