Research in advertising is far from perfect. Mentioning it to creatives often provokes a wince, evoking pain and fear as they remember the times their creative vision was torn to shreds by focus groups and link tests. But there are planners out there who agree. According to Darren Savage, Chief Strategic Officer of Studio Ex Nihilo – VCCP’s newly launched inventions business – research needs an overhaul. “The results they’re getting are completely and utterly wrong,” he says.
Speaking at Cannes Lions recently in a talk called ‘The (Emotional) Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, Darren and his colleagues pointed out what they see as fundamental flaws in the research process for television advertising and laid the first few slabs on a new path – one that they hope will lead to more effective advertising.
The main concept underlying the new approach is based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Put simply, he suggested people make decisions using two mental systems: system one is always on and runs in the background of your mind. This is the more emotional, instinctive part of your decision-making. System two is more of a conscious tool – the rational, considered part that you pull up when you need it. According to Darren, a classically trained account planner with a background in neuroscience, “the basic premise is that it’s not rational or emotional; it’s both at the same time, all of the time.”
Essentially, the problem is that current methods of research in advertising ignore system one. People are asked questions and consciously answer them, using only rational thought. “It’s artificially distorting the results,” says Darren, “because it’s pushing system one – the emotional stuff – to the periphery and artificially promoting the importance of system two. And that’s not how people make decisions.”
One of the worst upshots of this is that it sucks the magic out of advertising. That may not sound like something a researcher concerned with the science of marketing would say, but Darren laments that current methods of research fail to support creative flair. His team have been thinking about a number of areas where there’s a lot of subjectivity. Things like choice of music, sound design, editing and casting. These are often the places where rational decisions fail and little more than personal opinion tends to rule the decision-making.
“Everybody would admit music is really important,” says Darren, “but there isn’t any methodology to select what’s the right piece of music for advertising. I’ve been kicking around for long enough to have been involved in these kinds of arguments. It does degenerate into pure subjectivity.”
It’s crazy, when you come to think of it. “If you’re spending millions of pounds on a piece of advertising and it’s down to a coin toss between Radiohead or Muse, you’d better get it right,” he says.
In the seminar at Cannes, Darren and co took the example of Levi’s iconic Laundrette commercial. Arguably, research on that would have approved the pretty girls, handsome Nick, the cool music and the 50s aesthetic, but what’s the fat guy in a grey vest doing there? Rationally, it makes no sense to have him in there.
“A creative would say he adds a bit of texture,” says Darren. “Our argument is about protecting that weirdness. So leaving those sort of things that add rough edges, unexpectedness, texture or depth to advertising is actually really important. It keeps people interested in the narrative.”
Creatives are not known for being huge research fans. At a recent conference somebody asked Sir John Hegarty about data and creativity. His response: “Fuck off.” Darren’s aim is to provide data that the Hegartys of the world can use to their advantage. We know that award-winning creative work does the job for consumers too, and if current research methods can’t explain why the fat blokes and oddness work, maybe new methods are needed.
The VCCP team unveiled their new vision for research in Cannes, suggesting a way of uniting system one and system two decision-making in their techniques. Their idea is to use biometric data, measuring galvanic skin responses to creative work – the sort of thing it’s hard to fake. Darren acknowledges that these tools aren’t perfect, but he thinks they’re a step in the right direction. “Biometrics act as a pretty good barometer in terms of how someone is feeling about a particular stimulus,” he says.
Alongside more classic techniques like pre and post questionnaires, Darren and his team use this biometric data to try and knit together the system one emotional responses and the system two rational judgements.
Paying attention to how a piece of advertising actually makes people feel seems like a huge, if slightly obvious, leap for research, but Darren isn’t content to stop there. His team want to get a much more nuanced picture of the emotions being aroused by the work. “We’re looking at how you can compose or select a piece of music based on matching key to desired emotional response,” he says. “You don’t always want someone to watch a piece of advertising and be jumping around thrilled. It depends what the ad is trying to do. Are you trying to build suspense, induce euphoria? Are you meant to feel really positive? Is it meant to be serious, like a road safety ad? All ads work differently and it all needs to be effective.”
With that in mind, they’re looking at measuring other biometrics such as pupil dilation and stress levels. The end aim is never to have to rely on asking research subjects how something makes them feel. Their bodies will do the talking.
While still in preliminary stages, they have tested their techniques very briefly on music choices and edits. And they’ve gathered some encouraging data for supporters of uniqueness in advertising. “We’ve proven that the weird version versus the sanitised version punctuates those key narrative elements,” says Darren. “It seems to then correlate with recall and likelihood of purchasing or being interested in a brand.” This could put an end to those seemingly subjective arguments about music, sound, edit and casting, and could put power in the hands of creatives who believe in the power of weirdness.
Darren’s hope is that they are making first steps towards a kind of research data that helps, rather than hampers creativity. “I want Hegarty and people like him to say ‘this justifies my magic and helps me to understand it,’” he says.
The existing structures of research are too didactic and inflexible. Studio Ex Nihilo are creating techniques that feel more at home in 2014. “We’re trying to build a research methodology that fits around the advertising idea and tries to understand it,” says Darren, “to shed new light on it in terms of how it’s working, rather than the other way around.”
Darren is keen to stress it’s early days. His hope for the Cannes Lions seminar is that it will have piqued people’s interest, so other agencies and people from around the industry will want to get involved. “It would be nice to create a research group between a number of sorts of agencies, clients, different research agencies, even other advertising and creative agencies potentially,” he suggests. “Via that collaborative approach I think we’re much more likely to move further forward faster.”
With Oxford University helping to develop their methodology and analysis, they’ve got off to a good start. “It’s experimental,” he admits. “I don’t think we’re at the point where we can draw very firm conclusions, but they’re encouraging observations.”