Written by Ingrid Gunne
Consumers are exposed to a flood of advertisements every day. Digital ads alone stand for a share of 1000 exposures per day for an average Internet user (Duffy, 2016). The noise created by the advertisement flood is problematic for consumers and companies alike. Consumers are overwhelmed by the noise, while companies have a hard time being seen and heard. It is disadvantageous for both parties when relevant ads are lost in the noise. A promising solution to this problem is creative advertising. Creative ads are beneficial to companies as they capture consumers’ attention, and also benefit consumers, who have been proven to become more creative when they are exposed to them.
In the 21st century, the Internet has become a more and more prominent part of most people’s lives. And since the Internet is important to people – consumers – it is also important to companies. Most companies today have a digital strategy and a digital presence. Needless to say, digital advertising is most of the time included in a company’s digital strategy. This is reflected by the large increase in spending on digital advertising worldwide. In 2009, 60,336 million USD were spent on digital advertising globally, while the same number was 127,345 million USD in 2014. The forecasted number for next year, 2017, is 190,822 million USD (McKinsey Global Media Report, 2015).
An interesting question that arises in the light of these numbers is whether or not digital advertising is effective. Previous research has shown that advertising in general has a direct effect on firm performance in terms of for example sales (Leone, 1995) and brand equity (Keller, 1998). Spending on advertising also affects firm performance indirectly. When brand equity is increased, customers tend to lower their price sensitivity and are thereby more inclined to pay a price premium (Erdem, Swait, and Louviere, 2002). Advertising effectiveness, however, as measured by advertising elasticity, has been shown to be as low as 0 to 0.2. (Vakratsas and Ambler, 1999).
It has been suggested that advertising effectiveness is low because of the large amount of advertising that people are exposed to on a daily basis (Rosengren, 2008). The search term “how to avoid advertising” generates approximately 73 400 000 search results on Google (as of 28/11-16), which indeed implies that many people find the amount of advertising they are exposed to overwhelming and wish to shield themselves. The many tools and tricks available to avoid advertising includes for example tools such as Adblock, or tricks such as watching Netflix instead of television.
Apart from these direct means, people also tend to apply a mental filter to block out advertising. The conscious mind can pay attention to approximately four things at once (Shin, 2014). Therefore, when the human brain is exposed to more information than it is configured to handle, it simply ignores the information that is deemed superfluous. It is this ability that allows most of us to get all of our shopping done in just 150 items, despite the fact that there are about 40 000 items in an average grocery store (Shin, 2014). The same ability allows us to sort out relevant information on a webpage, and thereby ignore information that our brains deem as irrelevant. Advertising is often deemed to be the latter kind of information. Therefore, most of the time the flood of advertising is simply ignored, and the noise is thus reduced to a small, and perhaps a tiny bit annoying, background sound. But information overload is avoided.
For marketers, the flood of advertisements is indeed problematic. The noise created by the flood makes it immensely hard for marketers to be seen and heard, even by those consumers who under other circumstances would have found their advertising interesting. As consumers mentally block out advertising, as described above, the marketers’ advertising is rendered ineffective. Products and services that are indeed relevant to particular consumers are thereby lost in the noise. This loss of customers is of course costly. The tremendous competition over consumers’ attention is also costly. Only the strongest companies, i.e. those with largest financial means and/or sharpest marketing teams, are able to compete and stand out from the crowd.
The benefits of creative advertising
How can marketers tackle the problem of advertisement overload? Marketers cannot influence the amount of advertisements in the flood, unless they chose not to advertise. What they can influence however, is the quality of their own ads relative to the quality of competing ads. Advertisement content that is viewed as irrelevant, boring or simply bad will most of the time go unnoticed as consumers block it out. In the cases when it actually is noticed, bad content could cause annoyance and dislike, and in the worst case scenario even customer deflection. Good content on the other hand, can be a means for companies to stand out from the crowd and receive positive attention (Smith and Yang, 2004).
But what is good advertisement content? Some research suggests that advertising content that is perceived as creative is the answer (Modig, 2012). According to Smith and Yang (2004), advertising that is perceived as creative stand a better chance of catching consumers’ attention, since creative ads contrast with non-creative ads. In the flood of digital advertising facing consumers today, being noticed is key. Once the consumer’s attention is captured, creative advertising increases consumers’ processing, as compared to non-creative advertising (Rosengren, Dahlén and Modig, 2013). Furthermore, creative advertising also enhances brand interest and perceived brand quality (Dahlén, Rosengren and Törn, 2008).
The advantages of creative advertising described above mainly benefits companies. But creative advertising can also benefit consumers. A study by Rosengren, Dahlén and Modig (2013) shows that adverting creativity increases consumers’ perceived own creativity. Through increased processing, mentioned above, and increased perceived own creativity, advertising creativity also improves consumers’ actual creativity. This means that advertising creativity has a positive influence on consumers’ own creativity in the sense that they become better at solving problems and coming up with creative ideas after having been exposed to creative advertising.
What is creative advertising?
In order to create creative ads and achieve the benefits outlined above, one must first understand what creative advertising is. According to Smith, MacKenzie, Yang, Buchholz and Darley (2007), perceptions of advertising creativity are determined by the interaction between divergence and relevance, and the overall creativity affects consumer processing and response. Divergence can be defined as the extent to which an ad contains advertisement or brand elements that are novel or unusual in some way. Relevance, on the other hand, is often referred to as involvement, and can be defined as the extent to which at least some advertisement or brand elements are meaningful, useful or valuable to the consumer. The key to creativity is the combination of divergence and relevance. An advertisement that is perceived as divergent but not relevant is seen as strange, rather than creative. An advertisement that is perceived as relevant but not divergent is seen as boring, and thus not creative (Smith et al, 2007).
Smith et al (2007) determine that divergence is the leading indicator of creativity but that its interaction with relevance plays a significant role. This finding suggests that the definition of creativity as divergence plus relevance is indeed a reasonable one. Nonetheless, there are several other conceptualizations of creativity that are popular within the research community. The following quote from Smith et al (2007, p. 820) does however lift the question about what creativity is out of the research community and into world outside of university buildings. Here, the consumers’ role in judging creativity is stressed:
“While researchers can debate the advantages and disadvantages of the two conceptualizations [divergence and relevance], it is important to understand how consumers judge ad creativity, because creativity (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder. Perceptions of an ad’s divergence require a comparison with the consumer’s experiences; while perceptions of relevance require a comparison to the consumer’s goals, needs, and desires. Thus it is the consumer’s perception — not the judgment of researchers or advertising professionals — that is expected to stimulate his or her interest in an ad.”
While determining that consumers are the ultimate judges of advertisement creativity, Smith et al (2007) also highlights the subjective nature of creativity. In particular, creativity is compared to beauty. But even though most people would agree that taste is subjective, most people would also admit that there are certain shared standards for what is considered beautiful in different groups and cultures. There might even be some things, like a spectacular sunset or a sparkling river, that are universally held as beautiful. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that people who share values in other regards, might also have similar perceptions of what constitute a creative advertisement. The subjectivity of creativity should therefore not cause a headache for marketers. After all, they are experts at mapping the needs and wants of consumers.
For those who are curious, some examples of creative advertisements can be found among Clio award winning ads. The Clio award winners are selected by a panel of advertising experts and are given to reward creative excellence in advertising and design. In the advertising world, at least in the West, the Clio award winning advertisements ought to constitute a benchmark for truly creative advertisements in many people’s eyes. This year, some of the awarded campaigns included Tongue, You’re alive. Do you remember? and The Swedish Number. The Clio awards and other prominent competitions provide excellent sources where marketers and others can seek inspiration for creative advertisements.
So what have we learned? We have concluded that advertisement overload is perceived as negative by consumers and companies alike. But the flood of advertisements, digital and other, is not likely to stop anytime soon. What can be improved is the advertising content of the flood. Advertising creativity is something that can cut through the noise and benefits both consumers and companies. There are several benefits to creative advertising:
- It stands a better chance of catching consumers’ attention
- It increases consumers’ processing of the ad
- It enhances brand interest
- It enhances perceived brand quality
- It increases consumers’ perceived and actual creativity
In a simplified model of reality, both consumers and companies seek to maximize their own utility. Quite often, this implies that one party’s gain is the other party’s loss. Therefore, it is nice when gains can be made for both parties and not at the expense of either of them. Advertising creativity benefits both consumers and companies, while making the flood of advertisements a little bit more colorful. Who knows, maybe in the future the noise can be turned into music?
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