When David W. Stewart fiddles with his television dial, he's apt to be zipping past prime-time programming in hopes of finding another commercial.
"I go home and watch TV for the ads," says Stewart, who for about a dozen years has been researching how advertising affects consumers, first in the '70s as research manager for a major ad agency and currently as professor of marketing at USC.
Stewart, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, is intrigued most with "nonverbal communication" in advertising--that is, everything except the spoken or written word--and the ways in which music, sound effects, artwork and body language help to create images that sell everything from canned peas to designer perfume.
He and Sidney Hecker of the Young & Rubicam ad agency in Manhattan gathered about 70 industry, advertising and academic types together last year to talk about nonverbal communication as an idea whose time is here. One result: a book, "Nonverbal Communication in Advertising" by Hecker and Stewart, published last month.
"Nonverbal communication is at least as important and, in many cases, more important than verbal communication in advertising," Stewart believes, pointing out the degree to which it affects whether an ad projects an image that translates into sales.
"One of the classics" of image advertising, Stewart said, was the surreal, science-fiction MacIntosh computer commercial created by Chiat/Day, a Los Angeles agency, and aired during the 1984 Super Bowl. "There was very little there about the product," he noted--no information about hard discs, only robots making "a powerful statement, the image of the liberator. Brilliant," he said.
Only a year later the same agency (which subsequently lost the account) devised for MacIntosh what Stewart calls "one of the real stinkers" in American advertising annals. In this commercial a group of lemmings, furry-footed rodents, plunge in unison off a cliff. This was a textbook case, Stewart said, of art and image colliding.
"Nobody wants to be reminded that they're followers," he said, "and certainly not that they're lemmings jumping off a cliff."
He cited, too, a Chicago agency's campaign a few years back in which the image of a harried housewife was chosen to sell upscale TV dinners. "These ladies didn't like to be reminded that that's the kind of life they led," Stewart explained. "It bombed."
It's clear now, he said, that human beings process visual information more readily than that which they hear. What's more important, he said, is "what people do with visual information." Clever, creative gimmicks may grab consumer attention but may be so clever that they swamp the advertiser's message.
Consider misplaced humor. Now, Stewart said, "humor gets attention, there's no doubt," but if there's no fit with the product, "what people tend to remember is the humor and not the message."
Nerds, as a species, are risky business. Stewart pointed to a recent Burger King campaign starring "Herb" the nerd, a campaign he said "Burger King doesn't even want to talk about." In Stewart's view, Herb's failure was foreseeable. He asks, "What did it mean? That nerds eat at Burger King? Nobody wants to be associated with that."
On the other hand, the California Lottery, using a nerd character as a winner, has a winner itself. "In that context," Stewart explained, "what people infer is that even a nerd can win the lottery "--and so can they.
Nonverbal communication can elicit emotional responses far stronger than those awakened by mere words, Stewart said, and whether the consumer buys or doesn't buy depends largely on "the appropriateness of the emotion to the product advertised." He suggested: "I'm not going to sob and have my heartstrings tugged by a toilet bowl cleaner."
And even though it's known that people feel good when they see an advertisement featuring an infant, that infant isn't going to help sell motor oil, he said.
Moonscapes don't have a lot to do with automobiles, but Ford has been betting that surreal moonscapes create images of uniqueness and contemporariness that will make buyers think favorably of Lynx when they go car-shopping.
Researchers have discovered that, universally, people are turned off by advertisements showing models wracked with headache pain or those in which a make-believe hammer is pounding a make-believe head. "Pain is unpleasant," Stewart said, "and people don't want to be reminded of that. They begin to associate that feeling with the product name."
'Warm, Fuzzy Feeling'
What the headache sufferer is more apt to respond to, he said, is an image that creates "a warm, fuzzy feeling" even though the advertisement presents very little factual information about the product.