Bridging the Gap: the Challenge of Integrating Consumer Behavior Research With the Practice of Advertising

ABSTRACT - This paper discusses the interface between consumer behavior researchers and advertising pratitioners. Academic and advertiser perspectives are examined which serve as the basis for the development of a communication gap between the two groups. Suggestions are made to consumer researchers regarding the building of research bridges which will allow for theoretically grounded research that is also useful in advertising design and implementation.


Susan E. Heckler (1988) ,"Bridging the Gap: the Challenge of Integrating Consumer Behavior Research With the Practice of Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 265-268.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 265-268


Susan E. Heckler, University of Michigan


This paper discusses the interface between consumer behavior researchers and advertising pratitioners. Academic and advertiser perspectives are examined which serve as the basis for the development of a communication gap between the two groups. Suggestions are made to consumer researchers regarding the building of research bridges which will allow for theoretically grounded research that is also useful in advertising design and implementation.


A primary goal in the discipline of consumer research has been the understanding of how marketing communications influence consumer decision making processes. Much research and many researchers have been involved in the formulation of concepts and theories which explain the development of memory for advertisements, the development of attitudes toward advertisements, and the role of advertising in creating brand attitudes and ultimately in making product choices. Yet despite the plethora of research and theorizing in these areas, it seem that little of this knowledge is being effectively communicated to the advertising creatives who might best put it to use.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss why a communication gap has developed between advertising practitioners and consumer behavior researchers, and to offer suggestions to consumer researchers regarding how their research can contribute both to theory building and to advertising practice. Finally, one stream of research will be discussed which serves as an example of the development of such a research effort.


In order to understand why a communication gap exists between consumer behavior researchers and advertising practitioners one needs to look only at the underlying basis for research in the two groups. Consumer behavior researchers, particularly those who make their careers in the world of academics, do research primarily because they are intellectually curious. They want to understand, for example, why one advertisement leads to better memory or a more positive attitude than another ad. In general, they want to understand how the consumer's mind works before, during and after a consumption decision process. Advertising practitioners, on the other hand, are faced with real world situations and problems for which they need an answer quickly and which may or may not be recurring. They need to know, for example, which of two advertisements will lead to the more positive attitude for their product. Research conducted by advertising agencies to support their efforts has, therefore, focused on what creates attention, increases readership or improves recall (see, for example, Ogilvy 1983, pp. 158-166; O'Toole 1981, pp. 163169). In general, advertising practitioners are more concerned with what works best in a given situation than with why it worked.

This is certainly not the first time the distinction between practitioner and academic research orientations has been drawn. In an Association for Consumer Research Conference in 1985, a lengthy session titled "Whither ACR" discussed various research perspectives and which of those were pertinent to the development of knowledge of interest to ACR members. (See, for example, papers by Hirschman, Holbrook, or Fennell 1986). Additionally a very thorough and thoughtful paper by Brinberg and Hirschman (1986) examines the practitioner versus academician perspectives in research development. In their discussion they outline a conceptual model of the paths by which research is developed and support the need for various research perspectives in the theory development process. However: throughout the more "academicaLly" oriented discussions of research development, two common threads emerge which cannot be dismissed. Good academic research must be either grounded in well developed theory, or be involved directly in theory development, and, must demonstrate keen methodological rigor.

Despite these seemingly valuable characteristics, advertisers argue that current academic thought offers little or no insight regarding actual consumer behavior. Books by two well known advertising executives (Ogilvy 1983; O'Toole 1981), which present their perspectives on the creation of effective advertising, do not mention academic research at all. Additionally, in his description of problems he sees with agency researchers, Ogilvy states:

It is in the research departments that you find the eggheads of the agency business. Too many of them are more interested in sociology and economics than advertising. They concentrate their attention on subjects which are only peripherally related to advertising (page 36).

More recently, Bogart (1986) has commented that as academic research has become more methodologically sophisticated, it has concurrently become less relevant to advertising practice. In his words, the problem is the development of research "centering more on measurement than meaning." Because they believe audience preferences, demographics, etc., are constantly and quickly changing, advertising practitioners often argue that the more slowly developed streams of academic research will always be five or six steps behind the problems they must deal with everyday.

As demonstrated by the presence of advertising pratitioners in this association, the dismissal of academic thought is not universal. However statements such as those given above, and concerns raised by others regarding the interaction of academicians and advertisers (Deckinger 1987) seem to indicate that an academic-to-practice communication gap exists. Additionally, the gap seems to be widening as academic thought and methods become increasingly sophisticated.


From an academician's perspective, certain goals and constraints exist which cannot be dismissed when developing research interests and programs. As mentioned above, methodological rigor and theoretical bases must be demonstrated for our research to be considered of high quality by our peers. However, these requirements do not preclude the accomplishment of research programs which can offer valuable insights for those involved in the design and implementation of effective advertising campaigns. In the sections which follow, a perspective will be offered which attempts to -show how one type of consumer research program has been developed with both academic and practitioner needs in mind and which makes suggestions for other researchers who would like to accomplish the objective of contributing both to building consumer research theory and facilitating advertising practice.

Validity Issues in Research Development

One important goal in the development of academic research programs is the achievement of validity in the design and operationalization of such efforts. Oversimplifying, the two general types of -validity with which researchers are concerned are internal validity - the elimination of other factors as causing or obscuring the relationships under study, and external validity - the generalizability of effects seen under study across other situations. Often this dichotomy is described as the trade-off between control and generality (c.f., Churchill 1983). Often in academic research we concentrate on designing studies which demonstrate high levels of internal validity, for it is those studies which will be deemed more valuable by our peers, in the publication review process. From the advertising practitioner's perspective, the greater control which is demonstrated by the internally valid study is often negatively outweighed by-the lack of similarity of the research environment to "real world" situations or problems. What is needed then, is the development of research streams which begin with concern for internal validity but progress by adding equal levels of concern

for external validity issues.

Figure 1 displays one factor which is important to the development of such research. The sources of information with which an academician must be familiar go beyond other academic disciplines upon which many of our consumer research efforts are based. These other areas of research do provide theoretical frameworks, methodological tools and past findings which can contribute greatly to the design of internally valid and theoretically grounded consumer behavior studies. However, as one is more concerned with building both internal and external validity, a new set of information sources must be investigated. Those new sources include consumers, marketing or advertising managers, and advertising creatives. Each of these groups can contribute to the building of externally valid research by telling us what questions are important, what is "known" to happen in their situations and, as will be discussed in the next section, what experimental environments and materials must look like if they are to be similar to the natural environment characterizing the phenomenon of interest.



Another factor which affects academic-practice bridge building is the design of materials to be utilized in the research. Figure 2 suggests how the development of stimulus materials might mirror the movement from focusing solely on internal validity to increasing the concern for external validity as well. (See also, Houston and Rothschild 1980.) Using the general research paradigm of information processing as an example, at the stage in which internal validity or control is of paramount importance, one might utilize purely abstract stimuli - nonsense syllables or patterns of dots - in order to eliminate the effects of any previous knowledge in the way in which the experimental subject deals with the study materials. As indicated by the bounded lines at the bottom of the figure, this use of purely abstract stimuli is generally seen as part of the psychological literature in information processing and would probably not be seen in consumer information processing research.

Consumer researchers begin a bit further along the development process, using simple pictures, short paragraphs or even mock advertisements when studying how consumers encode, remember or utilize information. In order to build bridges to advertising practice academic researchers must work harder to develop stimulus materials that fit the constraints of practitioners and the quality demands that consumers place on actual advertisements, while, at the same time maintain the control required to demonstrate internal validity and methodological rigor. It is in the processes of stimulus development and design of experimental environments that the second set of informers can be most helpful. And, while academics can be told to incorporate the knowledge of advertising practitioners, only with open communication from those practitioners through the sharing of research information, sharing of actual advertisements, etc., can such incorporation effectively occur.



An Example of Bridge Building Research

One example of a stream of research that has attempted to incorporate the perspective depicted in Figures 1 and 2, and discussed above is the work being done by my colleagues Terry Childers and Michael Houston, and myself. Our work has examined theoretical constructs introduced in the psychological literature, built upon an initial interest in the concept of imagery (Childers 1982). Included in this stream of research have been studies to examine the process by which pictures enhance brand name recall (Childers and Houston 1985), the role of pictures in inducing elaborative processing of picture/word combinations (as depicted in print advertisements) (Childers, Heckler and Houston 1986), and the use of consistent versus discrepant information in pictures versus copy portions of advertisements to induce elaborative processing and enhance memory (Houston, Childers and Heckler forthcoming).

While much effort has gone into maintaining the internal validity of these studies, they have also been designed to move along the continuum of stimulus development, through the use of increasingly realistic stimuli. In the development of the latest study in our research stream, special efforts were made to incorporate ideas from second category of information sources displayed in Figure 1 Specifically, interviews were conducted with advertising copy writers and art directors, to identify what kinds of questions they had that might relate to our research issues, and to insure that the advertisements being developed for the study mirrored as closely as possible the format and content of actual print advertisements Their questions, as well as the theoretical issues identified through our past research, lcd to the development of a study which examines the effects of various types of discrepant information on memory for print advertisements (Heckler 1987)


This paper has attempted to lay out both why knowledge built through academic research has not been effectively disseminated to practitioners and to offer some suggestions regarding improved communications between the two groups Clearly, other academicians are doing research which attempts to accomplish goals similar to ours. This short description of our research is meant to serve only as one example of such an effort, and to spur those academicians who have research interests in areas related to advertising on to considering how their own efforts might incorporate some bridge building techniques A gap will likely always exist between the academic and practitioner worlds, because of the difference in their answers to the question "Why do research?" However, through efforts such as those suggested above, and with more open communication from advertising designers, consumer research will not only progress toward a thorough understanding of "how" the consumer's mind works, but also provide practitioners with valuable insights into "what" works best in the competitive environment in which they find themselves.


Bogart, Leo (1986), "Progress in Advertising Research?" Journal of Advertising Research, June/July, 11-15.

Brinberg, David and Elizabeth Hirschman (1986), "Multiple Orientations for the Conduct of Marketing Research: An Analysis of the Academic/Practitioner Perspective," Journal of Marketing, Vol. 50, No. 4, 161-173.

Childers, Terry L. (1982), "Sensory and Semantic Bases of Interactive Imagery in an Advertising Context," unpublished doctoral dissertation, (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin).

Childers, Terry L., Susan E. Heckler and Michael J. Houston (1986) "Memory for the Visual and Verbal Components of Print Advertisements," Psychology and Marketing, Vol. 3 137-150.

Deckinger, E.L. (1987), "At ad research meetings, educators are conspicuous by their absence,' Marketing Educator, Vol. 6, No. 1, 6.

Fennell, Geraldine (1986), "Extending the Unthinkable: Consumer Research for Marketing Practice," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIII, Richard Lutz, ed. (Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research), 427-432.

Heckler, Susan E. (1987), "Processing of Advertisements: The Role of Thematic Relationships in the Comprehension and Memory of Visual and Verbal Information," unpublished doctoral dissertation (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota).

Hirschman, Elizabeth (1986), "Marketing, Intellectual Creativity and Consumer Research," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIII, Richard Lutz, ed. (Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research), 433-435.

Holbrook, Morris (1986), "Whither ACR: Some Pastoral Reflections on Beans, Baltimore, Baseball and Resurrecting Consumer Research, in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIII, Richard Lutz, ed. (Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research), 436-441.

Houston, Michael J. and Michael L. Rothschild (1980) "Policy-Related Experiments on Information Provision: A Normative Model and Explication," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 17, No. 4, 432-449.

Houston, Michael 1., Terry L. Childers and Susan E. Heckler (1987) "Picture-Word Consistency and the Elaborative Processing of Advertisements," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 24, No. 4, 359-362.

Ogilvy, David (1983), Ogilvy on Advertising, (New York: Crown Publishing, Inc.)

O'Toole, John (1981), The Trouble with Advertising, (New York: Chelsea House Publishers).



Susan E. Heckler, University of Michigan


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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