Advertising's Top Model

2016 was  rife with stories pointing out the decay of advertising. The saddest of those suggest we have lost our way. If so, the reason would be that the landscape has changed.

Whenever I get lost, I go back to basics and find a landmark. Today, I offer such a landmark: the Advertising Research Foundation Response model. Its developers had no clue that computer screens would rule half a century on. But, constitutionally, it holds its own. It serves nicely as a divining rod for truth. It helps us ask the right questions, and is comprehensive.

At the bottom of the food chain (and the top of the model) is Vehicle Distribution. Vehicle distribution, as currency, will rack up one if someone received a catalog in the mail, for example, or was handed a daily rag in the subway. Vehicle distribution, when substituted for “reach,” is misleading.  On the other hand, if you are indeed handing out magazines, this might be all you have.



Next comes Vehicle Exposure. This is a slightly higher bar. It means someone actually looked at the magazine — or, in modern terms, went to a Web site. Online publishing properties use this kind of measure relentlessly. So there were a billion visitors? How many of those did your ad actually reach?

After that comes Advertising Exposure. This means the ad itself probably met an optic nerve. Probably. It doesn’t mean the audience understood anything, but it is used that way to puff up claims of outcomes. It’s not even half way down the model, but guess what? That’s viewability. That’s television commercial ratings. The vast majority of media dollars are transacted using measurements at this layer of the model. Measures in this category usually use “opportunity to see” as a concept. They are reliable measures for media because they don’t depend on creative — but on eyeballs.

Between Ad Exposure and Advertising Attentiveness (the next stage,) lies the fuzzy terrain that separates delivery from effect. The media industry can expose a person to a piece of creative. The Media industry can fiddle with context to make sure the creative is seen in the best light, we can even get the ad in front of people who might be interested — but until  Attentiveness happens, the creative plays no role in the effectiveness.

What is attention?

For Darwinian reasons, your brain is always scanning the environment for threats and opportunities. The vast majority of stimuli are nothing to worry about. We are not usually conscious of them, but they can stick, or we can get hooked, and investigate further.   

Cognitive science looks at how something got our attention in the first place. In bottom up (stimulus-driven), something unexpected grabs our attention, and in top down (goal-driven), we are seeking something. If attention happens, your message has a chance to do its job, but still might not.

As we climb the ladder of cognition, the next step is Advertising Communication. This might be what we like to call engagement. This is where meaning happens.  It’s difficult to measure. Usually we have to ask people, but behaviors, as a surrogate, can give an indication. A click, for example, is a behavior used as a surrogate for communication, but is unreliable in this regard.  

Advertising Persuasion is the next step, and does not need much explanation. Measurement is tough. Did the ad persuade, or was it prior experience? It’s hard to know, but we have to try because persuasion, broadly, is the most desired outcome of advertising. Subsequent stages depend a lot on whether the product or offer is appealing, and we don’t control that, although sometimes we get input.  

Ad Response and Sales Response measures are usually attempts to attribute those effects to media and creative choices. In all attribution, the question comes up: cause or correlation? To sort that out, attribution is often measured using controlled experiments. The hidden trap in attribution is the failure to explain why something happened, even as we celebrate newfound knowledge of a “cause.”

In the end, as a constitutional framework, the model leaves wiggle room. Like justice, in the later stages, it depends to some extent on knowing the unknowable. And that, I’m happy to say, will guarantee employment for most of us in 2017.  So, a belated happy new year to all. 

5 comments about "Advertising's Top Model".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 3, 2017 at 9:08 a.m.

    Good piece, Ted. Actually we don't even have an ad exposure---"eyes on ad" ---in any of our media buys so we are left, mainly with a cruder measures, namely that the magazine issue was seen/looked into or "read", not the page carrying the ad  or, in the case of national TV, that the TV set was tuned in to the show when the commercial break was aired----but not really that anyone wat present or "watching". As for the ARF model, it's highly simplistic as it ignores the effects of repeat exposures to a campaign, the time frame that is involved---a day, a week a month, a year---three years?---and it doesn't consider other factors, such as word of mouth endorsements, competitive brand ppromotional efforts, whether or not the advertised brand has full distribution and is readily available, and most important, what happens once the consumer buys the brand ---if this is a newly acquired "convert"----and likes it or doesn't like it? The repurchase rate is a vital part of an ad campaign's success and repeat exposure can often stimulate it ---providing the buyer/user wasn't disappointed after trying it.

  2. Alan Schulman from Deloitte Digital, February 3, 2017 at 9:09 a.m.

    great post Ted.

  3. Ted Mcconnell from Independent Consultant, February 3, 2017 at 10:16 a.m.

    Ed. Yes. The difference between commercial and program ratings maps to the difference between advertising exposure and vehicle exposure, as you know. There are of course dozens of measures at each layer, but the model itself (and I suspect you personally knew some of the people who developed it) provides a basic framework that transcends all the complexity we are now dealing with. With all the measurement gaffes that have made the news, I thought our readers might appreciate solid ground in the swamp of spin.

  4. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC replied, February 3, 2017 at 4:49 p.m.

    I teach from this model and love it. But am shocked by how little ad agencies understand it and leverage it in their planning.

    In fact, it's a great illustration of the difference between web measures and traditional measures - between "response measured media" and "audience measured".

    Neither is best - both are useful. But response measure happens at the tail end of the process - so we can't know what happens before then. Audience measure is close to the front - but we can't measure what happens afterward.

    Hence, an array of research methods attempting to fill in the gaps. This is why advertising is fun - it's not easy.

  5. Randy Peterson from P&G, February 4, 2017 at 8:59 p.m.

    Useful reminders Ted.  Going back to the basics is a good practice for everyone to do occasionally.  A friend once told me he met Baryshinikov in a beginning ballet class - who was "getting back to basics".   

    One still will need to translate this model to real measures and then create relationships between the measures.  To measure media performance that includes removing waste as part of the measures.  In the end you have a funnel with measures one can use to compare performance at each step.  And that allows one to take action and optimize each step to increase the value of the media.

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