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.