Believe It or Not! Fuse Teen Advertising Study

Is it okay to question respondents' answers in advertising surveys? I find it nearly impossible to believe that people really know themselves well enough to provide accurate feedback about media and its effects. I've felt this way previously and I felt it again this morning after reading through the FUSE 2009 Teen Advertising Study (hat tip to friends at CPYU). Below are a few of my observations.

First, I like the design and creative layout of Fuse's PDF. This has nothing to do with my opening question, except that maybe it influenced my emotional response to some of the content!

Second (also having little to do with my opening question but being more interesting than my first observation), video game usage is third highest among 13- to 18-year-olds, after Internet and TV. That beats e-mail (#4) and social networking (#7). Yet when respondents were asked, "How would you like...companies to advertise to you?" video games ended up at or very near the bottom of every list of media platforms in all eight product categories.

For example, when asked, "How would you like apparel companies to communicate with you?" 71% chose "Television commercials" while only 10% chose "Video games." In other words, out of 12 media platforms, "Video games" came in last place. No wonder advertisers struggle to crack this nut. Here's the third most popular media platform (read: lots of attentive eyes) and none of the users want to see advertising in it.

Third, and now to my point: Teens don't really know what's going on in the world immediately around them. They think they do. They, like all of us, convince themselves that the way they see life is the way life is. But it isn't, so how can they answer survey questions accurately?

I came across an example of this in Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In a chapter on surprising ways we are influenced, he describes a study done on adults in the 1984 presidential campaign. The study "showed how people who watched Peter Jennings on ABC were more likely to vote Republican than people who watched either Tom Brokaw [NBC] or Dan Rather [CBS]." Why? For no other reason than because Jennings' face "lit up...when he talked about Reagan." You can read the fascinating details of the experiment in the book, but here is what connects to our content at hand. Gladwell writes,

"[T]he ABC viewers who voted for Reagan would never, in a thousand years, tell you that they voted that way because Peter Jennings smiled every time he mentioned the President. They'd say that it was because they liked Reagan's policies, or they thought he was doing a good job. It would never have occurred to them that they could be persuaded to reach a conclusion by something so arbitrary and seemingly insignificant as a smile or a nod from a newscaster."

This phenomenon shows up in a Fuse question asked in each of the product categories: "What is appealing about your favorite...advertisements?"

Before I tell you what the teens said, I need to address two possible meanings for the word "appealing" in this question. The first refers to that which is accessible by respondents' opinions. For instance, a top response in every category was, "The ad is funny." Humor provides a noticeable, perceivable, experience. We can easily access and name what we find funny.

The second refers to that which occurs on the subconscious level. Many, many factors "appeal" to me that I do not perceive. I cannot easily access or name what influences me there. Therefore, I find it difficult to believe respondents when the answer, "The ad has a powerful message and/or uses powerful imagery," ended up in the lower half of the list in each category. I agree that funny advertisements have more (accessible) appeal than powerful imagery, but what about on the subconscious level? What appeals to me most beneath the accessible surface?

I also noticed that in every category the answer, "I feel an emotional response from the ad," ended up in one of the lowest three spots. Hmm.

Do we really know what appeals to us? Despite Fuse's informative report, there is more to it than what meets the eye. I'm baffled by this. Awed by it, too. We are amazing creatures with very little grasp of the world we live in. And until we have a very big grasp, I'll take opinion surveys with a grain of salt.


Marcus Goodyear July 4, 2009 at 1:22 AM  

Once again, you're challenging me to think carefully about the media and my interaction with advertising in particular. Darn it.

Good post, Sam. We need constant reminders that we are not as fully aware as we think. Most of the time, we are stumbling around, half-awake. (Especially at odd hours of the night.)

Sam Van Eman July 6, 2009 at 9:22 PM  

Kinda like zombies, I think you'd say.

Anonymous,  August 9, 2009 at 2:48 PM  

Ok. I love this post (not gonna connect my blog to this response so my coworkers don't know I'm talking about them, but I have to tell this story!)

We are working on a branding initiative for my university. I was showing the director of graduate programs for biology the new look that was going to be on grad program brochures (essentially a photo of a mid-aged adult with a certain vibe to it). She was really disappointed that there was going to be a human being on the cover because biology people like pictures of scientific things. She did not want people in any of the photos in the entire brochure.

I thought I had convinced her to try this new direction by the end of the meeting, but in a few days I got an email that said she had "surveyed" some of the current grad students, and they indicated that had there been a human being on the cover of the brochure when they were looking for programs, they would not have considered coming to our university. Really! They know that about themselves. Wow - very self aware!

I was told that if I put a human being on the cover, I shouldn't print very many copies b/c it was not going to be usable. I just shook my head. How can I argue with such compelling data.

Sam Van Eman August 11, 2009 at 8:03 AM  

"How can I argue with such compelling data?"

You can't. Self-awareness is just too accurate. :)

Great story! Thanks for sharing it.

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