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Advertising Effectiveness and the Consumer Brain

what increases attention paid to adsAdvertisers and researchers do a lot of testing to determine how effective their advertising is prior to launching a campaign or message. We look for ways to get inside consumers’ heads, and as technology improves, we are afforded interesting glimpses into how consumers process information and make decisions. As my colleague Rajan pointed out in his blog different areas of the brain lead to different types of decision-making. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman posits that human thinking can be classified into two forms, System 1, which operates automatically, and System 2, which requires mental effort (I paraphrase). Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide asserts in his blog “Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason and the precise mix depends on the situation. When buying a house, for example, it’s best to let our unconscious mull over the many variables. But when we’re picking a stock, intuition often leads us astray. The trick is to determine when to use the different parts of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.”

With all of this exciting work being done in the field of neuroscience and behavioral economics, I wondered what kinds of answers we would get if we simply asked consumers directly what they think motivates them in considering advertising. Do they believe they respond to characters like the Geico gecko? Or is it really just a function of what they need at the time?

We asked our online panel of adult consumers to tell us what makes them pay more attention to an ad than they normally would. As much as I was rooting for the gecko, “characters” landed near the bottom of the list. Instead, it was humor that was number one for consumers age 18-54, followed closely by product need. These same two elements hold true for consumers age 55 or older, but the order was reversed.

I was surprised, though probably shouldn’t have been, by what turned out to be the third most motivating element for 18-34 year olds: music. For consumers aged 35+, music was barely on their radar. Instead, third place for them was the believability of the ad and the claims it made.

places consumers say they pay attention to adsWe further asked our consumers where they pay the most attention to ads in their day-to-day life. No surprise, TV ads are number one, across all three age groups. Second place is where age starts to differentiate our consumers. Internet advertising is number two for 18-34 and 35-54 year olds, but where they consume that advertising differs: mobile devices rule for the younger set and traditional PCs or laptops lead for the 35-54 group. Our 55+ group uses the good old-fashioned newspaper. Keep in mind that this study was conducted online, so even among Internet users, the 55+ group ranks newspaper ads higher than online ads.

It seems that consumers affirm the way we researchers believe the world is trending. Would I give up all the cool tools and research being done to get at what the consumer is thinking? Well, no. But sometimes it's just nice to step away from all of our fancy techniques and simply ask people directly what they're thinking. 

VP / Research Management


Michele likes to hijack TRC's online consumer panel to get relevant answers to her burning research questions. She loves asking questions relating to her favorite hobbies - TV and movies, golf, casino gambling and travel - and more often than not the answers can be generalized across industries.


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