A while back, an Adweek column (“Why Does Your Brand Wait Until :29 to Show Up in Your Ad,” July 15, 2014[1]) bemoaned the absence of brand names from the first 29 seconds of many 30-second ads. It advised introducing the brand earlier and mentioning it more often. The author argued that people forget the name of the product/brand when this is not done, how critically important recall is, and that, without it, an ad cannot be effective.

This point of view is not unique – the belief that recall is a powerful predictive measure is common in marketing and advertising. It has the advantage of seeming obvious. Surely an ad that you do not recall cannot be effective and, the better you recall it, the more you have processed its message. Extrapolating to a brand name, if you cannot recall the brand being advertised, how effective can the ad be? As sometimes happens with obvious and common sense wisdom, this turns out to be misguided. Recall is not all that it is cracked up to be. In fact, there are far more powerful metrics available which modern cognitive and psychological science has had available for decades. More controversial is the idea of product placement. Some think it effective; others do not. After all, people may not realize that the product is there. Additionally, as the author of the Adweek piece argued, such placement lacks class. It is “cheesy.”

Let me unpack the arguments. The idea that repetition is valuable and predictive of ad effectiveness is correct, but not for the obvious, commonsense reason of recall. Thus, the author of the Adweek piece offered the right advice but did so for the wrong reasons. He, and most other marketers, made two serious mistakes. First is the assumption that brand recall is key to purchase. That is, you are more likely to purchase a product if you remember the message and relate it to the product. Second is the notion that product placement in a show is ineffective because it is “cheesy.” In this case, the idea is that the consumer, far from being impressed or moved by seeing the product, will consider placement to be a cynical and transparent ploy. The product placement will then backfire. As I stated above, both of these arguments are wrong. This is not simply my opinion. A great deal of research strongly supports my position and strongly belies both the Adweek author’s argument and the accepted wisdom of advertising.

Problems with Conscious Recall

Let me begin by explaining why these “common sense” notions are mistakes. To begin with, conscious recall is not proof that an ad is effective. Remembering an ad does not increase the likelihood that the consumer will purchase the product. This truism of advertising is simply not true. But there is more to it than that. It is worse than simply untrue. Not only does recall not necessarily predict purchase; it is also often the case that lack of conscious recall can predict purchase. Although this notion flies in the face of common sense, it is nonetheless the case that not realizing that something was presented can be more effective than explicit recognition. Decades of empirical research support this idea.

There is a well-established phenomenon in psychology called “the mere exposure effect.” Literally hundreds of studies, going all the way back to the 1970s, clearly show that, the more often something is presented to people, the more they tend to like it (within limits and certain technicalities). The reason is that, the more often something is presented, the easier it becomes to mentally process it or, in the terminology of the science, the more “fluent” it becomes. People like fluency; they like easier and quicker processing. As the late, eminent social psychologist Robert Zajonc put it: “familiarity breeds content.” So, in that regard, both the Adweek author and conventional wisdom are correct: multiple presentations of a brand or product will lead to better results. The writer was right about repetition, but not for the reasons that he or common sense would supply. Repetition is not effective because of better recall. Recall has nothing to do with it. Repetition is effective because of the greater fluency it engenders. It is effective because of the mere exposure effect.

Remembering an ad does not increase the likelihood that the consumer will purchase the product This truism of advertising is simply not true.

Maximizing the Effects of Mere Exposure

Now it gets really counterintuitive. Here is where the science flatly contradicts what most marketers and advertisers believe. The mere exposure effect is stronger if the consumer is not aware of the stimulus or experience being repeated. To make this clear, repetition results in greater liking whether or not the consumer is aware of the repeated experience. But it results in the greatest liking when the consumer is not aware of the experience. This phenomenon was clearly shown in a statistical review of studies (called a meta-analysis) conducted by the psychologist Robert Bornstein back in 1989[2]. Applying this conclusion to advertising and marketing, the mere exposure effect is stronger when the consumer remains unaware that the brand or product has been repeated.

So, not only is conscious recall not a valid measure of ad effectiveness, it may actually be negatively related to effectiveness. This also explains why product placement works and works best when it is subtle. (Those who think that product placement is ineffective are simply flat out wrong. Effects can vary but the phenomenon is rock solid.) The consumer is most affected when the product is part of the show or movie and the consumer does not realize that the placement is purposeful. That is, it works best when it flows and fits into the program. An almost legendary example of perfect product placement was the use of the then relatively unknown Reese’s Pieces in E.T. Sales skyrocketed. The makers of M&M’s turned down the opportunity. Perhaps they thought it would be “cheesy.”

Why does this happen? How can we like things better when we do not realize that we have seen them? Professor Bornstein explains that, when we are aware, we are better able to discount the effects of mere exposure because we often know what is going on. We can override our natural tendency to like the object more and attribute fluency to familiarity rather than liking. When we are not aware, we cannot discount or override the effects; we simply experience greater fluency, which results in greater liking. We do not know that fluency is operating. We only experience a positive emotional reaction. Mere exposure works in both instances (conscious and unconscious). But it works better in the case where we cannot discount and are unlikely to override the effects and that is most likely when awareness is lacking. So the nature of product placement can affect the strength of its effect. In that sense, “cheesy” is not as good as smooth.

How Can We Know Whether and How Strongly the Mere Exposure Effect is Operating in Our Ads?

This leads to a measurement problem. How shall we determine effectiveness? If recall is not the best metric, then what is? We can’t ask consumers to tell us about fluency because their conscious responses will not capture the process. Further, the mere exposure effect works best when the stimulus is outside of awareness. It would be fruitless to ask consumers about something on which they cannot consciously report.

However, there are two scalable ways to conduct research and get the answers we need. In both, we begin by showing the ad to a relevant sample. In one method, we then present the brand or product too quickly to be processed consciously but slowly enough to be processed emotionally. Then we measure the emotion generated. Briefly, the emotional part of our brain responds more quickly than does the more cognitive, conscious part of our brain. So if we present a brand or product slowly enough to be emotionally processed but too quickly to be cognitively recognized, we have experimentally created perfect conditions for an out-of-awareness mere exposure effect.

The second method employs reaction time technology to examine attention to attributes or associates of the brand or product. Again, briefly, research has shown that the mind is drawn to whatever in the environment resonates with the consumer’s current concerns or state of mind. They “capture” our attention. This effect can be measured by how quickly consumers are oriented to a product attribute or how easily they are distracted by that attribute after seeing an ad. The specifics of both of these methodologies are technical and beyond the scope of this column but they have been empirically supported by a slew of studies and they work[3]. Further, studies employing these methodologies can be conducted online, with large numbers of consumers, making it possible to examine the outcomes for different segments of the population. Such studies are practical and scalable.

To Summarize

The mere exposure effect shows that repetition of an experience (e.g., ad, brand or product) increases liking and preference for that experience. This effect is stronger when the experience occurs outside of conscious awareness. Thus, two conclusions for marketers: first, recall is not an optimal measure of an ad’s effectiveness and, second, product placement is likely to be effective, especially when it is done subtly. Further, repetition of a brand or product in an ad is a powerful strategy, not because it increases recall, but because it increases the fluency that underlies the mere exposure effect.
And fluency leads to liking. Finally, ads can be scalably assessed for how well they leverage the mere exposure effect through reaction time and rapid presentation methodologies. 

[2]  Stimulus recognition and the mere exposure effect. Bornstein, Robert F.; D’Agostino, Paul R. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 63(4), Oct 1992, 545-552.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.63.4.545