The psychology of marketing communications

Over the years, psychologists and researchers have carried out numerous studies into how advertising works.  All recognised that for a marketing message to work, it must be meaningful to its recipients.  Messages must be targeted at the right audience; be capable of gaining their attention; be understandable; be relevant; and be acceptable.

With this in mind, researchers set out to develop an agreed model of the advertising process.  Unfortunately, no single model has been agreed and there are a number of  theories which compete to have prominence.

Petty and Cacioppo (1983) developed the elaboration likelihood model which has helped to explain how cognitive processing, persuasion and attitude change occur when different levels of audience involvement are present.  Elaboration refers to the extent that the recipient has to develop and refine the information they receive for decision-making to occur.  If the message recipient is highly motivated or has a high level of ability to process the information, elaboration is said to be high.  If the recipient’s ability to process information is poor or their motivation is weak, elaboration is said to be low.

Thus the ELM model identifies two cognitive processes in the minds of recipients; a central route where the recipient is active and involved and a peripheral route where the recipient is passive and unengaged.

With the central route, a message will persuade using the quality of the argument proposed.  For example, when you buy a house or a car, you will be highly involved. In such a situation consumers would be expected to read brochures and reviews prior to purchase.  They may want an opportunity to try out the product e.g. a test drive of a car.

Under the peripheral route, the recipient should not be expected to process complicated information or to engage in significant cognitive processing.  Communications using the peripheral route should use cues to attract the attention of recipients.

Peripheral cues could involve the use of a celebrity to advertise products.  For example, Walker’s use of Gary Lineker to sell their crisps or Nespresso using George Clooney to advertise their coffee machines.  The aim is that when consumers see Lineker, they think crisps; they see Clooney, they think coffee.

In high involvement transactions the presence of a celebrity is at best of minor significance to the consumer’s decision to purchase.

So the first decision of an advertiser is to choose a form of promotion which matches the level of cognitive processing expected of consumers.

An advertisement which seemed to break the rules of the ELM model was Jaguar’s use of Tom Huddleston, Sir Ben Kingsley and Mark Strong to advertise their cars.  Purchasing a car is a highly involved process, clearly using these celebrities would have little impact in the consumer’s decision to purchase a Jag.

Competing with the ELM model are eclectic models of advertising.  Four eclectic models have been developed each of which has a digital and an analogue component.  These four models represent the four key ways in which advertising works.

  1.  The Persuasive Framework – Analogue – this framework assumes that advertising works rationally and that a ‘brand works harder for you’.  This framework assumes that consumers purchase items using a rational sequential decision-making process such as AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action).  Consumers are persuaded to purchase through the development of unique selling propositions (USPs).  The persuasive framework is used heavily in the promotion of blockbuster movies.  Studios raise awareness of coming releases by using press interviews, film festivals and conventions.  They create interest by releasing videos of stars on location filming and through releasing teaser trailers.  They create desire through the release of longer trailers, star-studded premieres and star interviews.  Finally they issue a call to action through television advertising which encourages consumers to book cinema seats in the weeks before a film is released.  The onset of digital media has added a further element to the persuasive framework; that of encouraging consumers to search for further information e.g. the use of scanning codes in advertisements, e.g. Shazam, so that if the consumer scans the advertisement with their mobile phone, they are directed to the products website.
  2. The Involvement Framework – Analogue – Involvement-based advertisements work by drawing the audience into the product by eliciting emotional forms of engagement. A consumer’s passage to the brand occurs because ‘it means more to them’.  This could involve the use of shared values, aspirational values or by personalisation the brand e.g. the use of celebrities.  The digital element of the involvement framework encourages people to play.  This is about content creation and giving the impression that consumers are helping to control the brand.  So Brompton Bikes allow consumers to effectively design their own folding bicycle by offering 1200 different product options which can be combined to individualise their cycles.  The involvement digital framework also includes opportunities such as blogs, social media and crowd-sourcing.
  3. The Salience Framework – Analogue – This part of the model relies on advertisements being different and therefore standing out from that of competitors. There is a danger that being too different can actually put consumers off.  For example, some consumers are put off by the Go Compare advertisements (with the fat tenor) because they find them annoying. The Digital element of the salience framework is to attempt to create viral content which is shared and discussed by consumers.
  4. The Sales Promotion Framework – This element only has an Analogue element and works in that consumers believe that they will be rewarded by their purchase. Advertisements are aimed at generating sales and shifting product.  Sales promotion advertisements are invitations to consumers to engage in price promotions or to get additional benefits (e.g. free servicing on a car).

Jones, Macdonald and Ehrenberg (1991) advocate a strong and weak theory of advertising.

The strong theory of advertising assumes that messages work in that they are capable of affecting a degree of change in the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of consumers.  This theory argues that advertising can persuade a consumer to buy a product which they have never previously purchased and that long-run purchasing behaviour can be developed.  The strong theory operates through the use of psychological techniques which alter the behaviour of passive consumers.  Often this involves a hierarchy of effects model.

Increasingly, academics looking at the psychological effects of advertising are finding that the strong theory of advertising does not reflect consumer practice – despite the fact that it is so prevalent in modern advertising practice.  Ehrenberg (1997) argues that consumer purchasing works on the basis of an Awareness – Trial – Reinforcement framework.  That for a consumer to purchase, they must be aware of he product, to repeat purchase they must have tried the product and that to get them to continually purchase you must reinforce the consumer’s decision to purchase.  In recent years, a further step has been added to this model: Nudge.  This is the use of cues to nudge consumers into a certain form of activity.  One nudge example is the promotion of Five a Day, the government programme to encourage consumers to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to increase the amount of roughage they consume.  Therefore for nudge to work, advertisements should increase the level of reinforcement to get habitual consumers to increase their consumption.

This is the Weak Theory of Advertising.  it agrees with the strong theory that advertising is capable of improving people’s knowledge of products.  However the weak theory argues that consumers are not passive and only respond to advertisements where they have some prior knowledge of the product.  Consumers need to have some awareness of a products characteristics before they respond to advertising.  Therefore that amount of information which is actually communicated is limited.  There simply isn’t enough time in the standard television advertisement (lasting roughly 30 seconds) to impart lots of information.  For example, who actually reads the statutory small print in a television advertisement for unsecured loans?

As the time allotted to such advertising is short; and because consumers can switch off their cognitive ability to import information; advertising should be used to reinforce existing attitudes.

Those advocating the weak theory of advertising argue that the strong theory is wrong to assume that consumers are passive.  Under the weak theory, consumers should be treated as active participants in the message and that they are capable of high levels of cognitive processing.  They argue that the strong theory of advertising assumes consumers are unintelligent and apathetic.

As you can see, there are a number of competing psychological theories as to how advertising works in the minds of consumers.  I think the most prominent thing to take out of this research is that you must match your promotional activity to the type of product you are trying to sell.  If you are selling cars of mortgages, a focus on technical specifications may be appropriate, the use of a film star to promote them may be a waste of time and money.  If you are selling snack foods or leisure goods, you need advertising which is either fun or glamorous.