Whether it is to sell the latest technological gadget or to tout the cheapest prices for Viagra, advertising is seeping into every facet of our lives.
This is none so prevalent as when we are online. The majority of websites now greet us with multiple pop-up ads, banner ads and often include rich multimedia content, videos, singing, dancing and so on. Wherever we go in the digital world, as in the real world, someone is trying to sell us something.
Incidental marketing is advertising that is presented to consumers but is not the focal point of their attention. As opposed to traditional advertising, where the message of the advertisement is delivered directly, incidental advertising is presented peripherally. Product placement, advertising billboards, naming rights for sporting venues and advertising dressed up as reality television shows are all examples of this form of marketing.
The aim is to present the product or service without necessarily garnering the consumer’s attention to the fact that they are being exposed to an advertisement.
Billions of marketing dollars are spent on this type of advertising worldwide each year. This indirect approach to marketing is also responsible for some of the blurring between entertainment and advertising. Product placement has been so prevalent in some recent movies, it is unclear whether the primary purpose is to sell products or to entertain.
This issue is brought to the fore in a new documentary by Morgan Spurlock, the same filmmaker responsible for Super Size Me. Spurlock funded a film about the pervasiveness of incidental advertising entirely through selling incidental advertising, highlighting both its pervasiveness and marketers willingness to use this form of advertising in the process.
Incidental advertising has, in many ways, become the capitalist equivalent of graffiti. Every portion of the visual environment is being plastered with some form of advertisement it seems. At least graffiti occasionally has some artistic merit.
With such a prevalence of incidental advertising, many people are beginning to find it at least a mild annoyance, at most a distracting eyesore. It seems that very little critical thought has been invested in examining the effects of this constant bombardment of marketing.
Research from a team at the University of Bangor in Wales might help us understand why we are beginning to resist. In a series of studies, they found that when we are looking for something, we tend to develop a dislike for novel stimuli we come across that are not the item we seek. This phenomenon has become known as the distractor devaluation effect.
Research into this effect has led to some interesting implications for marketers, particularly when they are advertising online. This is in no small part due to the way we process information online. There is simply too much information available to process it all, so we search for what is relevant. To cater for this, most websites are broken up into sections where information is presented in small chunks and is therefore easy to scan through.
Take Facebook for example. Research where the eye movements of people using Facebook were analysed revealed that users were searching the site for information rather than reading it from top to bottom and left to right. There is no evidence that people read through all the posts on the Newsfeed. Instead, they flit from the navigation tools to the Newsfeed whilst quickly scanning through the information and engaging with only small portions of what is presented and available on the site. Facebook and many other websites have been designed to cater to this behaviour.
There is good reasoning behind why websites have evolved this way. Our brains are wired to search. In evolutionary terms, it made sense that those who were better at searching were more readily able to find food and avoid predators. Like searching the African savannah for our next meal, searching the digital realm for information feels natural and intuitive to us, far more so than does engaging with large slabs of text.
So why do marketers believe that it is a good idea to present incidental advertising in this kind of environment? The assumption underlying incidental advertising is that the more times a product or brand name is exposed, the more familiar it becomes and the more we develop a positive attitude towards it. This is supposedly due to a well-known phenomenon called the mere exposure effect. This effect is, in essence, liking due to repeated exposure. In theory, this increase in liking should lead to an increase in sales, hence any publicity is good publicity.
What makes the mere exposure effect so interesting and controversial is that attention or any conscious recollection of the stimulus does not appear to be required for an increase in liking to occur. Essentially, advertising could be presented completely outside our awareness and there would still be an increase in liking and more chance we will purchase the product.
This applies similarly to pop-up or banner ads on the Internet as it does to product placement in movies. In most cases we are unaware of the brand name or product being advertised but marketers still believe it will influence our decisions. There is no need to attract the consumer’s attention for the marketing to work and this idea led to the flourishing of incidental advertising.
Research into the distractor devaluation effect suggests that presenting brand names and products to people while they are on the Internet could lead to them disliking the brand or product. This is because we approach information gathering as a search task and the advertising becomes distracting and therefore devalued.
The implications of this research, however, could be more far-reaching than advertising on websites. Any form of advertising that is presented when consumers are otherwise occupied could lead to a negative attitude towards the product. Take for example advertising at football matches. When watching a game, our attention is engaged in following the play so advertising is potentially distracting and may not lead to brand liking. What this suggests is that the strategy of increasing exposure at every opportunity requires a rethink.
If research into the distractor devaluation effect is anything to go by, presenting a brand name or product at every conceivable opportunity might not be having the desired results. In some circumstances, it might actually have the opposite effect.
Very few attempts have been made to critically examine the effects of the blitzkrieg approach to marketing. One can only hope that research into the effects of incidental advertising will discourage marketers from continuing their insidious advertising arms race before it results in a brand name being projected on the moon.