The results of two new research studies have made me question one of the final shibboleths of media planning: the idea that there is such a thing as an ‘effective frequency’ which can be easily defined and which offers a single, optimal level at which the advertising ‘works’.
The first piece of research was a neuroscientific study we carried out. It revealed how we process advertising when we watch TV as opposed to when we are engaged in various online activities. It clearly points to the importance of emotion and engagement in driving performance – much more so than attention – and underlines recent insights into the role emotional association and implicit memory play in strengthening a brand’s position within our choice set. As the neuroscientists say, “the neurones that fire together wire together”.
The second study, conducted with the IPA, compared data from the IPA Databank with scores from the Gunn Report and showed conclusively that creativity does pay…just not necessarily in the way we expected. There was a much greater pound-for-pound performance amongst creatively-awarded ads in terms of driving efficiency (i.e. how much relative share of voice drives market share), but the differences in absolute effectiveness were less marked for the simple reason that the creatively-awarded campaigns spent less and therefore achieved a lower share of voice, despite the fact that they were eleven times more efficient at driving market share. One of the explanations for this may be that many of these campaigns were advised that they could ‘get away with’ spending less to achieve their target levels of awareness, recall, stand-out etc. so the ads could achieve them with lower levels of frequency.
So what of ‘effective frequency’?
Qualitatively, we have seen many examples of ad campaigns where respondents appear quite happy to watch and enjoy their favourite ads time and time again; Barclays ‘Waterslide’ and Comparethemarket.com’s Meerkat ads are good recent examples of this. We can all think of ads that we would be happy to keep seeing, like Honda ‘Cog’, Sony ‘Balls’ and Cadbury’s Gorilla. It is clear that there is no single magic number beyond which the message has landed and the job is done. Every additional exposure to an ad is part of the continued wiring together of neurones into positive associations with the brand. These can last a lifetime and relate far more closely to business performance and incremental profit than the message cut-through approach that underpins much of the thinking behind the concept of ‘effective frequency’.
I’m not denying that ads can sometimes reach their maximum desirable frequency, after which even I start shouting at the TV. But very, very few campaigns get to the Crazy Frog level and recency is a major factor here. No-one wants to see the same ad 20 times in a single day, but, spread across a month, that frequency becomes totally acceptable.
All of the new insights from behavioural economics and neuroscience (two polar opposite disciplines yielding very similar insights) about the power of fame and emotion to influence the way we use implicit associations to ‘short-cut’ the decision-making process have successfully weaned us away from the ‘message myth’, swaddled in the comfort blanket of influence models such as AIDA and DAGMAR. Perhaps now is the time to rethink the role of frequency within the mix; especially if it also means refocusing on the potential payback achieved by higher levels of advertising creativity.