Advertising Pre-Testing is Both Science and Art

Intuitively most marketers understand that there is value in advertising pre-testing (AKA copy testing). The cost of advertising pre-testing can be fraction of the cost to produce and place an advertisement. However, we have all heard horror stories about the failure of advertising pre-testing to predict an advertisements market performance – particularly if the advertisement is designed to sell a product or service.

Ideally advertising pre-testing would be able to predict behavioral intent. But because people are fickle and do not always do what they say they are going to do it is tough to predict behavioral intent with traditional research methods. Neuromarketing advertising pre-testing techniques may be getting closer to predicting behavioral intent but, buyer beware, there is a lot of rubbish being touted in neuromarketing (as well as some really solid scientifically based science).

We recently attended a neuromarketing presentation that claimed that electroencephalogy (EEG) tracings show a strong response to any print advertisement heavily featuring a face. Well yes, of course. Ask any Developmental Psychologist and they will tell you that, from birth, we are all genetically predisposed to have a strong response to human faces. This does not imply behavioral intent.

While advertising pre-testing is not a perfect predictor of behavioral intent, it is extremely useful to obtain the target customer’s response to your advertisements before they are launched … and it can save brands a fortune when done correctly. So what can advertising pre-testing deliver? There are a large number of advertising pre-testing viable measures; however, here are some critical measures:

1. Engagement. If your advertisement does not engage the target audience then your company is going to waste a terrific amount of money because people will never attend to the advertisements so the message simply will not matter. Awareness will be very low and therefore response to the advertisement will be low.

We once tested an advertisement using a variety of methodologies. The client believed in the advertisement but the research findings indicated that the target audience thought the advertisement was boring. We heard things like “I would leave the room or change the channel.” We concluded that the advertisement simply would not work in the US market. As sometimes happens, the client ran with the advertisement anyway. Advertising tracking ultimately returned a low, low 3% awareness nationwide. The advertisement failed miserably.

2. Clarity. Does your audience understand your advertisement? Given the short attention span of those who live with advertising “clutter” everywhere, particularly in North American, the message needs to be short, concise and precise. Cryptic or difficult to decipher messages tend to confuse or even annoy. Most people will simply ignore the advertisement.

One of our clients once ran a outdoor advertisement that was so cryptic that some of the Q2 Insights team sat at a traffic light one time trying to figure out the message. None of us could figure it out during the time we sat at the traffic light … so we gave up. We had not evaluated the advertisement but needless to say the campaign was not successful.

3. Recall. Can your audience “play back” both the advertisements message and/or images and the brand? If they do not remember the message after repetitive exposure the advertisement is simply not working.

Sometimes the advertisement is so engaging or so funny that the advertising message is lost on the target audience. We have evaluated a number of advertisements over the years that are so engaging or hillarious the target audience has absolutely no recall of the message or brand. It is a tough learning that a very clever advertisement has no recall.

4. Appropriate Talent. Perhaps the talent is supposed to be annoying or slovenly or politically incorrect but is the portrayal overdone, underdone or on target? Also essential is getting the ethnic or gender mix right. If the talent does not represent the correct mix of ethnicity the advertisement will offend some of your target audience. It is important to engage talent that is appropriate for the target audience, the product, and the message being conveyed.

Regardless of the ethnic mix of our respondents, we hear repeatedly that a mix of ethnicities should be included in advertisements to the greatest extent possible.
The science and art of advertising pre-testing is of course not as simple as these four key measures (we use approximately 30 key measures in each study we conduct and studies are custom designed for each advertisement and brand) but the above provides a flavor of the considerations.

Other key considerations in advertising pre-testing include, but are not limited to:

Understanding the Purpose of the Advertisement
There are numerous reasons why a brand might advertise – to sell products and services, to dig a brand out of a public relations disaster, to develop brand awareness, etc. Before undertaking an advertising pre-testing exercise it is essential to understand the purpose of the advertisement and design advertising pre-testing methodology and line of questioning to address the intent of the advertisement.

Talking to the Right People
This may be stating the obvious but it is astounding how often mistakes are made in this area. It is essential to clearly define the audience for your advertisement and make sure that these are the people included in the advertising pre-testing.

Using the Right Methodology
There are several ways to pre-test advertising. At a high level either qualitative or quantitative could be used – or both. Ideally both qualitative and quantitative will be used. (Our preference is a custom hybrid quantitative/qualitative approach.) Also decisions must be made about where to conduct the research – online, in-facility, or in-home.

In the final analysis, advertising pre-testing is a powerful tool that can save brands from significant financial investment mistakes. In the right hands advertising pre-testing is an important tool in any marketing and communications arsenal. In the wrong hands mistakes are inevitable.


This article was written by Kirsty Nunez.  Kirsty Nunez is President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights. Q2 Insights is a market research consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. Kirsty can be reached at (760) 230-2950 and 

This entry was posted in Tools and Techniques and tagged Tags: , , on January 5, 2012 by Kirsty Nunez