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Does it make you want to buy it? A cautionary tale about advertising research.

During some focus groups some years ago I got into, er, a debate with a client after the moderator showed an ad concept and asked, “So, did it make you want to run out and buy it?”

I argued that it was not a good question to ask and that respondents’ answers really weren’t relevant or helpful. “What do you mean?” came the reply. “Of course we want to persuade people to buy!” 

Unfortunately, advertising just doesn’t usually have such an immediate impact. It might if you happen to have a breakthrough product that solves a problem in a new way – like, say, when Swiffer came out. Or if you’re showing delectably enticing images of a Quarter Pounder or Ben & Jerry’s scoop that you just might run out and buy. Or if Nordstrom were running a 75% off everything sale (as if!) 

Most of the time, advertising’s role is to either plant a seed or reinforce ideas people already have about a brand or product. Bounty is the quicker picker-upper. Geico could save you 15% (who knew?!) The Chicago History Museum is in Lincoln Park and is a great place to take your family. These are simple ideas advertising can convey, and through repetition, work their way into common knowledge. THEN, when the need arises, those ideas get brands considered and bought. In that way, most advertising works as an investment in the future, and without it, brands would always be starting from scratch to reintroduce and explain themselves. Put another way, absence does not always make the heart grow fonder.

So what should we ask respondents if we want to optimize advertising and help make sure it “works?” First, know what you want or expect the advertising to do. Then you’ll know what to listen for when you ask open-ended questions like:

– What do you think of that as an ad for (brand/product)? Why do you say that?

– What ideas did it give you about (brand/product)?

– What, if anything, did they say that was interesting to you? What did it mean to you?

– How did the advertising affect your overall impression of (brand/product)? What do you think specifically gave you that impression? Why?

– What, if anything, did you learn from this ad?

And even, if you actually expect this result, “Did it make you want to run out and buy it?”

Written by Neal Stamell - Neal has more than 30 years of experience working on Fortune 500 companies. His expertise lies in consumer insights, strategy, and integrated marketing.

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