Maintaining the Delicate Balance: Industry and Academic Approaches to Advertising Research

David W. Stewart, University of Southern California
ABSTRACT - It is argued that advertising professionals and academic researchers confront similar problems in the study of advertising, but differ in the way they choose the solve these problems. Each group uses a perspective that solves their immediate needs, but at the cost of failing to accumulate knowledge about advertising as a general phenomenon over the long term. The common character of advertising problems is highlighted in the paper as a means for bridging the gap between the two perspectives.
[ to cite ]:
David W. Stewart (1989) ,"Maintaining the Delicate Balance: Industry and Academic Approaches to Advertising Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 595-597.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 595-597

MAINTAINING THE DELICATE BALANCE: INDUSTRY AND ACADEMIC APPROACHES TO ADVERTISING RESEARCH

David W. Stewart, University of Southern California

ABSTRACT -

It is argued that advertising professionals and academic researchers confront similar problems in the study of advertising, but differ in the way they choose the solve these problems. Each group uses a perspective that solves their immediate needs, but at the cost of failing to accumulate knowledge about advertising as a general phenomenon over the long term. The common character of advertising problems is highlighted in the paper as a means for bridging the gap between the two perspectives.

INTRODUCTION

There has long been a healthy tension between advertising researchers in industry and those in academic settings. Such tension is inevitable given the differences in the perspectives, goals, and compensation structures of the two groups. Yet, throughout the present century, at least, there has been a healthy exchange between the two groups. This exchange has been both substantive and personal. On the personal level, there has been frequent movement of professionals between the two groups. Walter Dill Scott, Daniel Starch, and Bill Wells are among just a few of the distinguished academics who have ventured into the applied arena. Clark Leavitt, Malcolm McNiven, Joe Eastlack and others are representative of individuals with distinguished careers in industry who have moved into full time academic careers. Such individual cases suggest, at minimum, that the skills required for success by the two areas are not mutually exclusive.

At the substantive level there has also been a very healthy exchange. Many theories of persuasive communication, attitude formation and change, attention, and information processing are now routinely used to justify specific advertising strategies, and methodological advances pioneered by academic scholars have frequently found application and enhancement in applied advertising settings. At the same time, feedback from the industry has served to shape much academic thinking and the direction of academic advertising research. Further, some important theoretical developments have had there origins in applied problems of various types. Despite the intensive nature of the exchange between academic and industry researchers, there remains considerable misunderstanding between the two groups. The present paper provides one perspective on the nature of this misunderstanding and the reasons that this tension, and even occasional conflict, persists between the groups. It is the thesis of this paper that much of this tension grows from a tendency to simplify a complex phenomenon, advertising, and that many of the apparent differences between academic and industry professionals grow from differences in the simplifications that each emphasizes. The paper is written from the perspective of someone who has spent time in both camps, though with the admitted bias that more time and more recent experience has been in the academic setting.

Much of the misunderstanding between academic and industry researchers revolves around differing definitions of advertising. For many academic researchers advertising often provides a convenient and relevant focus for research on more fundamental human processes, attention, information processing, memory, mood, emotion, psycholinguistics, and persuasion. Yet, advertising is more than a specific manifestation of a given underlying process. Advertising is a uniquely defined phenomenon. Indeed, it may be inappropriate to think about advertising as a single phenomenon, but rather as a class of potentially very different phenomena. Advertising occurs for a specific purpose, in a well defined context, and is transmitted via particular communication channels. Advertising is also a social and cultural phenomenon that is unique to specific types of societies. Much academic research fails to examine what is unique about the phenomenon largely because advertising is viewed as just another case of more general phenomenon. Yet, this view results in a loss of understanding of what makes advertising unique and interesting in its own right, and may serve to reduce the perceived relevance of academic research for industry practitioners. Further, it fails to capture the complexity and richness of the phenomenon.

Industry professionals often suffer the opposite problem. While they understand the unique character of advertising as a social phenomenon, they are confronted with the need to design advertising for specific products, services, and organizations. The result is that industry researchers often have little time to build general theories of advertising. Instead, they tend to build theories of advertising for very special circumstances. The general character of the advertising phenomenon is lost in the process of building a product specific theory of advertising. This frequency leads academic researchers to unfairly lament the lack of theory building among practitioners.

The peculiar circumstance in relationships between academic researchers and industry professionals is that both groups have well developed theories, specific research norms, and a well developed body of knowledge, yet neither may, n fact possess a general theory of advertising. The theories of practitioners may be too narrow and product specific to generalize to advertising more generally defined, and the theories of academic researchers may be too general to provide relevant insights into how advertising, as distinct from all other forms of communication, influences the consumer. Further, it would appear that rather than suffering from different problems in their approaches to the study of advertising, they both suffer the sa ne problems, but choose different solutions. Rather than dwell on differences in solutions, the remainder of the current paper will consider the problems common to both groups. After enumerating a number of these problems, the paper will conclude with some comments on how academic and industry researchers might solve these problems in ways that serve to advance general knowledge about advertising. First. the problems:

Problem No. 1, The Tendency to Treat Advertising As a Generic-There is a tendency to treat all advertising as though it is the same phenomenon rather than recognizing that there are different types of advertising that serve very different purposes. Both academics and industry professionals have a tendency to view all advertising as the same, when, in fact, there are many forms of advertising and many purposes. Industry professionals suffer from this problem, at least in part, because they tend to work with individual products or classes of products, for which the type and purpose of advertising is similar. Academic researchers often fail to understand the particular role that advertising is designed to play in the broader marketing mix.

Problem No. 2, Ignoring Context-Related to the first problem, is the tendency to look at the impact of a specific factor (Appeal, Promise, Mode of Presentation, or Executional Device) rather than the overall net impression created by the combination of executional elements. There is certainly nothing wrong with examining individual effects (whether described as a test of a theory or "effects" research), but it must be recognized that individual elements often work together. This is especially true for nonverbal elements of an advertisement (cf. Edell 1988, Stewart and Hecker 1988), but is also true for verbal elements of a message. Further, there is likely to be an interaction between the type of product, the medium, and various elements of the persuasive message.

Problem No. 3, Convenient Measurement-While it is not universally true of all academics or industry professionals, there is a widespread tendency to use measures of advertising effectiveness and efficiency that are most readily available and convenient rather than relevant to the purpose of the advertisement. This problem also grows in part from problem number one above.

Problem No. 4, Isolated Measures- The richness of the process by which advertising has its effect is often lost when measures of effect are examined one at a time. Even when multiple measures are obtained there is often a tendency to look at individual measures of advertising effectiveness without consideration of their relationships.

Problem No. 5, Looking for Large Effects Rather Than Small Effects- Virtually all of the empirical data available to us suggests that advertising is at best a very weak force. Yet both academic researchers and industry researchers spend a great deal of time seeking large changes in consumer response rather than small effects.

Problem no. 6, Looking for Short-Term Effects Rather Than Long Term Effects-There is a frequent assumption that the effect of advertising should be immediate rather than longer term. While there is no doubt that advertising has some short term effects, longer term effects tend to be ignored in much research by both academic and industry researchers.

Problem No. 7, Always Seeking Incremental Responses to Advertising-There is a frequent assumption by both academic and industry researchers that responses to advertising must always be positive and incremental when in many cases, and for many measures, the only measurable effect is likely to occur when advertising is discontinued. Advertising for mature products that are-well known to consumers and have strong brand franchises may well have its effects through reinforcing habitual behavior not by changing behavior. This ia a view long held by Ehrenberg (cf., Ehrenberg 1974, 1988). This means that it may be more appropriate to measure the effects of advertising in some circumstances by removing it.

Problem No. 8, Inappropriate Foundation for a Theory of Advertising- Virtually all theories of advertising, whether developed in a product specific context by advertising professionals or in a more general context by academic researchers, use what may be called a replacement model of advertising. The replacement model of advertising (which has its origins in replacement theory in the psychology of learning) suggests that advertising has its effect by replacing competitive or undesirable behavior with new behavior. Thus, the tendency to buy a competitive product is assumed to be replaced by a tendency to purchase the advertised product. Yet, this model is inconsistent with much of what we know about how human learning occurs and how advertising works. Stewart (1988 a & b) has recently argued that a more appropriate model of advertising is the accumulation model, which suggests that competing response tendencies exist side-by-side. Advertising may serve to strengthen one response tendency over another, but it does not cause one tendency to replace another. Indeed, where there is strong competitive advertising, several response tendencies may be strengthened simultaneously. The accumulation model, which explicitly considers competing responses, appears to be more appropriate to the competitive environment in which most advertising occurs.- It also suggests that absolute measures of advertising effects may be irrelevant; rather, measures relative to competitive responses may be more appropriate.

Recognition of these common problems may do more than help academic and industry researchers better understand one another. In recent years there has been an increasing feeling among managers and even some advertising professionals that advertising simply does not work. While there have always been critics of the efficacy of advertising, criticism has increasingly been translated into action as funds are transferred from advertising to promotions. New and large databases have become available in recent years, and analyses of the effectiveness of advertising employing such data often finds little or no effect. Yet, these findings may simply reflect the fact that the wrong questions are being put to such data, questions that are wrong because they have there origins in a view of advertising that suffers from the problems discussed above.

Today, more than ever before, academic and industry researchers have a common interest in assuring that advertising is not prematurely dismissed as an ineffective marketing tool. This means that there is a greater need than in the past to work together to find common solutions to the problems identified above. Solutions of the past, even where successful, simply do not provide the types of answers that are now required to maintain the viability of advertising as an area of study for academics and a useful marketing tool for industry professionals. It is time to consider the general problem of advertising, the types of questions that should be addressed when considering its effects, and the types of data that will be required to answer those questions. Academics and industry professionals need one another to achieve these ends. We need the balance that each perspective provides.

REFERENCES

Edell, Julie A. (1988), "Nonverbal Effects in Ads: A Review and Synthesis," in Sidney Hecker and David W. Stewart (Eds.), Nonverbal Communication in Advertising, (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books), pp. 11-28.

Ehrenberg, Andrew (1988), "Advertising: Reinforcing Not Persuading?," in Stephen Bell (Ed.), Evaluating the Effects of Consumer Advertising on Market Position Over Time: How to Tell Whether Advertising Ever Works, Conference Summary, (Cambridge, Mass.: Marketing Science Institute).

Ehrenberg, Andrew (1974), "Repetitive Advertising and the Consumer," Journal of Advertising Research, 14 (2), 25-34.

Stewart, David W. (1988a), "Different Measures=Different Effects: Sorting the Effects of Advertising by Measures Obtained," in Stephen Bell (Ed.), Evaluating the Effects of Consumer Advertising on Market Position Over Time: How to Tell Whether Advertising Ever Works, Conference Summary, (Cambridge, Mass.: Marketing Science Institute).

Stewart, David W. (1988b), "Measures, Methods, and Models in Advertising Research," Journal of Advertising Research, (forthcoming).

Stewart, David W. and Sidney Hecker (1988), 'The Future of Research on Nonverbal Communication in Advertising," in Sidney Hecker and David W. Stewart (Eds.), Nonverbal Communication in Advertising, (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books), pp. 11-28.

----------------------------------------