Posts Tagged ‘Rhetoric’

Dan is driving in an inter-city road; on the sideline of the road he notices ahead of him a large ad billboard — he is likely to have about a second, maybe even less, to watch and get any details from the ad. Sharon is sitting in her living room, reading a print magazine; in between articles she may glance at full-page ads — she is dedicating perhaps a couple of seconds to any ad that attracts her attention before moving on. Such short durations are critically limiting the amount of information consumers are able to capture and utilise to make inferences and judgements about an ad.

Research of consumer response to advertising more often deals with the decoding of  messages embedded in ads — how consumers gather (by eye fixations) and process pieces of information from the ad, and how they interpret them to derive key points of the message. This process frequently involves reference by the consumers to text and images in the ad, and any relations between them — these are usually thick slices of information to work with. However, consumers’ exposure durations to ads get shorter, meaning they allow for capturing very few pieces of information (e.g., headline and an image or a portion of it) to make inferences — these are thin slices of information.  A quick exposure may be enforced by the display setting (e.g., rotating online ad banners, road billboards) or being the outcome of shorter attention spans (i.e., consumers choose to view any single print ad only briefly).

In three interesting experiments conducted by Elsen, Pieters and Wedel (2016), the researchers examine the implications of  allowing for short exposure durations (i.e., 100ms up to 2 seconds), compared with longer durations [*]. Shorter durations are likely to enable consumers to capture and use only thin slices of information, and probably  also give too little time to elaborate on them. The researchers suggest that short durations can at least permit consumers to correctly infer the identity of the focal product and brand advertised, and that is not something to be discarded.

Elsen and her colleagues test three different identification types of ads: (1) Upfront — identification is straightforward, with the product and brand presented more explicitly in the ad; the ad is similar to other ads in the same product category and dissimilar from ads in other categories. (2) Mystery — the product in this type of ad could appear in a more sublime way or be implicit within an artful design (visual rhetorical figure); the ad is atypical to its category, dissimilar from ads in the same product category, but also dissimilar from ads in other categories. (3) False Front — the product in this ad format could be disguised by presenting the product in a context of another type of product  (e.g., a metaphor rhetorical figure, such as a bottle of drink presented as if it were a bottle of fragrance); this ad is atypical in being dissimilar from other ads in its product category while being similar to ads in a different category than its own. The brand usually takes a less central place in a mystery or false front ad.

The mystery and false front types of ads are considered more difficult to identify the product than in an upfront ad. An upfront ad is easier to process because it follows a schema familiar to consumers for that category (e.g., including typical perceptual features). The mystery and false front ads are more difficult to interpret but in somewhat different ways. Both types apply a form of artful expressive figure, yet the false front ad could be more confusing (e.g., whereas a mystery ad may include a product of another type positioned in relation to the focal product, the false front would show in front the focal product as if it were another type of product {substitution}). Both ads may build on a relationship between a focal product and another product, yet assuming a different kind of relationship. The implication for the false front ad is that consumers need to switch schemas by which they process and interpret the ad content and identity of the product (i.e., they are likely get at first a wrong impression of what product is upfront, and it takes longer to comprehend what product is actually being advertised).

In a very brief exposure (100msec, less than a typical fixation), consumers can consciously grasp the gist of the ad scene; they can also identify a typical product if it appears centrally and straightforward.  This permits them to hold a more positive attitude towards the upfront ad compared with their attitudes towards mystery or false front ads. The attitude towards the false front ad seems to be somewhat more positive compared with the mystery ad, although not as significantly as the researchers expected — while the focal product may appear obvious in the false front ad, the scene is still not much easier to grasp than in a mystery ad. Yet, as exposure durations extend longer than two seconds, the differences in processing and evaluating the mystery and false front ads become more striking.

An exposure of half a second (500ms) allows for two fixations at two spatially-distinct locations in the ad and processing the information in them; it has been identified as closely the average exposure duration for outdoors ads. A two-second exposure allows already for fixating and processing a few more pieces of information throughout the ad; this is the average duration that consumers have been observed to attend to (fixed) display ads. The findings indicate that from 500ms onwards the attitude towards mystery ads is climbing and the attitude towards false front ads is in decline; it is however at about two seconds of exposure that attitude towards mystery ads closes the gap and becomes more positive than towards false front ads, and further on approaches the level of attitude towards upfront ads (after 10 seconds of exposure).

After exposures longer than 5-10 seconds it becomes apparent that an early impression about the product identity in a false front ad was illusory, and possibly following the realisation of their mistake, consumers seem to turn their evaluation in disfavour of the ad. On the other hand, mystery ads seem to be more positively intriguing, where demystified viewers who decode the “story” in the ad and figure out the product and brand identity become more in favour of the ad. (Note: Changes in attitude towards the ad transfer to changes in brand attitude though with weaker magnitude.)

Our understanding of these findings can be strengthened by considering the intervening effects of consumer knowledge: the feeling that one knows what product (and brand) the ad is for (subjective knowledge) and the accuracy of the inference or conclusion reached by the viewer (objective knowledge); furthermore important is how well subjective and objective knowledge match or calibrate.  Very quickly (after 100ms exposure) ad viewers have a strong feeling they know what type of product is being advertised, and indeed they are found correct (i.e., their knowledge is calibrated). For mystery ads, viewers are in clear difficulty of identifying correctly the product being advertised after brief exposures of 100ms, yet they seem to be aware of this difficulty as they feel quite uncertain about the product identity (i.e., their knowledge is also calibrated).  Objective knowledge with regard to mystery ads seems to improve sooner (at exposure of 500ms) than subjective knowledge, but in any case after two seconds viewers generally get it right, and feel more confident about it. It means that even in mystery ads, two seconds are likely to be sufficient to correctly identify the product being advertised.

With false front ads the situation is rather different: Ad viewers quickly (as early as 100ms) come to believe they know well what type of product is actually being advertised, while in fact they are as wrong as in the case of mystery ads (i.e., knowledge is not calibrated). After just 500ms the situation already improves, and after two seconds they could be on the right track, knowing better what product the ad is for and feeling confident about their conclusion — only that they likely had to change their course of thinking in order to arrive to a new and different conclusion about the product than they had thought before. The analyses of Elsen, Pieters and Wedel further show that the influence of ad types on viewers’ attitudes towards ads is mediated (‘explained’) by the subjective feeling of knowledge, not the accuracy of knowing the product identity. As consumers have more time to verify their inferences and feel successful in decoding the ad, at least identifying the product and brand, they are more likely to develop a higher favourable attitude towards the ad (and brand). Since in false front ads this verification process is more likely to fail and consumers need to rectify their conclusion, their ad attitude is likely to suffer.

  • Note: Certainty about the brand is low for mystery and false front ads after 100ms, and it is also relatively low for upfront ads vis-à-vis product identity; as exposures get longer the gaps in certainty narrow until conversion at 10 seconds of exposure (accuracy for brands is not measured)  — thinking about the specific brand may occur later than the product, and the brand placement may also be less central in the ad.)

Elsen et al. challenge a claim made by other researchers that longer exposures to ‘standard’ upfront ads would lead to a less favourable attitude because they are perceived as boring and routine. They argue instead that consumers-viewers who feel able to confirm their identification of the product (relatively easily) after a little more time of inspecting the ad might making them really more satisfied and favourable towards the ad. The attitude towards upfront ad remains quite stable at a high level over exposure durations. In Experiment 1 the attitude seems to drop a little as exposures get longer (up to 30 seconds), suggesting that after five seconds and longer, viewers do get bored by straightforward ads, but the estimated trend was not statistically significant. However, Experiment 3 revealed that the attitude towards upfront ads even improves after allowing for exposures of up to about 7 seconds. The results suggest that five seconds could be more than enough to interpret what the ad is about and identify the product advertised in an upfront ad; and if somewhat more time is given, this can only help the consumer to confirm an initial feeling he or she knows what product is advertised, thus contributing to the positive attitude towards the ad.


Distinguishing between mystery and false front ads is not clear-cut.  It can take a few seconds to realise what kind of rhetoric figure is being used and to understand the “story” being told in either a mystery or false front ad. The problem is that the identity of the product is often intertwined with the message, so that identifying the product requires at least partly interpreting the message (e.g., in a metaphor where an attribute of another product type or object is projected onto the focal product). I therefore suspect that the recommendation of the researchers that it is somehow possible to separate between tuning the ad identity (“what is promoted”) and tuning the ad message (“how it is promoted”) might be easier said than done. Elsen and her colleagues propose that “combining upfront identification with specific creative message templates might be particularly effective in cluttered media environments in which exposure durations are short” (p. 575). While accepting this recommendation, one should take into consideration that the ad may cease being truly “upfront” to the consumers-viewers, and could take longer to interpret and extract the product identity from the creative message.

It is not suggested to avoid false front ads but to acknowledge that they are more risky. If they apply a metaphor, it may take closer to ten seconds rather than two seconds to understand the situation and identify the product correctly; actually there is no guarantee that the viewer will “get it” even after ten seconds. The viewer might leave the ad happy after a brief exposure but associating it with a wrong product. The risk additionally is that the viewer may feel being fooled after realising the true product identity or frustrated of not being able to realise it after a few seconds, and that is manifested in the results about the ad attitude in all three experiments.

The important lesson is to evaluate in what conditions it is most suitable and effective to use each of these ad types. A duration of two seconds appears to be a significant threshold. There is little point in being too clever and showing mystery or false front ads neither on road billboards nor in digital display environments (e.g., Internet, apps) when the ad display rotates and every ad is replaced after a brief period (e.g., 1-2 seconds). Mobile devices in use, particularly smartphones, and screen displays that exhibit a strong competition between content and advertising can be especially challenging environments for the more creative and clever ads. Achieving product and brand identity through simple upfront ads would be a justified and reasonable goal in those circumstances. In other conditions, print and digital, and specifically when the ad is static, there should be greater flexibility for the advertiser to choose from the full spectrum of upfront, mystery, and false front ads (e.g., a mystery ad type could succeed if at least 3-4 seconds of showing an ad between webpages pass before the target page loads or the viewer is given an option to proceed to the target page after that duration). Moreover, grades of creativity may be applied to captivate attention in more cluttered and competitive media environments (consider also pedestrian areas in cities).

Gaining consumer identification of the product and brand in ads is vital and important. But it would be a loss and spoil if advertisers and advertising professionals stop aspiring for higher goals with more creative and clever rhetorical figures and designs. The research of Elsen, Pieters and Wedel highlights the need to choose wisely when and where it would be more suitable and effective to employ a straightforward or a more creative and clever ad design.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


[*] Thin Slice Impressions: How Advertising Evaluation Depends on Exposure Duration; Millie Else, Rik Pieters, & Michel Wedel, 2016; Journal of Marketing Research, 53 (August), pp. 563-579 (DOI: 10.1509/jmr.13.0398).




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