When Advertising Wears Out

One of the challenges facing marketers is determining the most effective level of advertising exposure for a brand, while maintaining a given budget. Conceptually, the media planner could choose continuous advertising (even exposures spread over a period of time) or follow a strategy of pulsing ("on" for some months and "off" for others). The decision is important because the wrong one will considerably affect customer response. When advertisements are run at a low frequency (very few times), they run a risk of going unnoticed. The first time customers view an advertisement, a majority of the time, the message doesn't even process in their minds. On the other hand, when an advertisement is run at a high frequency, advertising wearout may occur. Therefore, the task at hand is finding just the right frequency for a positive response.

Overly repetitive messages typically have a negative effect on customer attitudes as they relate to a brand. Advertising wearout occurs when, at some level of repetition, the customer's affective response is either no longer positive or shows a significant decline. Advertising wearout is the result of excessive frequency causing viewers to perceive there's nothing new to be gained from processing the advertisement, thereby withdrawing attention. That's assuming all possible customers view every exposure, which is unrealistic. Not every customer will see every rotation. That's why it becomes difficult to find the optimal level of exposure. Media planners must remember that not every rotation is seen by all customers.

Wearout can also be a hazard, causing negative customer attitudes. Aggressively communicating with your customers doesn't always lead to poor or deteriorating relationships. But unless media's carefully planned and executed, it may ruin the opportunity to build long-term customer equity. So, the question is "How do marketers solve the puzzle of how frequently to expose their advertisements?" First, we have to address the issue of wearout. To avoid wearout, marketers frequently develop and rotate a pool of advertisements that employ different executions but convey the same basic message and claims. These executions typically share a number of common features, such as brand name, logo, tag line and general layout, while other features such as headline, copy and graphic elements are varied. The logic is that by introducing ample variations in advertising executions, the onset of wearout will be delayed. At the same time, the continued use of certain features of the advertisement across executions establishes consistency and presumably builds brand recognition or equity.

To understand why wearout occurs, scientists studied the brain to understand cognitive thinking and responses to these situations. They found the brain tends to ignore an object or theme that's repeated too many times. Essentially, most communication works by triggering memories. Old images or concepts are associated with something in the advertisement, recognizing elements as familiar. In the process, something new may be introduced and the brain links it with the old. When something new or unknown to a customer is presented to the brain for processing it evaluates: a) whether it is new and b) whether it corresponds to prior experience, knowledge and beliefs. The familiar portion of the advertisement is treated more casually. The brain recognizes it and spends less time evaluating its validity. It's interpreted as given. To that end, marketers should change portions of advertisements to keep customers interested.

Of course, when considering advertising wearout, we must consider that each situation, product, market, and many other characteristics are always variable factors that can't be conformed to an "advertising mold." Each situation must be dealt with differently. Radio, television and print media wearout at different levels; print media tends to wearout more quickly than more entertaining forms of media such as television. For example, which would you rather do, watch a commercial over and over, or read an article over and over? Obviously the stimulation that occurs with entertaining commercials will bring customers back more easily than a newspaper or magazine article.

The best way for marketers to fend off wearout is to rotate variations in theme with different executions of the same message strategy.

Regarding low frequencies, the question remains, "What isn't enough?" That's also dependent on the situation, but budget allowing, multiple exposures are more effective than one or a few. Media schedules are based on budgets and demographics. When selling products to the elderly, a low frequency will generally suffice. As for teens, the higher the frequency the better. Business-to-business typically requires higher frequency, as well. Simply put, the shorter the attention span of the customer, the more exposures necessary to break through.

There's no finite answer to the question of advertising wearout. The most important variables in deciding the optimal frequency are an understanding of the customer, rotating different advertisements, and keeping the customer's attention. There are rewards in reminding the consumer about the attributes of a brand. Reinforcement and refreshment of existing attribute, without wearing out the message, is a primary goal of advertising.

Mark Levit is managing partner of Partners & Levit Advertising New York and a professor of marketing at New York University. For more information visit http://www.partnerslevit.com or call
212-696-1200.

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