Pay attention to context: The importance of the lived experience in advertising

Driving through the countryside with your windows down and radio up — that’s the proper way to enjoy music. At least that’s what Joy Division believed according to a scene in 24 Hour Party People.

The 70s rock band from Stockport would make music in the studio with the highest production values, then jump in the back of a Mini and drive across the Pennines to experience how their music sounded in ‘real life’.

There’s power in context — a trick the advertising industry has often missed out on.

The disconnect between assumption and reality

As Alan Hedges pointed out in his classic text, Tested to Destruction (1974), many of the problems in researching advertising aren’t down to the tools we use or the analyses we employ, but from our starting assumptions.

Today, adverts are made and tested in isolation but consumed in context. This creates an instant disconnect between how advertisers intend the ad to be consumed and received, versus the reality the target audience experiences.

The context in which we consume ads is busy and cluttered, and we’re often distracted and uninterested in what we see. To get the desired engagement we want, ads therefore need to be tested and optimised to stand out in busy environments.

How are ads tested, and what’s wrong with them?

Hedges assumed that most people ignore most ads most of the time – and intuition born out by years of eye-tracking analysis from Lumen Research.

In reality, people don’t always pay attention. In research, advertisers force people to engage with ads intently – consuming the ads in isolation and then asking them deep and meaningful questions about their responses. This is wholly unrealistic.

Hedges highlights our failure to think clearly about how advertising actually works. People who work in advertising and marketing think that advertising is very interesting and important. And it is — to them.

The amount of minute detail that goes into the research and creative processes gives advertisers a microscopic focus on their advertising, making it very difficult to stand back and look with the consumer’s eye.

Yet doing exactly this is essential so that we don’t completely lose touch with the real nature of the advertising experience. Because, ultimately, it’s the lived experience of advertising that matters.

If only we could test ads in their natural environment

Hedge’s intuition that most ads receive very limited attention has been confirmed by thousands of in-context ad tests conducted over the past few years.
Some researchers, including Zappi and Trinity McQueen, embrace in-context testing by placing ads within curated Facebook feeds or broadcaster VOD platforms. This helps brands understand how people engage with their ads in a natural setting.

Technology providers like Mirriad take this a step further by inserting products and OOH ads into TV shows using Hollywood-style special effects. Companies like Lumen have developed high-quality, inexpensive eye-tracking software, offering deeper insights into how superficial attention to advertising really is.

While we’ve developed in-context testing solutions to assess the lived experience of advertising, we need to consider other contexts that impact our advertising efforts: time, targeting and culture. Time refers to people’s previous experience with a brand, targeting relates to their current needs, and culture is the meaning of the symbols we use in ads.

The research we conduct and the tools we build help us understand the world better, so we can act more decisively and successfully. That means gathering timely and helpful information to inform ad development, and then evaluating its performance once out in the market — so you can make an even better ad next time.

It means learning and growing in understanding, rather than marking and scoring in isolation. Researchers should be partners and participants in the creative development process, not just impartial observers.

Have we gone too far the ‘wrong way’?

Has the rise of the ‘wrong’ kind of testing actually made things worse? Generating large amounts of unreliable data might have led us to optimise ads for unnaturally attentive audiences, rather than focusing on how to capture genuine attention in the first place.

As a pioneer in advertising research, Hedges would likely be delighted with the technical progress we’ve made in recent years. The most progressive advertisers are now embracing the in-context methodologies he envisioned nearly fifty years ago.

However, even Hedges would still criticise the simplistic and often reductive ways much of today’s advertising research is applied.

Despite our progress, there is still a long way to go.