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Ad recall doesn't equal effectiveness

A few months ago, after I responded to a question he posed, someone for whom I have enormous respect looked at me like I was either insane or really stupid. I prompted this reaction by arguing that there was no relationship between recalling an ad and its persuasiveness. After this exchange, it occurred to me that, though advertising has dominated political campaigning for two generations, few understand how it works, or the brain on which it works.

A few months ago, after I responded to a question he posed, someone for whom I have enormous respect looked at me like I was either insane or really stupid. I prompted this reaction by arguing that there was no relationship between recalling an ad and its persuasiveness.

After this exchange, it occurred to me that, though advertising has dominated political campaigning for two generations, few understand how it works, or the brain on which it works.

My questioner, brilliant though he is, employed a model of communication developed in the 1890s and largely abandoned by the 1980s. Popularized as a Victorian-era guide for salesmen, the model was called AIDA — attention-interest-decision-action. Getting attention and creating a memory were the indispensable first steps.

We’ve learned a lot about how the brain works since then. We now know that some 95 percent of processing is unconscious and not even accessible to the conscious mind. Persuasion can and does happen outside the realm of conscious awareness.

An early demonstration of this effect was the result of a French physician’s dirty trick. Each time Edouard Claparede arrived to treat an amnesiac patient, he would shake her hand and reintroduce himself to a woman who had no recollection of him at all. One day he put a pin in his hand before the patient shook it. She pulled her hand away in pain with an expression to match. The next day Claparede repeated the ritual, this time with no pin in hand. The patient, who had no memory of the doctor or of the previous day’s incident, nonetheless refused to shake his hand from that day forward. Amnesia prevented memory, but the absence of memory did not preclude learning and that implicit knowledge directed behavior.

So it is with advertising. We do not need to remember them for commercials to have an impact on both attitudes and behavior. A team headed by Wharton professor Leonard Lodish studied 389 TV advertising experiments and concluded, “It is unlikely that there is a strong relationship between standard measures of TV commercial recall and sales impact of the copy.”

Specific examples abound. The most remembered commercial of 2002 was for retailer Toys R Us. While attention to its ad went up, sales went down. Pepsi Twist had the most recalled ad of 2004, but the product has been a flop.

Conversely, it would come as no surprise to Claparede that unremembered ads can sell products. In one experiment, subjects were asked to read an online article. While they were engaged in this task, ads popped up beside the text, to which they paid no attention (sound familiar?). And indeed these subjects were no more likely to recall the ads than a control group that had read the article without having been exposed to the ads. However, those who had seen the pop-ups were much more likely to have positive views of the product being advertised and much more likely to express an interest in purchasing it.

There are a few real-world examples as well. In 1990, after an eight-year campaign, only 4 percent of Britons claimed recall of Stella Artois’s ads. By then though, it had become the best-selling beer in Britain, with the highest quality rating in its category. Rigorous analysis demonstrated that the barely noticed ad campaign was at the root of its success.

As one group of psychologists concluded, advertising “has the potential to affect future buying decisions even when the subjects do not process the ad attentively and do not recollect ever having seen the ad.”

So next time a consultant suggests asking voters whether they recall seeing an ad, ask them why we care.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.