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What if Robert Heath is right? Attention, emotion, and advertising

June 15, 2013 2 Comments

heath-seducing-cover.(I remain a big fan of Robert Heath, and highly recommend his new book, Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising.)

I admit it, I’m a sucker for any argument that turns an established paradigm on its head.  It’s hard to beat that little thrill you get when you realize everything we thought we knew may be wrong!

My favorite iconoclast in the advertising research world is Robert Heath, a former ad man turned academic whose home base is the University of Bath in the UK.

Since the publication of his first article in 2001, Heath has pursued the heretical view that attention to advertising may actually be bad – in some circumstances (e.g., TV ads) and for some purposes (e.g., brand-building).  His position is based on four interlocking arguments:

  1. Brand-building occurs through emotional connections, not persuasion.
  2. Most advertising assumes its purpose is persuasion, and therefore assumes it has to attract a high level of attention to deliver its persuasive message.
  3. The best advertising actually works through emotional processing, not persuasion, and emotional content is processed most efficiently at low levels of attention, not high.
  4. Therefore, brand-building is best achieved through emotional advertising that generates positive feelings and gets associated with a brand through simple repetition, not rational persuasion.  High attention to the advertising itself does not support this process, and may actually inhibit it.

Just about everybody in the advertising field agrees with the first part of argument #1.  People clearly have relationships with their favorite brands, and these relationships often go well beyond transactional economics – just ask any loyal Apple or Harley-Davidson owner.

The information processing model of ad effectiveness

Where Heath and most advertising effectiveness methodologies part company is on the second part of argument #1.  Does advertising aimed at persuasion help build brand relationships?  Most methodologies say “yes” … the default assumption is that attention to advertising increases knowledge and persuasion, both of which contribute to brand preference.  This is the essence of argument #2.

But Heath says no, and in so saying he has incurred the wrath of many an ad research veteran (see, e.g., Du Plessis and Hollis, 2002). He sees numerous flaws in the conventional model, which he traces historically back to door-to-door sales systems developed as early as the 1880s.  He argues that the model is overly rational, focusing too much on conscious information processing and message transmission, and too little on emotional impact and the roles of unconscious processing and implicit association-building.

Heath has presented this argument in numerous publications and working papers.  His most recent formulation is in a soon-to-be-published article co-authored with Paul Feldwick entitled “Fifty Years Using the Wrong Model of TV Advertising” (Heath and Feldwick, 2007, pre-pub version here, and a very nice summary here.)

What irritates conventional research providers about Heath’s critique of the “information processing” model is his contention that it skews research measures and metrics in a way that reinforces its own assumptions.  If an ad is believed to work by attracting conscious attention and exploiting that attention to deliver a persuasive message, then the best measure of ad effectiveness is going to be conscious ad recall – that is, a person’s ability to spontaneously remember the ad and its message later on, such as when making an actual purchase decision.  But Heath argues that there is a circularity in this logic:

The assumption that high attention is always beneficial has never been tested, partly because attention is so hard to measure.  But then it has never needed to be tested, because of the nature of the metrics used to evaluate the effects of advertising.  Historically these have focused on persuasion and recall …, and because both have been shown to be facilitated by high levels of attention …, it has always been assumed that high attention equates with high recall which equates to high advertising effectiveness.  (Heath, Brandt, and Nairn, 2006, p. 411)

Now ad recall as a metric has many practical virtues, such as being relatively easy to measure (because you can just ask people) and easily tracked over time.  But it also has some drawbacks shared by all self-reporting measures – it can be biased by guessing, outright lying, or demand pressures such as a desire to please the person asking the questions.

But most importantly, says Heath, recall is a problematic metric because it assumes that attention and persuasion are the true paths to effectiveness, and therefore penalizes advertising approaches that use other paths to achieve effectiveness, or may be based on different models of effectiveness altogether.

Emotional processing under low attention

Heath’s argument #3 is based on some of the latest neuroscience research about some of our favorite topics in this blog – nonconscious processing, implicit emotional activation, and automatic (or implicit) learning.  Perhaps the best way to look at this argument is to start at the end point, and then work backwards to the roles of attention and emotion in advertising.

The end point is brand-building.  As noted in argument #1, there is general consensus that brands work through emotional connection.  There is also a general belief, if not a consensus, that the best brands do this in a way that somehow transcends rationality and persuasion.  Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, for example, says that great brands inspire “loyalty beyond reason“, implying a kind of relationship that goes well beyond mere utilitarian preference.

So how can advertising contribute to building these emotional connections to brands?  The information processing model says, “by grabbing our attention and persuading us toremember why this brand is the best!”

Heath, in contrast, looks beyond information processing to emotional processing, and defines advertising effectiveness in a way that resonates well with established brain science:

My contention is that truly great advertising does something far more important than deliver a rational message, and far more important than entertain: what it does is to establish associations. (Heath, 2002)

We know much more about how the brain processes emotions today than we did even a decade ago.  Building on the work of DamasioBornsteinZajoncBargh, and others, we know that emotions can be triggered outside of conscious awareness and can influence our attitudes, decisions, and behaviors in ways we cannot consciously detect.  As I have argued elsewhere in this blog (for example, here and here), this is simply how our brains operate – and it is an indispensable mechanism for helping us navigate and survive the buzzing, blooming confusion of the modern world.

Ad effectiveness under low attention

But why would less attention improve the effectiveness of TV advertising?  This piece of the argument seems counter-intuitive, even paradoxical.  It becomes less paradoxical, however, if you think about TV advertising in its natural environment.  For TV viewers, ads are aninterruption, a distraction, and are generally an irritant to be ignored, not a welcomed persuasive message to be committed to memory.  We do not watch TV in order to learn the “Unique Selling Proposition” of some advertised product or brand.  We watch TV to see what is going to happen in the latest episode of Lost!  So we actively resist, or passively filter out, intrusive advertising.  If we do happen to notice it, our attention is more likely to be accompanied by negative emotional valence, not positive.  Looking at the situation this way, it is not completely paradoxical to hear that more attention to the ad may be associated with lower brand favorability.  In fact, it starts to make good sense.

(Notice that this effect is less likely to be observed in a lab setting in which a person is asked to explicitly view and rate ads.  In that context, the ads are pre-identified as important objects of interest, so the researcher is less likely to see a correlation between greater attention and less ad effectiveness.)

But what about the opposite effect … less attention leading to more brand favorability?  More attention may plausibly be a hindrance to brand-building, but how is less attention a facilitator?

The answer has to do with how human brains respond emotionally to sensory stimuli.  Emotional response is primarily preconscious.  As Damasio and other have shown, we have circuitry in our brains that allows us to take a primitive emotional measure of objects in our environment well before we are consciously aware of them.  By the time we notice something, the object has already been “tagged” with an emotional marker that tells us whether it is something we should approach or avoid.  This process can occur as a result of “mere exposure“, to use the phrase coined by Robert Zajonc.  It can also occur through “evaluative conditioning“, a process by which the repetitive pairing of two stimuli, one affectively charged and the other initially neutral (like an emotionally engaging ad and a brand) results in the neutral stimulus taking on the emotional valence of the emotional stimulus.  Yes, it’s like Pavlov’s dogs (but not quite, more on that in a later post).  Pair an ice-cold Coke enough times with a happy, smiling face and your liking of Coke will increase.

What is interesting about these processes is that they are more likely to be disrupted than reinforced by attention and cognitive vigilance.  The source of emotional liking may not make sense under cognitive scrutiny.  If I think about it, should I really be buying a six-pack of Coke just because that model drinking Coke in the ad was cute?  Probably not.  The emotional spell may not be able to withstand the rational evaluation.  Therefore, as Heath observes,

… the less aware consumers are of emotional elements in advertising, the better they are likely to work, because the viewer has less opportunity to rationally evaluate, contradict, and weaken their potency.  (Heath, Brandt, and Nairn, 2006, p. 417)

In addition, a substantial body of research has shown that emotional associations established at low levels of attention lead to longer-lasting influences on attitudes and behavior that rational arguments (i.e., traditional persuasion).  This is because they facilitate the memory activation mechanism of recognition rather than recall.  Recall requires effort, fades relatively quickly, and has to be reinforced regularly.  But recognition is triggered effortlessly and lasts indefinitely.  So recognition, unlike recall, is more likely to result from low attention processing … combine a brand with an emotionally engaging ad, repeat the association under low attention conditions like TV watching, and you will get both recognition and a favorable default attitude toward your brand.

So what if Heath is right?

As noted, Robert Heath’s views on ad effectiveness, emotional content, and low attention processing are hardly universally embraced in the advertising research world.  Acceptance of his ideas does appear to be growing rather than shrinking, especially as more and more scientific evidence accumulates about how deeply preconscious and emotional processes influence human attitudes, decisions, and behavior.  But there are still vigorous opponents to at least some of Heath’s views – most prominently, his contention that consciously-derived metrics like ad recall are biased and inappropriate as measures of ad effectiveness.  That position casts suspicion on too many well-established and profitable methodologies to be left unchallenged, so the debate continues, with new studies, new metrics and new datasets being introduced on a regular basis.

So … what if Heath is right?  I can imagine three ways in which advertising and advertising research might be signficantly different than they are today.

First, creative content would become a more important element in advertising development and execution.

… clients and agencies must take on board the obvious but oft-denied truth that much effective advertising contains no ‘message’, ‘proposition’, or ‘benefits’, and that attempts to impose these or post rationalise them generally reduce effectiveness.  Creative departments will have to abandon their obsession with simple, functional briefs, and creating ‘impact’, in favour of creativity the builds relationships with the audience – which in truth is what the best creative work has always done, normally in spite of prevailing theory rather than because of it.  (Heath and Feldwick, 2007, pp. 25-26)

Second, TV advertising might give up some of its obsession with attention and become less intrusive and even pleasant. With theoretical justification and empirical evidence that more creative and less ‘message’ can indeed build brands, advertisers might become more willing to present creative that engages and delights us, rather than delivering more spots that clamor for our attention at all costs.

Third, the default market research toolkit would expand to embrace neurometrics, biometrics, and unobtrusive behavioral measures that tap into nonconscious responses to advertising and marketing stimuli, and track their impact on brand-building over time.

Until recently, explicit Q&A was the most reliable tool advertising researchers had to work with.  But this tool by definition cannot measure emotional responses that people are not consciously aware of.  New tools and data collection models need to take their place beside traditional methods to get a full picture of the advertising experience in its natural environment.

Measuring responses to advertising cannot be a matter of asking people what they remember, or what they think about the advertising, because overtly conscious responses like these are likely to be misleading.  Research interpretations must be based less on what people say, and more on how they behave, ranging from whether they smile, laugh, or chat animatedly about the ad, to whether they show an increased preference for the brand.  (Heath and Feldwick, 2007, p. 26)

In addition, even “neuromarketing” vendors may need to take a fresh look at their metrics and how they deploy them.  Most vendors give prominence to measures of attention, and generally accept the notion that attention is something we should be helping our clients maximize.  Heath’s research alerts us to the possibility that low attention is not necessarily a bad thing, and that attention needs to be evaluated in combination with other measures – of emotional impact, memory (recall vs. recognition), attitudes toward the brand, and actual purchase decisions.

Finally, a caveat:  not all advertising is directed toward brand building.  Some advertising is indeed meant to deliver a informational message, and such advertising will benefit from more attention, not less:

Advertising that has the tactical aim of communicating factual information (i.e., product improvements, performance advantages, promotions, telephone numbers, prices, website addresses, etc.) will benefit from more  attention, because that way you remember better what the message is.  (Heath, Brandt, and Nairn, 2006, p. 418)

Heath, R. (2001). Low involvement processing – a new model of brand communicationJournal of Marketing Communications, 7 (1), 27-33 DOI: 10.1080/13527260123019
Du Plessis, E., & Hollis, N. (2002). Low involvement processing – is it HIP enough? Admap, July 2002 (Issue 430), 36-38
Robert Heath (2002). Low involvement processing: does the LINK test measure it? Admap, September 2002 (Issue 431), 35-37
Heath, R., Brandt, D., & Nairn, A. (2006). Brand Relationships: Strengthened by Emotion, Weakened by Attention Journal of Advertising Research, 46 (4) DOI:10.2501/S002184990606048X

This post was first published in an earlier blog of mine on September 4, 2009.

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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