Discussant's Comments Effective and Ineffective Drama Advertising

William D. Wells, University of Minnesota
ABSTRACT - Drama advertisements and studies of drama advertisements confront parallel hazards. Both can: 1) focus on affect instead of effect, 2) focus on the product category instead of on the brand, and 3) "get to" the wrong respondents. This paper describes those hazards and their implications.
[ to cite ]:
William D. Wells (1994) ,"Discussant's Comments Effective and Ineffective Drama Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 375-378.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 375-378



William D. Wells, University of Minnesota


Drama advertisements and studies of drama advertisements confront parallel hazards. Both can: 1) focus on affect instead of effect, 2) focus on the product category instead of on the brand, and 3) "get to" the wrong respondents. This paper describes those hazards and their implications.


The purpose of any advertisement is to state, describe and illustrate the advantages of the product, and to do that in an interesting, engaging and convincing way. The purpose of any research project is to measure what it is supposed to measure, and be sure that users understand what findings really mean.

The burden of this discussion is that drama advertisements and research on drama advertisements confront parallel problems; and, because they confront parallel problems, they can miss the mark in parallel ways.

Specifically, both drama advertisements and research on drama advertisements can overlook critical differences between: 1) affect and effect, 2) brand and product, 3) prospect and non-prospect. When those distinctions are glossed-over, advertisers and researchers are less likely to succeed.


When people say "that was a great advertisement," they usually mean, "I really liked it, I really enjoyed it, or it really turned me on." They could say the same thing with the same meaning about a great movie, a great concert, or a great play.

Obviously, this use of the term "great" does not necessarily imply effectiveness. Everyone can remember "great" advertisements for products they never buy, and everyone can remember modest notices that sent them off in search of objects they eventually took home. Another way to say this would be to say that an advertisement can be entertaining and ineffective, mundane and still work. (Kamins, 1990; MacKenzie and Lutz, 1989).

This seems especially true of dramas and comedies. Some "great" advertising dramas, and some "great" advertising comedies, are mainly entertainment. Some unpretentious playlets present benefits that make consumers change their minds (Stewart and Furse, 1986).

So, when evaluating advertisements, it is important to be clear about affect and effect. Although that difference may seem obvious, it is easy to overlook.

The Video Storyboard survey (Vadehra, 1993), for instance, asks consumers to name their favorite TV commercials, and publishes a widely-cited list of the "top 25" campaigns. The Video Storyboard report never mentions effectiveness. By omission, it encourages an assumption that "best liked" means best in every way.

Similarly, academic investigators have been known to focus on affect instead of effect. We know that consumers' evaluations of advertisements contain at least two dimensions: an entertainment dimension, tapped by terms like "clever, imaginative, amusing, and original;" and a relevance dimension, tapped by terms like "informative, convincing, effective, and worth remembering" (Aaker and Stayman, 1990; Leavitt, 1970; Schlinger, 1979).

Many researchers who examine "attitude toward the ad" focus on the entertainment dimension and ignore the relevance dimension, or merge entertainment and relevance, or treat relevance as though it were "attitude toward the brand" (e.g., Biehal, Stephens and Curio, 1992; Chattopahdhyay and Nedungadi, 1992; Madden, Allen and Twible, 1988; Minard, Sirdeshmukh, and Innis, 1992; Muehling, Laczniak, and Stoltman, 1991). Even when entertainment and relevance correlate, they convey separate information (Burke and Edell, 1989). Studies that focus on entertainment and submerge relevance have lost track of what advertisements are all about.

A widely-cited Advertising Research Foundation project (Haley and Baldinger, 1991) increases the danger that the spotlight will shift away from relevance. This study measured "liking" of five pairs of TV commercials that had been found to differ, within pairs, in split-cable sales tests. The study found that, on the average (across observations and rating methods) the more effective commercial was the better liked.

Unfortunately, the report called this weak correlation, based on five observations, a "strong relationship...between the likability of the copy and its effects on sales" (Haley and Baldinger, 1991, page 29). Naturally, "casual listeners" got the message "if you have a good likability score you have a winner" (Cook, 1992, page 7).

The danger is that "liking" will be translated as "entertainment," and entertainment will be viewed as the only element of attitude toward the ad. None of the evidence, including the ARF evidence, supports a conclusion that entertainment is the only element of attitude. Given the authoritative sponsorship and wide distribution of the ARF study, it is most unfortunate that this point was not more clearly made.


One of the advantages of comedies and dramas is that they tell interesting stories about everyday consumer trials. As attribution theory (Kelly, 1973) would have it, when the same product solves the same problem across actors and situations, consumers are likely to conclude that the magic will work for them (Folkes, 1988).

This inference is especially effective when consumers draw it for themselves. As we all know, consumers are more apt to follow their own inclinations than to yield to pitches forced on them from outside.

The problem is that, unless the advertiser is a near monopolist, the drama or the comedy must hinge upon the brand. It must be Windex, not just any glass cleaner, that sparkles the window. It must be Excedrin, not just any medication, that cures the pain. It must be Old Spice, not just any magic essence, that attracts the opposite sex.

The attribution problem for the advertiser is that product and brand covary. Consumers are liable to conclude that any glass cleaner, any pain reliever, or any after-shave, will do the trick.

When ancient dramatists wanted to be sure that everyone got the message, choruses explained the happenings on the stage. When silent-film producers wanted everyone to understand the dialogue, sub-titles conveyed the actors' words. Today, creative directors use voice-over narratives, interruptive demonstrations, subtitles, and concluding taglines to make sure that everyone gets the point. Although these devices diminish the drama, they are considered worth the cost.

But even with all that assistance, consumers sometimes fail to focus on the brand. They attribute the magic to the product category, and assume that just about any well-known brand will work. Again, that's not what advertisers want. Unless advertisers dominate their categories, they want to unsell competitors' offerings, and sell their own, instead.

Advertising research can also focus on the category when it should be focusing on the brand. Many researchers assume that "attitude toward the brand," measured with scales like "favorable-unfavorable, important-unimportant, and useful-useless" is an adequate dependent variable (e. g., Brumbaugh, 1993; Macinnis and Park, 1991; Stayman and Kardes, 1992).

The problem is, category and brand covary. "Favorable-unfavorable, important-unimportant, and useful-useless" can easily refer to stereos in general, or toothpaste in general, or running shoes in general, instead of the specific object featured in the ad. When this interpretation is even possible, experimenters cannot determine what their findings really mean.

This ambiguity is especially hazardous in research intended to have managerial implications. If a study is intended to measure sales effectiveness, and the dependent variable does not separate brand from product category, the research is liable to assign high scores to the wrong ads.


In many product categories, genuine prospects are quite rare. Few consumers are willing and able to buy office copiers, or Mercedeses, or diamond rings. Few are ready to enlist in the armed services, rent a truck, purchase a life insurance policy, or take a Carribean cruise.

Even among frequently-purchased grocery and drug-store items, genuine prospects are rarer than they might seem. Not everyone in the supermarket is about to buy liquid detergent, or glass cleaner, or frozen dinners. Not everyone has headaches "this big."

Moreover, prospects are likely to be different. They have agendas, motives, perceptions, problems, and experiences that non-prospects do not have. Indeed, that's what makes them prospects.

One of the consequences of this uniqueness is that prospects are more likely than non-prospects to be interested in, and attentive to, brand-centered stories. Brand-centered stories carry information that might be useful, and are about consumers specifically like them.

Conversely, non-prospects are more likely to be interested in general-interest stories. Non-prospects pursue "nonbrand" processing strategies, as Gardner, Mitchell and Russo (1985), and many others, have often found (Maheswaran, Mackie and Chaiken, 1992; Petty and Cacioppo, 1986; Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann, 1983).

This means that, when researchers test drama or comedy advertisements on the general population, and the general population contains many non-prospects (as it often does), brand-centered stories are likely to be under-rated, and general-interest stories are likely to be over-rated. When effectiveness is the ultimate dependent variable, this is precisely the wrong result.

An analogous problem infects experiments. Even when subjects are category users, some-possibly, many-have little or no real interest in stereos, or soft drinks, or ball-point pens, or whatever is featured in the ad. That reduces sensitivity to brand-specific information, and inflates sensitivity to everything else (Heslin and Johnson, 1992; Laczniak and Muehling, 1993; Smith, 1993).

Furthermore, when randomization doesn't work perfectly-and it often doesn't in small samples-non-prospects can confound outcomes. Because non-prospects are so different, their reactions are almost certain to be different. These different reactions can generate "significant" but false results.

So, when testing or studying drama or comedy advertisements, it is especially important to focus on prospects for the brand. A drama or a comedy that fascinates prospects might not fascinate non-prospects, and the other way around.

Finally, a drama or a comedy can fail because prospects do not buy into it. Prospects know a lot about category users; they are category users themselves. They also know the features of the leading offerings; and the images, myths and allegories that those offerings represent. This knowledge makes them expert critics. Whenever characters, situations, or implications don't "ring true," prospects are likely to tune them out.

Once again, it is critical that prospects, and not non-prospects, be respondents in research on drama and comedy ads. Prospects have feelings, knowledge, intentions, loyalties, resources and experiences that non-prospects do not have. When researchers substitute non-prospects for prospects, this vital background, so critical to accurate assessment, cannot play its proper role in determining the results.

It is especially risky to ask non-prospects-directly or indirectly-whether the advertisement makes them want to buy the brand. If they say "yes," they may be flattering the researcher, or casting votes for ads they like. If they say "no," they may be saying no because they are non-prospects. Had they been prospects, they might have said something else. In both academic and applied investigations, responses from non-prospects can mislabel the ad's effect.

Prospects are especially important in research on advertisements intended to affect drug addiction, compulsive gambling, misuse of credit, eating disorders, driving while intoxicated, and other deviant behavior. There, genuine "prospects" are likely to be very different from ordinary citizens. Dramas that seem virtuous and persuasive to the rest of us-and to the dramas' sponsors-may seem pitifully unrealistic to the at-risk audiences they are designed to reach.

So, dramas and comedies, and evaluations of dramas and comedies, confront parallel problems. Both can: 1) focus on affect instead of effect, 2) focus on the product category instead of on the brand, or 3) "get to" the wrong respondents.

Copy testers, and researchers who study the dynamics of persuasion, should keep those caveats in mind. An involving production is not necessarily an effective advertisement. In both industry and academia, failure to distinguish between "greatness" and effectiveness can lead to spurious results.


An understanding that entertainment is not sales effectiveness only opens the discussion. Many substantive and methodological issues remain. Here are just a few:

1. Most observers seem to agree that verisimilitude increases empathy for advertising dramas (Deighton, Romer, and McQueen, 1989; Solomon, 1994). Yet some advertising dramas are surreal, and many are highly exaggerated. Exactly what does verisimilitude mean in this context? Where does fidelity to reality help, and where does it hurt?

2. The same questions could be asked about advertising comedies. The answers would probably be different.

3. Voice-over commentary, interruptive demonstrations, concluding taglines, and other devices that make messages unmistakable seem to interfere with empathy. Can advertising dramatists get both? If not, how should the trade-off be made?

4. How do the "rules" for effective advertising comedies differ from the rules for effective advertising dramas? How do the "rules" for effective print comedies or dramas differ from the rules for effective radio or television comedies or dramas? Surely the rules are not all the same.

5. An allegory differs from a metaphor in that it "requires an extended narrative, dialogue, or sequence of dramatic elements which allow it to be understood concurrently with the surface story." This "'higher,' figurative level conveys the intended meaning" (Jura and Hitchon, 1994). How can advertisers be sure that this "higher, figurative level" does not obscure the advertiser's message?

6. Some researchers believe that positive affect "rubs off" on the brand through a process like classical conditioning (Shimp, Stuart, and Engle, 1991). Does this actually happen, or is the process entirely cognitive? If conditioning occurs, why don't negative reactions to dramas like "Ring Around the Collar" destroy positive brand images? Or maybe they do.

7. Attribution theory suggests that a series of vignettes is likely to be more effective than a single story. Is this suggestion correct? Does it also apply to comedies?

8. Most observers seem to agree that empathy or sympathy "build" during successful dramas (Stern and Englis, 1994). Yet we know that viewers can empathize or sympathize with single photographs. Is empathy instantaneous, or does it build? If empathy builds, how long does optimal empathy take?

9. In an advertising context, are empathy and sympathy the same process? If not, are empathy strategies more effective in some product categories, and sympathy strategies more effective in others?

10. Arousal theory (Berlyne, 1970) suggests that easily appreciated dramas are likely to wear out first. Is this suggestion correct? Does it also apply to comedies?

11. Under what circumstances should dramas portray unrealistic, ideal role-models; and, under what circumstances should dramas portray consumers as they are? The answers for comedies are probably different.

12. "1984" may be the most famous drama advertisement. Was it effective? Did it sell many-or any-Apple computers?

These questions show how little we know about dramas and comedies. Because we know so little, any of these questions could lead to break-through research. And, because we know so little, any dependable finding would make a valuable contribution to our scientific understanding of how advertising works.


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