Russell Belk, a professor in the Schulich School of Business, elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2017, recently penned an article that sheds new light on advertising. The piece, published in the Journal of Advertising (January 2017), offers a keen evaluation of both advertising research methods and research with many engaging examples along the way from Dove to General Motors to Apple. Belk, a world leader for his work on the meaning of possessions, consumer desire and materialism, unpacks the ideas exceptionally well.
Belk suggests that qualitative advertising research could be combined with data analytics to produce richer and more complete understandings of consumer behavior. “Despite the rise of big data and the ease with which online experiments and surveys can be conducted, there’s more need than ever for qualitative advertising research,” says Belk. “Finding a way to integrate qualitative advertising research and big data is perhaps the hottest research ticket in town,” he adds.
Advertising research increasingly sophisticated
As illustrated in Mad Men, advertising became a driving force of Western economies by the mid-1950s. Fast-forward to 2018, and one can see how profoundly the Internet, sponsorship and product placement have transformed the consumer experience. As well, big data has provided advertisers a unique glimpse into consumer behaviour, facilitating more targeted marketing.
Alongside these trends, research about advertising has become increasingly sophisticated. Today, we have many tools to measure the impact of advertising on consumer behaviour – online surveys, focus groups, eye tracking studies, etc. – but we’re still a way from being able to demonstrate precisely how advertising affects consumption.
This is where Belk wanted to dig deeper, to understand more about the link between advertising and consumer behaviour. The goal of Belk’s latest research was to show how qualitative advertising research can bring us closer to such an understanding and help us to evaluate advertisements before, during and after they have been shown to consumers.
One interesting trend in advertising research that may be counterintuitive to many: In the academic world, the focus has shifted away from how to sell more products or make more money. This philosophical turn in advertising research began in the mid-1980s, when disciplines other than marketing began to study advertising ̶ such as history, sociology, women’s studies, communications, cultural studies and psychology. “Scholars in these areas take a critical look at advertising; they are less interested in the influence of advertising on product sales than in its role in selling the ideology of consumption,” Belk explains.
Research considers how and why advertising works or doesn’t work
Belk’s article is a literature review, a fulsome account of what has been published to date on this topic by scholars and researchers. It focuses on the role of qualitative analyses in revealing how ads are “read” by consumers, and considers two key areas (1) qualitative advertising research methods and (2) qualitative advertising research.
In the first section, Belk profiles studies that used many different approaches, including observation, interviews, focus groups, videography and netnography (Internet ethnography ̶ ethnography being the systematic study of people and cultures). Importantly, global and cross-cultural advertising research was also examined.
The second section is particularly insightful as it considers studies that investigate reader response to qualitative ads, which includes the complex analysis of how advertising does and does not affect people and why this happens.
This section also looks at qualitative studies of advertising and branding across cultures. It profiles cases of successful and unsuccessful ad campaigns. Examples include Cadillac, using Led Zeppelin music to appear hip and cool, and General Motors using product placement in The Matrix Reloaded for the same purpose.
One of the most interesting case studies is the failure of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, featuring models of differing body types, in Russia. The older generation, having grown up in the Communist regime, was suspicious of the campaign, while younger people rejected the ad because this generation aspired to Western ideals of beauty and conventional beauty stereotypes.
Belk also considers advertising and cultural co-optation – referring to the ability to assimilate, take or win over into a larger or established group. One prime example: white American teens appropriating rap music from inner-city Black teens. Here, Belk discusses how advertisers win over potential consumers by aligning with counterculture, even in cases of anti-advertising – such as Apple’s late 1990s “Think Different” campaign. Here, consumer resistance actually facilitates market rejuvenation through reframing how consumers think of purchases.
Qualitative research plus data analytics could deepen our understanding
Belk presses for a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind consumer behaviour. “Despite the conclusion of some that, with big data, correlation is all that matters, not understanding why a correlational pattern occurs is a sure ticket to shortsightedness and mistakes,” he explains.
He concludes by suggesting ways in which qualitative advertising research could be combined with data analytics to produce richer and more complete understandings of consumer behavior in response to advertising.
By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, firstname.lastname@example.org