Qualitative Research in Advertising: When to Do What


J. H. "Mike" Flynn (1991) ,"Qualitative Research in Advertising: When to Do What", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 280-283.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 280-283


J. H. "Mike" Flynn, D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles

Qualitative research as a way of understanding consumer reactions was born when sociologist Robert K. Merton developed the "focussed interview." [For an interesting retrospective by Merton on the evolution of qualitative research since that time, see Merton, R.K. 'The Focused Interview and Focus Groups: Continuities and Discontinuities." Public Opinion Quarterly, winter, 1987.] as a way to measure reactions to radio morale programs during World War II. Since that time, a variety of forms of qualitative research have been developed by marketing research practitioners, including:

- Focus groups

- In-depth one-on-one interviews

- Mini-groups

- Dyadic interviews

This paper addresses qualitative research in advertising: when to do what. To the author's knowledge,-this topic has not been addressed in the academic literature. Neither the area of qualitative research in advertising nor the appropriateness of the different forms of qualitative research has received much attention.

Relative to forms of quantitative research, little has been published in academic journals on qualitative research, although the trade press frequently publishes articles by practitioners on the "do's" and "don'ts" of focus groups. Seldom is qualitative research in advertising treated as a special topic. An exception is an article published recently by Durgee (1990) in which he discusses qualitative methods for developing creative strategies in advertising.

Moreover, almost no quantitative research has been published regarding the effectiveness of the different forms of qualitative research because the problem is somewhat tautological. Qualitative research is designed to investigate that which cannot be measured by quantitative research. Thus, we have no "proof" that some forms of qualitative research work better than others, but we can rely on experience of well-qualified professional judgement and experience.

The current paper summarizes the experience of the author and many conversations the author has had with other professionals in the field of advertising research, both moderators and clients, over the last twelve years, concentrating on how to match methods with tasks.

Before that, however, we need to clarify the role of qualitative research, especially as it relates to advertising. Only by delineating the role of qualitative research can we understand how roles and forms of research can match.


The role of qualitative research can be defined both by purpose -- how the research will be used -and by the variables appropriately observed by qualitative research.


Qualitative research has a unique place in the mix of the research analyst's tools. It has its own purposes.

The primary purpose is to develop in-depth understanding and insight into how consumers think and feel. This understanding is used to guide decisions regarding modifications to advertising and advertising strategy development, including target and message.

For advertising agencies, qualitative research has another purpose as well: to allow the creative personnel an opportunity to hear people who represent their target talk about themselves and their attitudes toward the product of interest as well as toward advertising for the product or advertising in general. This opportunity is used as a reminder of who the target is and frequently will spark ideas for advertising.

Qualitative research can also be used as an exploratory tool to find out what questions to ask in a later study. In copy research, for example, we sometimes conduct research to identify items which can later be used in a quantitative copy test.


A number of variables are appropriately observed by qualitative research. Some can also be measured quantitatively, but generally not to the same depth.

Communication. Qualitative research is used to ascertain advertising communication. In an unstructured interview, advertising communication can be identified at several levels, from the most obvious and direct to understanding associations with the_communication to identifying personal relevance.

For example, the following dialogue might occur in an interview:

INTERVIEWER: What did that ad say to you?

RESPONDENT: Budweiser is a good beer.


I: How did it say that?

R: It showed people enjoying beer.

I: How were they enjoying the beer?

R: They were drinking it and it looked like they were having a good time and enjoying the beer.


I: What do you mean by that?

Beer with Good Times

R: Well, you couldn't look like you were enjoying yourself if the beer was no good. They looked like they were really enjoying the taste of the beer. Like it tasted really good and that they were enjoying themselves, too.

I: Does that make sense to you?


R: Yes. I like having a good time and I enjoy beer.

Involvement. We define involvement as having two dimensions: identification and emotional reaction.

Identification can be with people in the ads or with the situation portrayed in the ads. Qualitative research can be used to identify what an individual respondent identifies with and to gauge the strength of identification.

We are discovering that emotional reaction to the ad itself is an important variable in copy research (Batra and Ray, 1986; Burke and Edell, 1989; Edell and Burke, 1987). If the ad engages a viewer emotionally, the viewer is more likely to evaluate positively both the ad and the brand. That does not mean that every ad should be a "tear jerker," but most emotions other than anger or repulsion seem to involve the viewer in the ad. Qualitative research provides an opportunity to observe whether an ad produces an emotional response.

The following reconstructed excerpt from an interview illustrates how involvement can be ascertained:

I: What did you think (of the commercial)?

Emotional reaction

R: I liked it. It made me hungry! I could eat a Cancun Special right now.

I: What did you think of the people in the ad?

R: It looked like they were relaxed and having fun. The music made it sound like a fun place to be.

I: Can you picture yourself in that commercial?


R: Definitely. We go to Chi-Chi's quite often, mostly because of the casual atmosphere. You don't feel like an idiot if you drop your fork. You can really relax and let your hair down there.

I: Is that the kind of atmosphere you saw in the commercial?

R: Yeah. It seemed like a fun place to go.

Appeal. Qualitative research can be used to understand what is appealing about the advertising and to obtain a rough measure of overall appeal. This is generally a very straightforward variable to measure. The interviewer simply asks for an overall rating of the ad and probes for likes and dislikes. For that reason, appeal can be in some ways better measured using quantitative methods. Quantitative research can provide a more reliable overall measure of appeal and likes and dislikes can be probed, although not in as much depth.


Qualitative methodological parameters are defined by the number of people in an interview and the kinds of questions the interviewer asks. We shall refer to the number of people as the form and the kinds of questions as the technique.


Many variations of qualitative research exist. We will discuss the three most popular: focus groups, mini-groups, and one-on-one interviews.

Focus Groups. Focus groups are the form most often associate with qualitative research. In fact, some marketers use focus groups as a generic term for qualitative research.

Focus groups should be used for two purposes:

1. Idea generation for creatives.

2. As an aid to designing a quantitative study.

In both instances, the interaction of a large group promotes discussion of a wide range of issues. The interaction of the group also is more likely to stimulate ideas for the creatives.

Mini-Groups. As we use the term, minigroups refer to 2 group discussion with four to five respondents. In most instances, a mini-group will last about half the duration of a regular focus group discussion, about 45 minutes to an hour. Occasionally, the discussion will last an hour and a half to two hours.

Mini-groups provide the optimum forum for discovering beliefs respondents have about products. These beliefs can be about our brand, competitive brands, the product category, or even about the advertising. When advertising is targeted to people who are likely to talk about it - young adults, for example - mini-groups come closest to simulating the kind of discussion the target might have about the advertising. This form of qualitative research can provide valuable information on how the target believes about things external to himself.

We have found that the small group environment of mini-groups can generate discussion of a wider range of issues while still getting at some deeper issues through the use of projective techniques (to be discussed later).



One-on-One Interviews. One-on-one interviews (also called In-Depth Interviews) have burgeoned in popularity as a tool for advertising research in recent years. [A variation of one-on-one interviews, the dyad, is appropriate where the purchase decision is a joint one, or where the one-on-one situation might be intimidating.]

One-on-one interviews are the form of choice to meet two research purposes:

1. to aid in strategy development by helping to discover beliefs about self.

2. to gain insight into consumer reaction to advertising.

The relatively risk-free environment and the opportunity for more in-depth probing and responses will provide greater insight into how a consumer sees himself/herself and into how the consumer reacts to the advertising. Projective techniques can be used more successfully in one-on-one interviews than with any other form of qualitative research.

Additional Considerations

This section has suggested some guidelines for using forms of qualitative research in advertising. They are only guidelines. Occasions will occur when exceptions to these suggestions will be advisable.

One overriding consideration should be taken into account when deciding upon a form of qualitative research to use in obtaining consumer reaction to advertising: the form should parallel as closely as possible the way advertising is consumed in "real life." For the most part, advertising is consumed by individuals, not groups.


Two basic interviewing techniques are used in qualitative research for advertising: straightforward and projective.

Straightforward is simple. The interviewer asks a question and the respondent answers. The answer is pretty much taken at face value.

Projective techniques are somewhat more subtle and a greater emphasis is placed on interpretation of responses. A respondent is shown some sort of stimulus to encourage talking about himself/herself, not to evaluate the stimulus. Thematic Apperception Tests, sentence completion exercises, photo sorts, even advertising can be used as projective devices.

As a general rule, projective techniques are appropriate when we want to learn more in-depth responses, whereas straightforward techniques are adequate when more superficial responses will suffice.


This paper has set out to provide some guidelines for when to use what kinds of qualitative research as tools to improve advertising. These guidelines have been summarized in Figure 1.


Batra, Rajeev and Michael L. Ray (1986), "Affective Responses Mediating Acceptance of Advertising," Journal of Consumer Research, 13 (September), 23449.

Burke, Marian Chapman and Julie A. Edell (1989), 'The Impact of Feelings on Ad-Based Affect and Cognition," Journal of Marketing Research, 26 (February), 69-93.

Durgee, Jeffrey (1990), "Qualitative Methods for Developing Advertising That Makes Consumers Feel, 'Hey, That's Right for Me,"' Journal of Consumer Marketing, 7 (Winter), 15-21.

Edell, Julie A. and Marian Chapman Burke (1987), "The Power of Feelings in Understanding Advertising Effects," Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (December), 421-33.

Merton, Robert K. (1987), 'The Focussed Interview and Focus Groups: Continuities and Discontinuities," Public Opinion Quarterly, 51 (Winter), 550-66



J. H. "Mike" Flynn, D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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