Moment By Moment Analyses of Tv Commercials: Their Theoretical and Applied Roles Summary of the Panel

Esther Thorson, University of Wisconsin-Madison
[ to cite ]:
Esther Thorson (1991) ,"Moment By Moment Analyses of Tv Commercials: Their Theoretical and Applied Roles Summary of the Panel", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 538-539.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 538-539



Esther Thorson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Marshall McLuhan (1964) called advertising professionals "frogmen of the mind," diving into and scrutinizing moment-by-moment human responses to their messages. Despite his pejorative intention, the phrase nicely characterizes the research area represented here. While much of advertising research has been concerned with the performance of entire commercials, all of the approaches developed here are concerned with momentary events occurring within commercials.

In the October 1989 issue of the newsletter of the Society for Consumer Psychology, one of the panel's chairs, Bill Wells, was asked what he thought the next important topics would be in advertising research and practice. Bill's first choice of important topics was what he termed "scone-by scene analysis." He noted that much of the industry's present measurements tend to give each ad one overall score for how memorable the ad was or how much attitudes changed as result of exposure. But, he said, a commercial is in fact a complex set of events that proceeds through time. In the same way that one can analyze a play scene-by-scene, one can analyze a commercial scene-by-scene, and get new insight about how the commercial is processed and how it affects the viewer.

As we thought through this idea and talked to our colleagues in business and academe, it seemed to us that indeed there was considerable interest in individual moments in ads. And, in fact, there existed many different ways to theorize and to measure occurrences in those moments. So we decided to try to bring together a diverse sample of research programs that were focusing on ad moments and ask of each paper that the authors consider both theoretical foundations or implications of their work and to discuss how their theorizing and findings could be applied to advertising in the 90's. We found that all of our chosen participants were way ahead of us and quite prepared to take this approach. As will be seen, the two practitioner papers on the panel have major theoretical concerns about these moment-by-moment events, and the academic paper has major practical interests.

Of course, moment-by-moment analysis is not new to either ACR or to communication research, although we could find no precedent for a panel devoted to the topic. In the communication literature, one of the earliest moment-by-moment studies was carried out by Dysinger and Ruckmick (1933) who recorded galvanic skin responses and changes in breathing patterns in children who were watching various film genres. In the next decade, Lazarsfeld, the eminent sociologist, and Stanton, the future president of CBS, patented the program analyzer. This piece of equipment allowed people to push buttons to indicate their like or dislike while they listened to radio music. Initially there was great interest in what this technology could tell us about momentary cognitive processes in response to messages (e.g., Perterman, 1940). Unfortunately, the interest in basic psychological questions died and the method faded into the oblivion of minor use as a predictor of commercial success of radio and eventually television programs and commercials. Further developments in fine-grained analyses started to bloom again in the 1980's when micro-computerization put moment-by-moment technology into more general availability (Biocca and David, in press).

Some of the most important contributions to theory and methodology in this area have come from ACR members. German consumer researcher Kroeber-Riel (1979) has been concerned with how overtime patterns in psychophysiological measures inform us about ads. His colleague, Neibecker (1987) has been developing a program analyzer much like Lazarsfeld and Stanton's, and using it to look at over-time responses to music. Friestad and Thorson (1986) have been developing a dial-turning method to look at emotional response to ads, and Aaker, Stayman, and Hagerty (1986) have explored the "warmth monitor." And our discussant, Linda Alwitt introduced the Leo Burnett Moment-By-Moment system TM (1985).

With all this activity and some belief that this area is coming into it own in the ad industry, the time seems ripe to take a close look at some newer fine-grained methods, as well as the theories that guide their application. We therefore reached into Michigan Avenue and the ivory tower for interesting examples of programs of moment-by-moment ad research. The three papers presented in the panel differed in interesting ways in terms of how they conceptualize their chosen moments.

The first paper was authored by Mark Polsfuss of Viewfacts. This Chicago company specializes in the Program and Evaluation and Analysis Computer (PEAC) system. PEAC collects momentary liking responses to commercials from either individuals or groups, and then uses the over-time patterns generated during an initial viewing to guide a group interview about what in the commercial was liked, what was disliked, and the reasons for those patterns of liking. This diagnostic procedure allows clients to determine exactly what works in their ads and what doesn't. This knowledge can be used to decide among their own competing executions, to see how they stack up against the advertising of competitors, and to determine what sections of their messages might bear replacement with more effective material. In addition to the practical application, however, the researchers at Viewfacts are developing ways to quantify the liking patterns. Doing so has allowed exploration of generalizations about what various over-time patterns tell us about processes of comprehension and attitude management. In his paper, Mr. Polsfuss overviews the details of the method and its utility, and then summarizes some theoretical efforts.

The second paper was presented by Charles E. Young of the Chicago ad agency, Tatham-Laird and Kudner. The previous work of Mr. Young and his colleague Mike Robinson is probably already familiar to readers of Journal of Advertising Research. (Young & Robinson, 1987; 1989). Young and Robinson use a technique in which people watch a commercial and then are shown a series of pictures which they must identify as having appeared in the ad or not. Ordinarily 50 to 100 respondents are tested for each ad. From these data, they generate a graph of the percent of correct recognitions for each ad location represented by a picture. This measure of over-time recognition accuracy has been shown to be sensitive to such ad variations as the amount of redundancy in script and visuals, emotional impact of particular pictures, and the amount of complexity occurring at particular moments in the ads. Young and Robinson are developing a theory of video rhythms (Young & Robinson, 1989) to account for their results and predict to new ones. In the paper presented at the panel they compare the video rhythm differences they are observing for established and new brands.

The third paper on the panel was authored by Marian Friestad and Peter Wright. These academic consumer researchers are interested in momentary events that consumers perceive to be specifically designed to add impetus to the persuasive impact of the message. In other words, they are trying to understand which moments of commercials are perceived by consumers as manipulative. In the moment-by-moment technique the authors developed, consumers watched ads and respond on a key pad to the occurrence of "key moments" that the viewers believed were there as a tactical move by the advertiser. In the initial study, the authors sampled eight commercials from each of four product categories and presented them to viewers. The results indicated that consumers did identify consistent moments in the ads as being there for reasons of persuasion. The next stage of the research is to attempt to determine how the patterns of the identified key moments relate to either specific attitudes (i.e., to the brand) or to more generalized attitudes, (i.e. to the integrity and motivations of the advertiser and beliefs about the quality of the products).

The panel discussant, Linda Alwitt, was uniquely qualified to deal with the issue of moment-by-moment processes. Not only has her own psychophysiological (Alwitt, 1985) and event-monitoring work (Alwitt, 1985) contributed to the literature, Alwitt spent nine years as a research manager at Leo Burnett. Professor Alwitt is now on the business school faculty at DePaul University. This combination of interest in the area and both practical and academic experience makes Alwitt's comments particularly interesting and relevant.


Aaker, D.A., Stayman, D.M., & Hagerty, M.R. (1986). Warmth in advertising: Measurement, impact and sequence effects. Journal of Consumer Research 12, March, 365-381.

Alwitt, Linda (1985). Monitoring the emotional flow of commercials. Paper presented at the Advertising Research Foundation, Chicago, Sept 4-6.

Alwitt, Linda (1985). EEG activity reflects the content of commercials. In Linda Alwitt and Andrew Mitchell (Eds.), Psychology Processes and Advertising Effects. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Biocca, Frank, & Prabu, David (in press). Continuous on-line audience response measures. In Joan Schleuder (Ed.), Measuring Cognitive Responses to Media Messages. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dysinger, W.S., and Ruckmick, Christian A. (1933). The Emotional Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation. New York: Macmillan.

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Neibecker, Bruno (1987). The dynamic component in attitudes toward the stimulus. In Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson (Eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol 14, 482-486.

Perterman, J. (1940). The "program analyzer": A new technique in studying liked and disliked items in radio programs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 718-741.

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Young, Charles, and Robinson, Michael (1987). Guideline: Tracking the commercial viewer's wandering attention. Journal of Advertising Research, 27(3), 15-22.

Young, Charles, and Robinson, Michael (1989). Video rhythms and recall. Journal of Advertising Research. June/July, 22-25.