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The Role of Research in Advertising

William M. O'Barr

[Editor's Note:This article is a part of ADText.]

Photo of contents of make up bag
Fig. 10.1 What's in Your Makeup Bag? [Source]

Advertising researchers asked women to bring in their personal assemblages of cosmetics. Most women had quite large collections, including lipsticks, perfumes, eye makeup, creams, moisturizers, and shampoos of diverse brands. Not a single woman had an entire collection of a single brand line of cosmetics. Although most women justified the diversity of brands as fitting the requirements of their particular kinds of skin, hair, coloring, and so on, the researchers concluded that such purchasing patterns may also reflect little rebellions against homogenization in the marketplace.1

Advertising and marketing are closely related concepts. The American Marketing Association defines marketing as an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating, delivering value to customers, and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders. In this sense, advertising is a part of the broader issue of marketing.
What makes us buy some products and not others? Why do we prefer some brands over others? Do print ads and TV commercials actually influence our behavior? In an effort to answer these questions, advertisers look to research. At present (and in the past), diverse research strategies—psychological, social, and cultural—help advertisers understand consumers and assess the effectiveness of advertising messages directed to them. The particular kinds of research conducted in an advertising campaign are always tailored to serve the needs of those who produce the ads as well as the interests of the clients whose products (or services) are promoted. A client who seeks to direct messages to a very specific group of consumers needs to know if the ads are effective with that group. For example, milk producers may want to encourage adults to consume milk. Thus, they need ads that position milk as an adult beverage. Another client may need assistance determining which groups of consumers are most likely to buy the products they offer. For example, an MP3 manufacturer wants to determine which consumers make up its potential market and needs research to help define the market. A third client may ask for detailed information about what consumers recall about the company's ads. For example, a pet food company wants to know if consumers who watched its TV commercials remember the brand name and have positive associations with the brand. Advertising research is directed toward answering such questions as these. Because the questions differ from campaign to campaign, no single research strategy can work for every situation.

This unit examines some of the kinds of research conducted in the service of advertising. The actual variety of methods and techniques used in advertising research is so great that it would be impossible to discuss them all. The research strategies discussed here are indicative of this great variety and represent some of the most common types of research. For convenience, they will be organized and discussed as research conducted before, during, and after the production of an advertisement.

1. Laying the Groundwork for Producing an Ad—Research Conducted before an Ad is Produced

Advertising agencies do not simply produce advertisements. They must first be hired by clients who have products and services that they want to sell. In order to get their business, advertising agencies make pitches to prospective clients. These pitches focus on prior work the advertising agency has done (typically its best work) and sometimes includes speculative work that suggests some ideas for the prospective client's brand. In preparing for a pitch, an agency will research the client company, its brand, and the major competitive brands in the same category. For example, if the client produces a particular brand of beer, the agency will also research beer in general in order to understand the product category. The specific research conducted in this preliminary phase may include interviews with consumers to find out what they like and do not like about the specific brand. It will almost certainly involve the collection of and review of the client's previous advertising as well as advertising for other brands. It may involve other kinds of research that the agency believes will convince the client to select them.

Chart of Sales
Fig. 10.2 Clients Supply Their Own Research Findings to Agencies [Source]

Once the client hires the advertising agency, together they work out a marketing plan that includes advertising. The client typically provides detailed information about the product and its consumers. This information gives the agency a "heads up" by helping it to understand the history of the brand, the client's claims about its benefits to consumers, and sales history of the brand as well as the client's further aspirations for the brand. These further aspirations will likely include attracting new consumers as well as maintaining the loyalty of present ones.

At this point the advertising agency takes over the research process while continually consulting and informing the client company. The research conducted at this phase is likely to include some or all of the following: focus groups, demographic profiles of consumers, psychographic profiles of consumers, ethnographic studies, and input by persons working within the agency (account planners) whose job it is to represent consumers.

The Internet contains many sources on focus groups. Some offer definitions and history, some list current focus groups, and some offer to conduct focus groups for a fee.
Focus Groups. A focus group consists of a relatively small number of consumers and a trained moderator who meet for a discussion. A typical group might consist of six to ten consumers who are known to buy and use the product category (for example, beer, hair coloring, children's toys) in which the agency is interested. The group will not consist of just any consumers but will be constructed on the basis of some common characteristics. For example, a focus group to discuss beer may consist of men between the ages of 18 and 35 living in the suburbs of a large metropolitan area such as Chicago.

The trained moderator may be an advertising agency staff member or may work for a company specializing in consumer research and focus groups. The moderator's role consists of encouraging members of the group to discuss key issues that have been identified in advance as well as new issues that may emerge in the course of discussion. The moderator may be asked to investigate such issues as:

The Internet contains many references to beer and drinking culture. A focus group moderator will normally prepare to moderate a focus group by becoming familiar with the brand and the culture surrounding it.

  • when and where people drink beer
  • how much beer is drunk at any one time
  • gender differences in preference for and consumption of beer
  • ideas about beer as an alcoholic beverage (as opposed to wine or liquor)
  • preferences for bottles, cans, or glasses
  • the best temperature for beer
  • general aspects of beer culture

The discussion will likely also focus on more specific topics such as:

  • preferred brands
  • ideas about particular brands

Information that is not on the moderator's agenda might emerge from the discussion. For example, someone might express the opinion that beer in a clear bottle looks like urine. The researcher would then ask other members of the group whether they agree or not in order to determine how widely such an opinion might be shared. Someone else might say that a particular brand always seems to be on sale. The moderator would then probe this comment for what such a reputation means for a brand. The focus group is a forum for getting answers to specific questions as well as listening for additional information that may inform the process of addressing consumers through ads.

Photo of People in a Focus Group
Fig. 10.3 A Focus Group Meets in Tokyo [Source]

The bottom line in a focus group is to have as full a discussion as possible within the time limit (often about 2 hours). Focus groups frequently meet in rooms with one-way mirrors. Those who will produce advertisements listen and look in on the conversation, learning what they can from the comments. Focus groups often give the creative team ideas that they then incorporate into a commercial or print ad; for example, someone tells a story about his favorite time to drink beer and the creative team then uses the story as the base for a commercial. Another advantage of the creative team observing the discussion as it proceeds is that they can feed additional questions and topics to the moderator. An alternative to observation is making a video or audiotape recording of a focus group that can be passed on to the creative team and/or the client.

Participants in focus groups are typically paid for their participation and are asked to sign releases so that the information they provide can be used by the agency. Moderators typically write up findings in the form of briefings.

Demography is the study of human population dynamics. The terms demographics and psychographics are used in discussing consumer characteristics, behaviors, and attitudes.
Demographics and Psychographics. Sociologists frequently think of a society in demographic terms by categorizing a population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, education, and income. These classic distinctions have often been used in advertising research as well. The category of consumers given in the example above is constructed in this way: men, age 18-35, living in the suburbs of a metropolitan area. In a fuller examination of consumers, focus groups might also include women of the same age and location: men, 35-55, living in the suburbs; and women, 35-55, living in the suburbs. Depending on the particular brand being researched, other groups might include older and younger consumers, involve race or ethnic considerations, pay attention to education or income levels, and so on.

Pie Chart of Elders' Residencey
Fig. 10.4 This Demographic Distribution Shows Residence Patterns of Older Americans [Source]

This way of categorizing consumers for purposes of research and marketing is a mainstay of 20th-century advertising. It provides a way of finding out about the people in a category by providing limits within which to conduct research. It helps advertisers think of how to address consumers by making groups more concrete than abstract. It provides definition for those who produce ads by specifying the attributes of the consumers of a particular brand and thus suggesting how they ought to be addressed. Finally, it provides marketers with categories to determine high- and low-use consumers of the brand. Thus, they can make informed decisions about where marketing efforts can be most profitably directed.

In the 1980s, market research companies began profiling consumers on the basis of psychographic rather than demographic distinctions. In constructing categories of consumers, researchers ask about a person's life goals, religious beliefs, environmental politics, sources of happiness and satisfaction, and so on. Unlike demographic factors that focus on a consumer's position in society, psychographic analysis profiles consumers on the basis of their individual attitudes, orientations, and interests. Psychographic categorization divides the American population into categories of consumers whose different patterns of interests, attitudes, and orientations affect their purchasing and use of particular products and brands. For example, the mindsets and outlooks of consumers who shop at Whole Foods are probably different from those who shop at ordinary supermarkets, and consumers enthralled by the high-tech luxury in the Brookstone or Sharper Image stores can be expected to differ from other segments of the population in important ways. Psychographic research looks for the psychological characteristics of consumers, and offers a system of categories based on common values, outlooks, and choices.

Photo of Person at Organic Vegetable Display in Store
Fig. 10.5 Preference for Organic Foods Is Linked
to a Consumer's Broader Values

Photo of a Segway Demonstration
Fig. 10.6 Brookstone Demonstrates
the High-Tech Segway® Personal Transporter (PT)

Visit the VALS website and take a short test to determine how you fit into the VALS system of consumer types.
The best known psychographic system of categorizing American consumers is VALS™, which was first used in 1969.2 The VALS system distinguishes eight types of consumers in the American population based on their values and approaches to life. It is also used in other countries, such as Japan and Russia, to profile the psychological orientations of consumers in those populations. Advertisers frequently use both demographic and psychographic systems in order to have the fullest possible understanding of consumers.

Although many of the details of the VALS system are proprietary, it is possible to lay out some of the basic distinctions among the categories. Figure 7 names the eight current categories used by the VALS system. Six of the categories are distinguished by their relative focus on ideals (Thinkers and Believers), achievement (Achievers and Strivers), and self-expression (Experiencers and Makers). The second-named group in each of the pairs has fewer resources and is less innovative in approach than the first-named. Innovators stand outside the six main groups. They are self-actualizers who are the most innovative and have the greatest resources of all groups. By contrast, Survivors have extremely low resources and must focus their attention on basic issues of life.

Chart of VALS Framework
Fig. 10.7 The VALS System Categorizes Consumers in Terms of Values and Life-Styles [Source]

Below are six advertisements that help illustrate differences in psychological orientation and consumer behavior for the six central groups. The ads promote different brands of cars (or car-related products). The positioning in each ad emphasizes some aspects of consumer psychology while ignoring or downplaying others. Comparing the messages shows how advertisers seek to associate certain key values, attitudes, and behaviors with each brand. Just as an individual consumer may exhibit characteristics of more than one VALS type, these ads may also speak to more than one VALS group of consumers and may be a plus for advertisers.

Thinkers are motivated by ideas. Most are well-educated and work in professional occupations. They are content with their careers, families, and station in life. They are informed about world and national events. They are concerned about the functionality, value, and durability of the products they buy.3 The Ford commercial in Figure 8 emphasizes the "green" (environmental) benefits of this SUV, making it an appropriate choice for Thinkers.

Watch the Ford Commercial
Fig. 10.8 Kermit, as "Spokesfrog," Emphasizes Environmental Benefits of this Ford SUV [Source]

Believers are conservative and conventional. They value family, religion, community, and the nation. They are predictable, brand-loyal consumers. A known, American-made brand, like Chevrolet, that links its product to fundamental American values strikes responsive chords in many Believers.

Watch the Chevy Commercial
Fig. 10.9 Chevy Emphasizes the American Spirit in this TV Spot [Source]

Achievers are successful people motivated by the desire to achieve. Work provides them a sense of duty, material reward, and prestige. They value predictability and buy reliable, durable, and stylish products. Owning a Mercedes-Benz represents many things for the Achiever: material success, reliability, and prestige.

Watch the Mercedes-Benz Commercial
Fig. 10.10 Mercedes-Benz Emphasizes Success, Reliability and Status in this Commercial [Source]

Strivers also seek to achieve, but they place heavy emphasis on the opinions of others. They often lack self-confidence, and they buy brands that they believe will help them fit into the world around them. They buy items they want and need as long as the products fit into their budgets. They frequently save for big-ticket items. The Jeep Compass offers Strivers a low-budget stylish car that has enough features to gain the approval of others.

Watch the Jeep Commercial
Fig. 10.11 The Jeep Compass Is Positioned as a Low-Budget, Stylish Car [Source]

Experiencers seek variety and excitement in their lives. They often favor the off beat and risky. They are avid consumers who buy items on the basis of whims, appearance, and trendiness. A flashy off-road Nissan that functions well in diverse environments is likely to appeal to Experiencers.

Watch the Nissan Commercial
Fig. 10.12 How Better to Experience the Outdoors? [Source]

Makers enjoy do-it-yourself projects. They are self-sufficient and practical. They demand safe and reliable products. Frequently, they look for good quality at low prices. A Maker is attracted to the idea of having the right tools for home projects.

Print Ad for Lowe's Home Improvement
Fig. 10.13 Makers are Do-It-Yourself People [Source]

Additional VALS categories include Innovators and Survivors. Innovators are successful people who are in control of their lives. They have abundant resources and buy expensive items that reflect their personal styles. By contrast, Survivors are people on low budgets who must shop for the least expensive products and brands. They are largely ignored by advertisers.

From its inception in 1969, the VALS system of categorizing consumers has been adjusted on the basis of changing patterns among American consumers and refinements to the categories themselves. The original system placed emphasis on both psychological (outlook) factors and social concerns of consumers. The current system is based only on psychological (outlook and motivational) features.

2. Assisting Production—Research during the Production of Ads

During the production of a television commercial or a print ad, the art director, the music writer, the copywriter, or someone else in the Creative Department of an ad agency is likely to request help from the research department. The assistance requested is as variable as advertisements themselves, but all of it shares one common characteristic: research is needed to provide some specific information for the production of an advertisement. Here are some examples of actual requests:

  • determining the bottle colors of competing brands in the category (needed by an art director)
  • locating images of John Wayne (for use in drawing a cowboy figure)
  • conducting a quick ethnographic study to find out what people do while waiting in a coin laundry (for a commercial to be set in a coin laundry)
  • determining who owns the rights to the song "Happy Birthday to You" (for a music director who wants to set different words to the tune)
  • researching the history of pasta (for a copywriter who wants to emphasize cultural traditions in a print ad)

Drawing of Patrons in Laundromat
Fig. 10.14 What Do People Do While Waiting in a Coin Laundry? [Source]

These examples illustrate the diversity of requests that a research department might receive from members of an agency team. When given a task like these, researchers work efficiently within the time constraints to come up with the best and most accurate answers possible. Most researchers themselves have academic backgrounds in which they have been taught interdisciplinary research techniques. The advent of the Internet has reduced the frequency of turning to the research department for help with questions like these; members of the creative department can conduct their own online research efficiently.

Account Planning Often Replaces Research

Account planning was developed in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and has since been adopted in many other countries, including the United States.
Many advertising agencies are moving away from conventional researchers in favor of planners. These are agency staff members whose job it is to represent consumers and their interests. In practice, this means that a team assigned to a particular brand includes one or more account executives, several creative people, and at least one planner. The planner plays a unique role in this mix of management and producers. It is his or her job to speak up, give input, and represent the consumer at every turn. When an idea is on the table, the planner attempts to offer the consumer's perspective. For example, it appears to be a good business decision to change the size and packaging of the product. The creative team has developed snappy new graphics. However, the planner is there to say why the current package is preferable to the proposed new one and why the new graphics do not seem appropriate. By offering these opinions—not based merely on his or her own opinions but on comprehensive research conducted via surveys, focus groups, one-on-one interviews and so on—the planner helps put the brakes on ideas that seem out of line with what studies of consumers show about their desires and preferences. The planner also offers enthusiastic support for ideas that are supported by consumer research. Many agencies consider the role of a planner to be a key element in producing good advertising.

Cover of Book
Fig. 10.15 Jon Steel Tells about His Career as an Account Planner [Source]

Jon Steel argues that the groundwork for account planning was laid in the creative revolution that took place in advertising in the 1950s and 1960s. He credits Bill Bernbach with having established the climate in which the planner would later emerge as an essential part of the advertising team:

"Find the simple story in the product and present it in an articulate and intelligent persuasive way," [Bill Bernbach] said, and in doing so, his campaigns succeeded in drawing his audience into the communication, not as passive subjects, but as active and willing participants. To Bernbach, an advertising execution was more than a vehicle to carry a product or brand message; in a way it was the message, and was meant to do more than grab people's attention. He believed that execution, just as much as the strategic idea, helped establish a brand's relationship with its users.4

Against this background, some research departments gave way to account planners who, instead of working together in separate account planning departments, became full members—along with account managers, creative directors, and media planners—of the advertising team. It became the account planner's responsibility to represent the customer by knowing as much as possible about consumers' attitudes and behaviors as they relate to the brand and product category. Beyond this, account planners are also expected to stay abreast of the latest trends in consumer psychology, demographic patterns, social trends, cultural fads, and virtually anything that could help inform the production of advertising. In short, account planning brings the consumer into the process of developing advertising.

Got Milk?

Visit the website of Got Milk? where you can view some of the latest ads. You can also read a popular article about the history of the campaign on the Internet.
Got Milk? is one of the most recognizable advertising campaigns of recent years. The story of how it came into being illustrates the relationship of research to account management, planning, and creativity. Jon Steel recounts the history of the early years of the campaign in his book Truth, Lies, and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning. In 1993, the milk producers of California5 approached the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners advertising agency in San Francisco to discuss ways of promoting milk consumption. The agency was given wide latitude in finding ways of encouraging consumers to use milk. Upon investigating usage patterns, the agency found three key perceptions about milk: (1) it is high in fat, (2) it is a kid's drink, and (3) it is boring. They set about changing this image and the behaviors associated with it.

Print Ad for Got Milk?'got milk?'
Fig. 10.16 One of the Original Print Ads for the Got Milk? Campaign [Source]

The account planners assembled data from many sources, including Gallup polls, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, experiments, and story telling. These findings led the planners to understand that one of the most significant patterns of use is that people often think of milk as a complement to some other food like cookies, brownies, cake, or a peanut butter sandwich. Milk seldom appears on its own in most adult diets. As the campaign developed "milk and _____" was changed to "_____ and milk" in order to emphasize milk as a complement.

As the research went on, focus group discussions showed that not having milk to drink with certain foods was a source of genuine frustration for many people. In the groups, participants were asked to shut their eyes, listen to scripts read aloud, and report what they imagined. One such script read:

There's not a lot that can go wrong in your life that a brownie can't fix. A bad relationship, the loss of a job, a rainy day or a minor illness are each and all burdens lightened by a chewy brownie fresh from the oven. Store bought or home-made, just the word "brownie" is usually enough to bring a smile to young and old alike. Unless of course you don't have any milk, in which case a brownie is likely to lodge in your throat and send you stumbling around the room wishing you were someone else instead. Got milk?6

Other advertisers have licensed the famous query from the California Board. The Milk Processors Education Program licensed "got milk?" to go with their mustache campaign in 1998.
Researchers even used hidden cameras in refrigerators to capture the emotional response to finding the milk carton empty. Reactions to such "deprivation" led the team to the simple, but highly effective idea of asking "got milk?" in a variety of settings. The campaign continues into the present with ads in magazines, TV commercials, and billboards. Other media outlets have included such places as Wheaties boxes and supermarket cart placards. This campaign is one of the most recognizable in recent years.

Print Ad for Body by Milk'got milk?' and 'body by milk'
Fig. 10.17 Serena Williams Asks, "Got Milk?" [Source]

3. Assessment—Research after Ads Are Made

Advertisers have two related goals for all their advertising messages. First, they want them to be convincing. Second, they want them to be remembered. An advertisement fails to do its work unless it persuades the consumer and the consumer remembers the message at purchase time. It sometimes happens that an advertisement will succeed at one of these while it fails to do the other. It makes no difference whether the consumer is persuaded by an ad unless she remembers the brand. Nothing is more disappointing to an advertiser than to hear a consumer say, "I saw a commercial for jeans the other day—I don't remember the brand—but it was really funny."

A legendary story of a brand that has made a strong link between its ads and the brand name is Meow Mix. This cat food uses the slogan "Tastes so good, cats ask for it by name!" When people remember the commercial, it is almost impossible to not remember the name Meow Mix. Advertisers envy this type of highly successful linking of brand name, slogan, and advertising message.

Watch the Commercial for Meow Mix
Fig. 10.18 Meow Mix: Tastes So Good, Cats Ask for It by Name [Source]

The model many advertisers use for thinking about how advertising works ideally can be illustrated with a simple example: Imagine the consumer is in the market for a bottle of shampoo. She finds herself standing in the store before a long shelf of 20, 30, or 40 different brands. Does she remember the brand she saw advertised on TV? Does she have positive associations with the brand? And, ultimately, will she select it off the shelf instead of the many others that are available to her? If an advertisement is ultimately successful, this is what happens in the marketplace.

Photo of Shampoo Aisle
Fig. 10.19 "Which Shampoo Shall I Buy?" [Source]

Leo Burnett, founder of the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency, defined advertising as "selling Cheerios to people who are eating Corn Flakes"
Few ads today introduce new products. Some do, but most ads are about existing products. Their goal is to accomplish two things. First, they seek to reinforce consumer loyalty among those who already use the brand. The idea here is that the consumer faced with all those brand choices will continue to purchase the brand she already uses and perhaps use even more of the brand. Second, ads seek to solicit new consumers from those who either do not currently use the product or who use a competing brand. The process of luring consumers away from their previous brands is a major goal of advertising, and ads encourage, beg, prod, plead, and shout to get consumers to do this.

Research conducted after the production of an ad has the goal of testing recall and persuasion. There are several ways to conduct this research, and ad agencies typically farm the research out to specialized research organizations who conduct it according to the agency's specifications. Since this research is likely to be somewhat costly, it is typically not conducted unless the client requests it and is willing to pay for it. Less often an agency may determine on its own to conduct such research to find out what they can about why something seems not to be working as they had hoped it would.

There are several ways that a company can judge what impact its commercial has on consumers. The most important of these are recall measurements. Techniques include unaided recall ("Do you happen to remember any commercials that you saw during such-and-such a program?") and aided recall ("Do you happen to remember a commercial for a particular product or for a particular brand of it?"). Recall studies probe consumers' memories and attitudes to determine what they have remembered and what opinions they have about what they saw. Some studies attempt to test consumer's attitudes before and after they have seen a commercial. The settings for research vary between in-home interviews (often by telephone), polls and surveys conducted in shopping centers, and studies conducted in specially-designed theaters.

Photo of People Being Surveyed
Fig. 10.20 A Researcher Surveys Consumer Opinions [Source]

Many testing services offer ways to study recall. The Burke Institute is one of the best known.
In addition to recall measurements, companies sometimes use behavioral measurement as well. Consumers may be given discount coupons after they have been exposed to TV commercials. Tracking whether or not they use them is a means of studying the effects of exposure to the commercials of interest. However, interpretation of the results is often difficult because many factors influence consumers' buying behavior.

In order to get a sense of how research tests the memorability and persuasiveness of commercials, take a few moments and answer the following questions without looking back. Their form and content is typical of the kinds of questions consumers are asked in post-exposure testing.

  1. Did you watch any of the commercials above?
  2. What were the commercials for?
  3. Did you happen to see a commercial for a Ford SUV? If so, tell me what you remember about it.
  4. Kermit the Frog says, "I guess it is easy being green" in a commercial for which vehicle?
  5. What does "I guess it is easy being green" mean?
  6. Did you watch any other commercials in this chapter?
  7. If so, what was being advertised?
  8. Did you see a commercial in which the car turns into an animal?
  9. If so, which brand of car was being advertised?
  10. What does it mean in the commercial when you see the car turning into an animal?
  11. Did you see a commercial with bobblehead dolls in it? Tell me about it.
  12. Which brand of car was being advertised in the commercial?
  13. Which brand of car advertised itself as "Unlike any other"?
  14. Did you see a commercial involving car racing? Tell me about it.
  15. Which brand of car was being advertised in the commercial about car racing?
  16. Did you see a commercial in which these words were spoken: "This is our country. This is our truck"?
  17. Which brand of truck was being advertised?
  18. Which images of America do you recall in the advertisement for the truck?

If you tried this exercise, then you have some sense of how unlikely it would be for a consumer to know the answer to all these questions. Television viewing is often done while talking with others, making a phone call, or engaging in some other activity. In addition, many people do not watch commercials because they go out of the room, switch channels, or fast-forward through commercials in recorded programs. Post-exposure testing encompasses all these factors by attempting to discover just how much attention, if any, consumers paid to particular commercials. On the basis of these findings, the agency or client may decide to reedit, clarify, or fix problems they discover in the commercial. High scores on recall and persuasion, of course, mean that a commercial attracts attention and is convincing and remembered.


Most people would be astounded to know how much research is conducted as well as how much research is not conducted in connection with advertising. On the plus side, market and advertising research is among the most detailed and comprehensive forms of research. Once the decision is made to research the culture of beer, consumer behavior before a shelf of shampoo brands, or consumer preferences about computer software, the time, energy, and money poured into the research is unparalleled elsewhere. Most of these research findings are considered proprietary and thus are not shared beyond the few people in the advertising agency and client company who are deemed to have reason to see them. This "private sociology" of American society sometimes makes its way into business or advertising archives, but it is often not saved because it lacks contemporary relevance.

On the minus side, it is not true that advertisers conduct detailed research on everything of possible relevance to their projects. This assumption is frequently made by critics of advertising who frequently assert that "nothing is in an advertisement without a reason." The reality is that many factors are carefully researched but it is also the case that decisions are made by creative directors because "it seemed right."

Advertising research is only conducted when there is a perceived need for it and when its cost is deemed necessary to the success of the campaign. Even then, the research is never systematic. Rather, it is always applied and directed toward answering specific questions relevant to the project at hand.


1 Eugene Pomerance of Foote, Cone, and Belding, Chicago, personal communication to author.

2 The first VALS system was based on psychological orientations and social values. VALS was an acronym for Values and Lifestyles. The current VALS system is based only on psychological traits. See

3 Understanding U.S. Consumers, (Menlo Park, California: SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, 2003) 11.

4 Jon Steel, Truth, Lies, and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998), 33.

5 The California Fluid Milk Processors' Advisory Board, or the CFMPAB.

6 Steel, 243-4.

Media Credits

Fig. 10.1 Courtesy of Nikita Kashner,

Fig. 10.2 From the author's collection.

Fig. 10.3 Courtesy Virtual Reality & Human Interface Technology Lab, Tsinghua University.

Fig. 10.4 From Administration on Aging, Alzheimer's Demonstration Program

Fig. 10.5 Courtesy of Somerfield, PLC.

Fig. 10.6 Segway is a registered trademark of Segway Inc. in the United States and/or other countries.

Fig. 10.7 SRI Consulting Business Intelligence (SRIC-BI);

Fig. 10.8 Ford Motor Company/JWT.

Fig. 10.9 Chevrolet/Campbell Ewald, Interpublic Group.

Fig. 10.10 Mercedes-Benz/Merkley + Partners.

Fig. 10.11 DaimlerChrysler/Global Hue.

Fig. 10.12 Nissan/TBWA/G1 Europe.

Fig. 10.13 Money, September 2006.

Fig. 10.14 Courtesy

Fig. 10.15 Jon Steel, Truth, Lies, and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998).

Fig. 10.16 Courtesy California Milk Processor Board.

Fig. 10.17 © The National Milk Processor Promotion Board. Used With Permission. All rights reserved.

Fig. 10.18 © 2004 The Meow Mix Company. Meow Mix is a federally registered trademark of The Meow Mix Company.

Fig. 10.19 Photo by Emma Hymas.

Fig. 10.20 From

William M. O'Barr

William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke's most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O'Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society &emdash; An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.

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