Audience increasingly open-minded

Chris LarcombeDirector of Client ServicesJ.E. Clucas & Associates, Scarborough, Ont.Over the last decade, the absolute attitude that respondents bring to advertising shows a mildly increased tolerance to advertising.One of the other measures that we apply - we call it entertainment value,...

Chris Larcombe

Director of Client Services

J.E. Clucas & Associates, Scarborough, Ont.

Over the last decade, the absolute attitude that respondents bring to advertising shows a mildly increased tolerance to advertising.

One of the other measures that we apply – we call it entertainment value, and it is a measure of resistance to fatigue, how quickly advertising will wear out – that measure, too, over the last decade has increased in absolute level.

So there are two pieces of information that show not that we are driving people away in droves because they are exasperated with an ever-increasing torrent of advertising, but that people are actually a bit more open-minded than they might have been 10 years ago.

I don’t pretend to know why that’s the case. It might simply be societal change.

Certainly in Canada, 10 years ago, there were all sorts of prevailing social issues that were making the Canadian population a little bit more fractious.

Strong attitude

If a Quebec audience sensed the hand of the English advertiser, or it knew the company advertising was based outside Quebec, it would not have been uncommon to find the respondent utter the sentiment, ‘Another foreign company coming to rape our province,’ so strong was the attitude, and that has rather faded over time. Respondents actually said that sort of thing.

And, obviously, that kind of feeling will surge to and fro with the tides of political expediency.

What interests me is not so much what has changed over time, but what has stayed constant.

Always present from respondents is a sense of approval of advertising that delivers useful information.

I don’t mean by that, very prosaic, pragmatic, dull information.

Practical suggestion

But if you had two food product commercials and they both delivered the same list of communication objectives – detailed the ingredients, the varieties – but one of the commercials helped the respondent to solve that constant, on-going, everlasting dilemma, ‘What shall I give them for supper tomorrow?’ with a practical suggestion, that commercial will likely be better rated than the other, which is simply an advertiser’s list of objectives.

There is increasing approval of that kind of thing in this day and age, and I think our society is getting more value-driven.

We also see increased approval of the well-managed erosion of stereotypes. For example, the young man who helps with or does his own laundry, rather than the homemaker comparing one sock to another, will win some approval. But audiences are no pushovers.


There is some sensitivity to heavy-handed attempts to use that kind of iconography to manipulate them. It has to be done well. It has to be done in a way that literally reflects the true trends in society.

The thing that pleases me most of all is the continuation of a long-term trend for the viewer to bring a very healthy breath of cynicism to the communication event. By and large, our audiences aren’t dummies. They do apply critical discrimination – and that remains a constant.

A lot of these principles are common sense.

Abstract theories

We have learned not to expect audiences to work to find meaning in commercials that stray too far into abstract theories.

I am not advocating, dull, pedestrian advertising. But let me make a point.

As viewers, we choose to watch programming. We apply interest and intellect to unravelling the nuances of a plot, or discovering the meanings behind a playwright’s work. That’s what we set out to do. And in that conscious mind-set, we are quite happy to be challenged.

As viewers of advertising, we do not choose to watch.

Onus on advertiser

Advertising occurs in the interstices between the pieces of television that we choose to watch, and the onus is on the advertiser to make clear his objectives, not on the viewer to seek out his meaning, because there is no motivation for a viewer to do that.

Where a playwright might say, ‘Let’s challenge them,’ and the audience will of its own volition, accept the challenge, no such situation exists in the context of television advertising unless you are extraordinarily lucky.

So we don’t mean to decry emotive advertising. In fact, some of our most successful case histories relate to highly emotive spots, but these work best when we give respondents an easy path to apply the emotive charge to the brand or the brand image or the advertiser image.

The television communication process is a dialogue between the viewer and the commercial. It’s not a monologue. By the end of 30 seconds, a respondent has practically rewritten the advertiser’s commercial in his or her own terms.

Suit of biases

A viewer does not come empty-minded to a television commercial. He or she comes armored in a whole suit of biases, susceptibilities and prejudices.

Some of the most useful guidance that we can supply to agencies and their clients lies in first being able to hear that part in the communication dialogue, and, second and more importantly, being able to interpret it.

What in the communication process does the viewer make important? What does the viewer ignore? What does the viewer misapply? Is the advertiser charming the audience with elements with which he never intended to charm them at all and sent them off on a tangent?

The information we can provide monitors a respondent’s progress through a commercial, not just an overall reaction to the whole commercial.

We can provide stream-of-consciousness data, noting how and where involvement changes. And the importance of that lies in the ability to provide sensible remedial action, if required, without killing an otherwise viable concept.

For example, if you had a ‘problem-solution’ commercial that did not perform in a satisfactory manner, we think it could be quite wrong to walk away from that concept, to abandon it.

There might be something in the establishment of the problem phase that did not quite work. But if we understand what a respondent’s problem is with that, and we can feed that back to the creative team, often they will say, ‘If that’s all it is, we can think of six different ways to express that,’ and suddenly you have a very viable concept.

From the world of clinical psychology we know, thanks to the work of people like Wilder Penfield, that the experience of events that go into the mind remain in the mind and can be retrieved from the mind, and when events are retrieved in the correct way, the feelings associated with those events can also be recovered.


So it’s possible for us to determine not only what information was delivered, but exactly how the respondent processed that information. So that kind of cognitive processing becomes a very important part of understanding what happens.

And, of course, we have developed a whole range of practical information about what influences visual communication, what influences aural information, what affects successful communication objectives.

We have clients who say, ‘Well, give us all of that information. Write a checklist and we will bounce all of our advertising against that,’ and that immediately elicits from us a resounding ‘No’ because if you do that, then you simply provide a straitjacket for the creative team.

And that is absolutely the antithesis of what is required.