Butch: I’ll jump first.
Butch: Then you jump first.
Sundance: No, I said!
Butch: What’s the matter with you?!
Sundance: I can’t swim!
Butch: Why, you crazy — the fall’ll probably kill ya!
Last Monday, fellow Insider Steven Rosenbaum asked, “Is Advertising Obsolete?” The column and the post by law professor Ramsi Woodcock that prompted it were both interesting. So were the comments – which were by and large supportive of good advertising.
I won’t rehash Rosenbaum’s column, but it strikes me that we – being the collective we of the MediaPost universe – have been debating whether advertising is good or bad, relevant or obsolete, a trusted source of information or a con job for the ages and we don’t seem to be any closer to an answer.
The reason is that an advertisement is all of those things. But not at the same time.
I used to do behavioral research, specifically eye-tracking. And the end of an eye tracking study, you get what’s called an aggregate heat map. This is the summary of all the eyeball activity of all the participants over the entire duration of all interactions with whatever the image was. These were interesting, but personally I was fascinated with the time slices of the interactions. I found that often, you can learn more about behaviors by looking at who looked at what when. It was only when we looked at interactions on a second by second basis that we started to notice the really interesting patterns emerge. For example, when looking at a new website, men looked immediately at the navigation bar, whereas women were first drawn to the “hero” image. But if you looked at the aggregates – the sum of all scanning activities – the men and women’s images were almost identical.
I believe the same thing is happening when we try to pin down advertising. And it’s because advertising – and our attitudes towards it – change through the life cycle of a brand, or product, or company.
Our relationship with a product or brand can be represented by an inverted U chart, with the vertical axis being awareness/engagement and the horizontal axis being time. Like a zillion other things, our brain defines our relationship with a product or brand by a resource/reward algorithm. Much of human behavior can be attributed to a dynamic tension between opposing forces and this is no exception. Driving us to explore the new are cognitive forces like novelty seeking and changing expectations of utility while things like cognitive lock in and the endowment effect tend to keep us loyal. As we engage with a new product or brand, we climb up the first side of the inverted U. But nothing in nature continues on a straight line, much as every sales manager would love it to. At some point, our engagement will peak and we’ll get itchy feet to try something new. Then we start falling down the descent of the U. And it’s this fall that kills our acceptance of advertising.
This inverted U shows up all the time in human behavior. We assume you can never have too much of a good thing, but this is almost never true. There’s even a law that defines this, known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, it plots performance against mental or physical arousal. Predictably, performance increases with how fully we’re engaged with whatever we’re doing – but only up to a point. Then, performance peaks and starts to decline into anxiety.
It’s also why TV show runners are getting smarter about ending a series just as they crest the top of the hump. Hard lessons about the dangers of the decline have been learned by the jumping of multiple sharks.
Our entire relationship with a brand or product is built on the foundation of this inverted U, so it should come as no surprise that our acceptance of advertising for said brand or product also has to be plotted on this same chart. Yet it seems to constantly comes as a surprise for the marketing teams. In the beginning, on the upslope of the upside-down U, we are seeking novelty, and an advertisement for something new fits the bill.
When the inevitable downward curve starts, the sales and marketing teams panic and respond by upping advertising. They do their best to maintain a straight up line, but it’s too late. The gap between their goals and audience acceptance continues to grow as one line is projected upwards and the other curves ever more steeply downwards. Eventually the message is received and the plug is pulled, but the damage has already been done.
When we look at advertising, we have to plot it against this ubiquitous U. And when we talk about advertising, we have to be more careful to define what we’re talking about. If we’re talking specifically, we will all be able to find examples of useful and even welcome ads. But when I talk about the broken contract of advertising, I speak in more general terms. In the digital compression of timelines, we are reaching the peak of advertising effectiveness faster than ever before. And when we hit the decline, we actively reject advertising because we can. We have other alternatives. This decline is dragging the industry down with it. Yes, we can all think of good ads, but the category is suffering from our evolving opinion which is increasingly being formed on the downside of the U.