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Advertising Message Often Lost in the Medium, Researchers Say


Sometimes the best way to find out if an advertisement is any good is to watch people while they watch it.

If it's a TV commercial, do viewers switch the channel a few seconds after it comes on? Or if it's a print ad, do readers flip the page without even looking at it?

These are the sorts of things that Lee Weinblatt tries to figure out. He is chief executive at Pretesting Co., an advertising research firm in Englewood, N.J. After years of observing how people react to TV and print ads, Weinblatt has reached some pretty harsh conclusions. He says the vast majority of ads fail because they are littered with "hidden errors."

"In most cases, the simplest ads are the strongest," said Weinblatt, whose clients include Ralston Purina Co. and Burger King. "The problem is (that) too many agency creatives think they can be the next Steven Spielberg. And this mistaken impression is costing clients fortunes."

What upsets Weinblatt most is the large number of advertisers that repeatedly make the same mistakes. "We're sick and tired of testing ads that fail one after the other," said Weinblatt, who spends most of his time testing ads made by his clients' competitors.

Time and again, he said, the ads are too confusing, too clever or simply too difficult to follow. Other times, the company's name is hidden, the product isn't shown or the picture has nothing to do with the product. The most common advertising blunder Weinblatt says he sees these days is the growing use of what he calls "attention vampires." These can be anything from celebrity spokesmen to exceptionally funny jokes that lure attention away from the advertised product.

"People get so interested in the visuals (and) they don't even know what is being said," Weinblatt said. His company measures the success--or failure--of ads by simply observing viewers. Those who are being watched, however, don't realize how--or why--they are being observed.

Pretesting Co. pays people to watch TV under the guise that they are part of a nationwide survey on what shows are the most popular. Instead, the company monitors what commercials they watch--and for how long. Similarly, it pays people to read magazines and pick out articles that interest them. But tiny cameras strategically placed in specially designed lamps are actually tracking which print ads they read or ignore.

The purpose of all this sneakiness isn't to be underhanded but to make certain that results are unbiased, said Weinblatt. The methods--which have been used for years--are commonly accepted in advertising research, he said.

Several TV commercials the company has tested "totally backfired," said Weinblatt. Each commercial was viewed by at least 100 of the products' "target" consumers.

One such ad was for Volvo. It showed a Volvo 740 turbo wagon racing a Porsche 944. "Almost everyone who watched that was totally confused," said Weinblatt. "It probably cost Volvo some buyers because it seriously damaged their image of safety."

Indeed, Volvo did receive some complaints about the ad from safety-conscious buyers, but the company says it ran the ad with the specific intent of attracting new buyers. "When you're trying to reach people who have not traditionally bought your product, you have to carry a slightly different message," said Robert Austin, a spokesman for Volvo Cars of North America.

Then, there was the TV commercial for Colgate's tartar-control toothpaste that showed a Crest label being peeled off a tube of Colgate toothpaste by someone holding a dental tool. "As soon as most viewers saw that dental pick, they zapped the commercial," said Weinblatt. "So they left thinking it was an ad for Crest--not Colgate."

Colgate says that's news to them. During the 12-month period that the ad ran, market share of its tartar-control brand increased 19%, said Bob Murray, a spokesman for Colgate-Palmolive Co.

Few commercials the research firm tested were ever "zapped" with greater frequency than the ad for Nissan that featured fake engineers sitting around talking about "human engineering."

"That one rated the highest 'zap score' we've ever seen in an auto ad," he said. About 85 of the 100 people the company observed watching it changed the channel before the ad was over. Well aware of the unpopularity of that campaign, Nissan quickly killed it and replaced it with another.

"It never fails to amaze me how poorly executed so many print ads are," said Philip W. Sawyer, editor of Starch Tested Copy, a monthly newsletter published by Starch INRA Hooper, the Mamaroneck, N.Y., research firm that specializes in testing the effectiveness of print ads. "Most print ads have no central focus and too much copy."

Researchers say few ads have any impact at all. "Most ads forget to tell the reader, viewer or listener what to do," said Herschell Gordon Lewis, a Plantation, Fla.-based ad consultant and author of the book, "How to Make Your Advertising Twice as Effective at Half the Cost."

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