The advertising industry has known about the existence of context effects since time immemorial.
The earliest ads were outdoor signs, typically posted on rocks and walls in Egypt more than 2000 years ago (jewelry was one of the first product categories ever advertised). In that case, the context was the physical placement in space, judged to have an effect on the size of the audience passing by that point, but also judged by the likely mood of a person moving through that location. It is that latter component which in our time we in the advertising and media industry call “context effects”.
In the early 20th century, magazines and newspapers were known to have “editorial environments” which conferred certain assumed attributes to the ads running in them. An ad for a financial service would receive more benefit by appearing in Barron’s for example than in Ladies Home Journal.
In the 1960s one of the first solo reports produced by Bill Harvey at Interpublic was entitled “The Influence of Television Program Environment on Commercial Communication”. This comprised a meta-analysis of multiple studies by Gallup & Robinson, Burke, and other agencies, and showed that program genre exerted somewhat consistent effects on ad recall. It demonstrated that even the slightness of these effects would change buying decisions because the CPMs were within pennies of one another in the rational TV market where the sellers were able to closely and legally align on pricing.
Nielsen NCS is still finding that program genre has a slight but consistent effect, specifically about a 10% increase in ROI for CPG products in situation comedies. (Food and beverage products are actually driving most of this. Fear-producing programming reduces appetite, as discovered by Horace Schwerin in the 50s.)
When Bill Harvey was at another agency, K&E, he was able to do a meta-analysis of the agency’s ~1500 TV and magazine copy tests. Harvey concluded that there was a strong covariance between the ad and the environment. The same environment could make one ad drive higher recall, while a very different ad would underperform in that same environment. That was for Bill the beginning of a career of studying the complexities of how context and ad either align or misalign in ways that defied the human judgment of the committees that approved those ads and media placements.
Over in the right-hand column (below on mobile) are a few items worthy of note on this subject:
- The landmark study by which Nielsen NCS found that the RMT system of quantifying the alignment between an ad and a program lifted Brand A’s sales lift effect by +18% and Brand B’s by +28%. Research Measurement Technologies – RMT also showed in a re-analysis that the optimal placements would have increased A by +35% and Brand B by +37%. The latter analysis simply used a straight average across the alignment levels, instead of an average weighted by GRPs, because the GRPs were heavily skewed to least alignment, which RMT argued would not be the case if RMT had been used in advance of the buy. That study also resulted in a curve being deduced from which one can forecast sales effect based on the alignment level:
RMT is grateful to Howard Shimmel, a leading industry consultant, conceived the study as head of research at Turner, and sponsored it. He did more than that: he coined the term “resonance” meaning alignment, and he changed the direction of RMT from exclusively Hollywood to a global research player.
- RMT is also grateful to Fadi Karam, who as SVP Marketing at Nestle Waters sponsored a similar study but based purposely on full funnel branding effects rather than sales effects. The study found very similar results, often higher than in the NCS study, for awareness, first brand mention, consideration, perceptions, intent, ad recall, sales points recalled, etc. First brand mention increased an average of +62%. This is a measure that many researchers have found highly predictive of future short-term purchases. Fadi’s favorite finding of the study is that with resonance scores over 30%, even one single exposure could cause significant positive branding effects throughout the funnel.
- An academician requested a one-page summary of everything that has been discovered about the subject of advertising context effect within the peer-reviewed realm of science, and this is what came out.
- The Advertising Research Foundation’s (ARF’s) EVP, Research & Innovation: Global & Ad Effectiveness Horst Stipp is one of the most advanced and disciplined thinkers about the psychological effects of advertising, having done groundbreaking work throughout his long career at NBC. He is one of the world’s top experts on neuro methodology, context effects, social effects, and the list goes on. Here is Horst’s definitive paper on context effects (although he would add that the Kwon article covers more studies, and they are both definitive papers).
- The ARF considers context effects important enough to put out CMO Briefings on the subject, updated as needed.