We were invited by Spark Media to speak to an audience of 300 media types in South Africa this week, sharing the billing with Dr Virginia Beal, of the Ehrenburg Bass Institute, which is led by the famous Byron Sharp. I met Dr Beal the night before the conference: she had just come back from safari with our hosts and had come up close with a pride of lions.

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The next day, Dr Beal was up first, and gave a compelling talk about how advertising really works. Many of us who work in the industry think that our job is to persuade people to buy a product. We want to get in front of our customers and really convince them why our cat food, say, is better than the other guy’s cat food. This is called the ‘Strong’ model of advertising.

This is also nonsense.

In reality, she said, most advertising works as a simple reminder of a brand’s existence. The aim is to build mental availability or ‘top of mind’ awareness, especially amongst infrequent buyers. In comparison with the ‘Strong’ model of advertising, this is has been called the ‘Weak’ model of advertising. But that makes it sound a bit weedy, so now people called it the ‘Salience’ model of advertising.

She went on to show that the Weak model is much stronger than the Strong model, across categories and countries.

Then Lumen got up on stage. And much to everyone’s relief, our data supported her argument neatly.

One of the reasons that the Persuasive model of advertising must be wrong is that people rarely hang around long enough to be persuaded. The average dwell time with advertising is vanishingly short: around 2 seconds for print, mobile and OOH ads, and less than a second for digital display ads. With this sort of ‘attention budget’ it’s very hard to communicate the precise details of an offer or give people a compelling ‘reason to believe’ in why your kitty dinner is better than the other guy’s.

What you can do, however, is remind people that you exist, and trigger an implicit emotional response. And this is pretty much exactly what happens. Most advertising gets looked at rather than read or deeply engaged with. No one really cares that ‘eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas’, but everyone knows that ‘cats like Felix like Felix’ – and why simple, emotive advertising helped Felix become the number 1 cat food in Britain.


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