Do You Need To Run An Ad Three Times?

Regardless of what you thought of this new Twinings Tea ad, do you need to see it two more times to understand it?

How about this? Need three times?

For decades there’s been a commonly-accepted industry rule that an ad needs to run three times in order for it to be effective on the viewer. Where did this come from and is it true?

Paul Feldwick, an exceptional brand planning thinker, recently wrote about this over at Warc. I’ll let you read it for yourself but basically the idea of “three frequency” started in the research department of GE in 1972. Their findings stated that the first ad impression allows the viewer to understand what it is, the second is to evaluate its relevancy and the third would be a true reminder.

Around the same time another study was published by the Marketing Science Institute that talked about how two ad exposures were needed for brand switching. This study was then basically combined with the GE study and in 1979 the Advertising Research Foundation published a paper solidifying a recommended frequency of 3x.

So we’ve had this three frequency idea for over 30 years and it’s worth a renewed look…

One Ad

First, before we immediately jump to the importance of three ads, what’s the value of just one ad?

Single-source panels (research sources that link buying behavior and advertising exposure) have shown repeatedly that in 45 – 50% of cases exposure to just one ad in a short period before buying increases the probability of buying that brand by a considerable degree. One ad, done well, does a lot of work without relying on the reinforcement of repeat exposure.

This points to the core purpose of advertising that Stephen King, the founder of Account Planning at JWT, called saleability. Yes, advertising can create sales immediately, but it also makes it so everything else–from packaging to pricing–has an easier job of selling.

But because of its linear structure, the frequency model infers that we can’t get something the first time. It presumes that we make all of our decisions in a very logical, processed, step-by-step manner.

Is this how we think? Someone tells us something so we know about it, then we’re told the same thing again so we can determine if it makes sense for us and then we’re reminded a third time so we can act. Do you need these three steps appropriately spaced out when discussing what you want for dinner tonight? Or accepting a friend’s recommendation on a movie?

But the 1972 GE research had to have a reason to say we made buying decisions like this. One possible answer: consider that in the early 70s if we saw an ad for something new, like Instant Breakfast, we didn’t have any options for more information. All we had was what an ad told us, what a friend said or our own eventual trial.

70's Carnations Instant Breakfast Advertisement

So we waited for information to arrive. Attitudes surrounding consumerism moved slower than they do today. And if a research project discussed ad exposure and purchase behavior it probably would have reflected this sentiment.

How We Communicate

We communicate with feeling and tone. It’s commonly estimated that between 60 – 95% of all communication is non verbal and it was the research of Paul Watzlawick that helped identify that it’s the tone (or metacommunication) that provides true meaning to words that are said. Effective communication doesn’t have much to do with the order and interval of spoken events… It has to do with the way things are said.

It’s emotion and feeling that motivates. As neurologist Donald Calne nicely stated:

“the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusion”.

Howard Gossage once wrote that the buying of (advertising) time or space is not the taking out of a hunting license on someone else’s private preserve but is the renting of a stage on which we may perform.

This melds well with the idea of how things are said. Volume and repetition upon one person reaches diminishing returns quickly. The ad connects with them or it doesn’t and from there we’ll either have effective communication or non-communication.

Like this new ad from Deutsch. If you’re a gamer it connects on first viewing. If you’re not you could see it 1,000 times and still not have any idea what’s going on.

Distracted Viewers

But viewers are distracted. 40% of tablet and smartphone owners use them while watching TV. And with current adoption rates smartphones are approaching half of all mobile phones in the US. We are absorbing content on the go all the time. And when something connects we have instant access to take a next step. Danah Boyd articulated this perfectly:

“The goal is not to be a passive consumer of information or to simply tune in when the time is right, but rather to live in a world where information is everywhere. To be peripherally aware of information as it flows by, grabbing it at the right moment when it is most relevant and valuable, entertaining or insightful. Living with, in, and around information. Most of that information is social information, but some of it is entertainment information or news information or productive information.” 

So what are the odds that one single placement (or only one execution for that matter) is going to reach us and be relevant as we dash around our lives, zoning in and out of digital absorption in between things? We need multiple chips across the roulette board to hedge our odds of engaging someone correctly. This requires a diversified and nearly constant plan. Colleen DeCourcy referred to this type of thinking once as constant communications, which I rather like.

Perhaps it’s the word and meaning of frequency that should be challenged today. We don’t need to run an ad three times in order for one person to come to a decision. We need to create multiple opportunities for at least one relevant, emotion-forward, successful connection.

Or as a sentence in the original 1972 GE research report on frequency stated: “Like a product sitting on a shelf, you never know when the customer is going to be looking for you, so you must rent the shelf space all the time.”


[ originally posted on Campaign Planning ]
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