Ads in the Digital Age: Does more entertaining = more authentic?

Zhihong Gao , Hongxia Zhang & Sherry F. Li address some fascinating questions in their 2014 article “Consumer Attitudes Toward Advertising in the Digital Age: A China–United States Comparative Study” in the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising. As they point out, advertising in the digital age is not just more pervasive than ever before; part of the digital advertising experience is not just about exposing your to messages, but is also about capturing your behaviour in order to more effectively sell to you in future.

Gao’s study asks some interesting questions. For example, in heavily regulated advertising environments, like China, do consumers feel advertising should be more heavily regulated? (They do.) In a society that has been consumerist for longer, like the USA, do they feel more strongly that advertising promotes materialism? (They do.)

Gao’s study also draws a connection between the entertainment value of advertising and the halo effect this has on the consumer’s view of the institution sas well as advertising in general:

“This study also found that positive beliefs toward advertising correlated with each other. Thus, a consumer entertained by advertisements may be more likely to see the institution as playing a positive role in other areas, which in turn helps generate a favorable attitude toward advertising in general. On the flip side, the same can be said about negative beliefs, which also correlated with each other in this study. Thus, a consumer who considers advertising as corrupting social values is also likely to find it false and intrusive.”

The study demonstrated that when advertising reaches saturation point it begins to have a negative effect on the consumer’s perception of advertising, and often associated institutions. The authors point to the dissatisfaction rating with Facebook, tied to its increased advertising presence and more pervasive data collection of its users.

The Take Aways
Why would entertaining advertising be somehow more acceptable than informational advertising? And why would the halo effect of making advertising content entertainment not only affect the institution but also affect advertising in general?

One of the reasons this is an important question is because advertising in the digital age goes beyond traditional broadcast content (like TV), search engine sponsorship (like Adwords) or banner ads.  Institutions, commercial and non-commercial alike are competing with each other for eyeballs across the internet by developing content they hope will go viral amongst their audience. an old standby  in traditional advertising is to make your ad so entertaining that people will watch it again and again; in the digital world that usually results in a viral ad: the gold standard of content creators everywhere.

Do viral ads lead to more sales? It worked for Blendtec, a blender company that, with their Will It Blend channel uses their product as a kind of postmodern form of entertainment. Although their blender sales did not increase at te same rate as their page views, they reported exponential sales in their product since the campaign commenced. But then it might not work for everyone, as there is no evidence that the cute and cuddly Budweiser Superbowl ads lead to more Bud consumption.

The ads that go viral for the right reasons (their entertainment value) do demonstrate their ability to resonate with us on an authentic level, cutting through the noise and jabber of ubiquitous advertising to speak to something in us. And they do this through understanding cultural cues that trigger genuine emotion. When we watch the puppy and horse in the Bud ad engage in an anthropomorphised relationship, we know that the connection is unlikely. We know that the horse is a Clydesdale, a totem of the Budweiser company.  But it pushes buttons in us that makes us want to see the puppy united with that horse over and over again.

Constructive Authenticity
Constructive authenticity is about using cultural codes to engender authentic communication of key messages. For Blendtec, who recently used their product to blend an iPhone 5 (destroying consumer electronics is a mainstay of their videos), the key message they are sending is that their blender is powerful. The way in which they send it is through a television mainstay tropes of game shows and mad scientist laboratories. They also gleefully destroy things, which has also been a broadcast television mainstay, often on late night TV. By combining these cultural tropes, they create a sense of entertainment, as well as nostalgia and authentic connections.

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