derren_brown

Recalling Derren

“These days”, wrote Marketing’s Noelle McElhatton recently, “the sad fact is a lot of advertising is simply ignored”.  The basis for Noelle’s lament rests on the claim that fifteen years ago Marketing’s Adwatch feature, which tests TV ad recall, saw higher levels.  I have little doubt this is the case, but should we be surprised or concerned about a dip in recall?

There are two questions to ask: a) why might recall levels have dipped and b) does it matter?

Compared to fifteen years ago, there’s a lot more to recall by way of brand communications.  People are seeing nearly 70% more TV ads – at normal speed – for a start, compared to 1997.  Despite this, many brands are buying lower weights on TV per burst compared to yesteryear and are running more pieces of copy, so there is lower weight per execution. Gone are the days when a single piece of copy gets 1200 ratings a year as was the case when Fairy Liquid’s ‘hands that do dishes’ burned itself into our long-term memory.  So people are seeing more commercial messages overall and, even if brands were buying the same TV weight, ‘share of mind’ would probably have dropped.

Add to this the Adwatch methodology.  Fifteen years ago the survey would have been conducted face to face or via telephone, but now it is done online. This causes two problems. Firstly, 35% of people don’t go online in an average month so online surveys are biased to the heavy online users. Secondly, compared to a human, interactive interviewer, you are likely to get a lower level of agreement with an online survey.

But whether recall matters is the bigger, more interesting issue here.   Noelle might think it’s a  sad fact that advertising is ignored, but it’s been a fact that advertising has had to deal with for most of its existence.  We have to accept that, whatever the medium, most people don’t start off paying attention to advertising; it’s advertising’s job to seduce people and draw them.

Recall – conscious, rational and explicit memory – is becoming downgraded as a meaningful metric as we understand more about the brain. Conscious memory is less important than unconscious/long-term memory.  Professor Robert Heath has just published a new book about it called ‘Seducing the Subconscious’.  As with everything he writes, I urge you to read it. On the subject of recall it is quite reassuring; people certainly pay no attention to any form of advertising – and never have done – but there’s strong evidence that that is actually an advantage. Ads like to slip in under the radar without troubling our cognitive brain where there’s more risk of rejection. Think of it as the Derren Brown effect. Our own research has also shown that recall had a much lower correlation to propensity to purchase or brand consideration than liking an ad or finding it relevant.

Finally, whatever recall figures might be, TV advertising’s effectiveness in the areas that matter, ie sales and profit, has been increasing in recent years and remains peerless.

Marketing has kindly offered to let us in to its Teddington archives to go back through 15 years of dusty copies to conduct a proper analysis into how things have changed in Adwatch, but in the interests of responding before Noelle’s comment is dusty, we’re saving that mission for a later date.  We promise to let you know what we find.  In the meantime, you can probably relax.


  • Tess Alps
    Tess Alps
    Chair, Thinkbox
  • Posted under
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