Your product isn’t important

In 1974, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising wrote Testing to Destruction, a critical analysis of the disparity between market research and real behaviour. Below is an excerpt, an anthropological fiction. A story informed by research that looks at how a customer interacts with a product and it’s advertising. 

Ignore the blatant sexism (it was written in the 1970s), and focus on how little attention advertising receives (even in a world without computers, the internet, smart phones, social media, DVRs, etc.)

 I’ve added formatting for emphasis.

In reality the way an advertisement is perceived and the kind of influence it has will depend intimately on a whole host of other factors external to the advertising itself.

Take a typical housewife and her relations with (say) the floor polish market. Let us trace her contacts with this market through an imaginary week, not forgetting that this is just one tiny thread among thousands, which I am drawing out and magnifying for purposes of illustration. The housewife herself would certainly not have it in sharp focus.

Let us suppose that this market (for simplicity) contains only three brands. Let us imagine they are called Lewis’s,Whistle and Glo. New Glo is our brand.

The lady starts the week with an inherited bundle of impressions of floor cleaning and of the three brands. She has some Lewis’s in her cupboard. She has also used Whistle on odd occasions, but she has never tried Glo. Her impressions which are vague and hazy in the main, are a compound of her own experience, odd remarks from neighbours, past advertising seen or half seen, the look of the products and their packages, a fact or two from a Which? report she once started to read, some bits of lore learnt at her mother’s knee, the names of brands, the reputations of their makers, and who knows what else.

Monday is her regular floor cleaning day. She gets out the Lewis’s and sets to work. She sees the pack. She doesn’t really look at it, it is so familiar, but perhaps just the way it looks reinforces a tiny particle of an impression. She doesn’t read the words on the pack (maybe she did years ago, when she first bought it, perhaps not even then), but perhaps she half notices an odd word, and another flake of meaning joins the mixture in her mind.

Even after all these years of using Lewis’s she enjoys the smell of it, it reminds her of the way her mother’s floor used to smell. She thinks about her childhood home; polishing the while. She hardly notices how long it takes her to get a really good shine to the floor. After all, Lewis’s gets you good results, but you have to be prepared to work at it. Another image crystallises a fraction.

She passes one of our new Glo posters. She doesn’t even glance at it, although later in the week she will notice the Glo on the supermarket shelf and wonder for a split second where she saw it before.

She puts the polish away, noticing that the pot is nearly empty, and making a mental note to get some more.

At lunchtime, flicking through a women’s mag, her gaze wanders over an ad for Whistle for a few seconds. She doesn’t think about it, but somewhere her mind ticks up the impression that she has heard a lot about Whistle recently. A bit further on in the mag, there is an article about labour-saving types of flooring. She wonders for a moment whether all this polishing is really worth it, when you come down to it. A tiny curl of displeasure winds around the Lewis’s she has been using.

In the supermarket she checks off her shopping fairly methodically, although she forgets she is running out of floor polish. She even passes the polish shelves without the penny dropping. There is a good long facing of Whistle in that eye-catching new pack. If you asked her leaving the shop she wouldn’t remember seeing it, but that is the second time already today that it has flashed in front of her eyes.

There is that familiar old Lewis’s pack on the shelves too. She doesn’t look at that either – why would she? But every time she catches sight of it, it reinforces that familiar old image. It looks so old-fashioned, but so good. Satisfying, somehow.

There are some of our Glo packs there too, although not many – the trade promotion hasn’t really got off the ground yet. But we’ve done a good job with the pack – even at a glance you feel that here is a modern brand which will really get results good enough for the fussiest. But the lady doesn’t look. She is worrying about the meat and keeping an eye on the time for meeting the kids from school.

[There’s an ad saying] Whistle is the cheapest floor polish on the market. She doesn’t notice it, but a faint impression slithers into her mind.

That night, watching the television, she sees two of our ten-second launch commercials for Glo. When the first one comes on she is trying to shoo the children off to bed. Second time round she’s still laughing at the show she’s just seen. If you rang her that evening and asked her what ads she had seen she wouldn’t mention Glo, that’s for sure. But by the end of the evening her latent interest in the brand is a little higher than it would have been that morning. She has no occasion to think about it yet, but when she does she will find that she has a few small and elusive impressions tucked away. [Note: It’s interesting that even without second screen distractions, the authors still accepted the majority of their TV ads wouldn’t be seen]

In the morning she opens the hall cupboard to get out her dustpan and her eyes slide over that familiar old Lewis’s pack. On the way to the shops she passes the Glo poster again. In the housewares store she visits for some clothes pegs there are big stacks of Whistle right inside the door, and some kind of competition. She doesn’t look at them.

In the afternoon she goes to her sister’s for a cup of tea. Leafing through a magazine she passes the Whistle ad again. She recognises the pack in the ad… where has she seen that recently? And stops for a couple of seconds to look at it. Mmmm, might be worth trying, looks a bit easier, like a sort of spray. But she passes on without reading the copy. Her sister comes in with the tea. Later she notices a can of Whistle on her sister’s windowsill. She picks it up and looks at it. She glances at the instructions on the pack. It does sound easy to use. She puts it down and turns to look at the new snaps of her sister’s children.

On the front of the bus that takes her home is an ad which tells the world that Whistle is the cheapest floor polish on the market. She doesn’t notice it, but a faint impression slithers into her mind.

The bus passes a store with a big stack of that attractive Whistle pack in the window. It goes past a Glo poster. She doesn’t look at either, not more than a passing glance, anyway.

That evening she sees a commercial for Glo again, and one Whistle. The Lewis’s pack is still there when she opens the cupboard.

In the morning she remembers she needs polish. When she arrives at the store (passing but not noticing the Glo poster), she goes in due course to the polish shelves, where she reaches instinctively for the Lewis’s. Her eyes pass the Whistle display, and slide back to it. She picks up a Whistle pack, reflectively, and looks at the instructions again. She looks at the Lewis’s pack, indecisive. No doubt about it, that’s the one for results. You can’t beat the old stuff really. But this does look a bit easier – and probably cheaper. Her mind runs over the article on labour-saving floors. She looks at the price. It is heavily cut. She shrugs and drops it into her basket. Her brow furrows. Can she really afford the steak she was planning? Mustn’t forget mother’s birthday card…

Maybe she will just go back to good old Lewis’s.

At home she unloads her purchases. She doesn’t remember having passed the Glo poster again on the way home. She holds the Whistle in her hands for a second as she puts it in the cupboard. She looks at the Lewis’s pack. She shakes her head. There’s really no substitute for the good old stuff. This new stuff just doesn’t look like proper polish. She begins to feel a little sorry she bought the Whistle. She pulls out the Hoover and forgets all about polishing floors. Catching sight of the magazine she was looking at on Monday, she wonders for an instant as the memory darts through her mind if she could persuade her husband to lay out for some floor coverings that don’t need polishing. Still, the wood looks nicer really. She compares her home with her sister’s, which is a bit plastic. She hoovers on.

The week goes by. She passes heedlessly the Glo poster a dozen times. She flicks past press ads for all three brands. When she notices a Whistle ad she stops to look at it, remembering that she has a can waiting in the cupboard. She reads the copy idly, reading of the low price, the miracle ingredients, the special high-gloss finish and the ease of use. She frowns absently. Not like a real polish. Still she could do with saving a bit of time. She passes on. She sees at least half-a-dozen commercials for the various brands. She half-notices the Whistle ad and nods agreement at the mention of cheapness. She doesn’t give it a second thought. Every time she opens her cupboard she sees the Whistle and Lewis’s packs but she has lost interest in them – although seeing them half-a-dozen times gradually reinforces the polarisation in her mind. She sees other displays around.

On Monday she opens the cupboard to get the polish out. For a microsecond she wonders whether to finish the Lewis’s first, but she is a bit curious to see whether that Whistle is as easy as they say it is. She glances at the half-remembered instructions and misapplies the polish. It’s easy to put on, but hard to get off. She looks at the instructions again, and corrects the procedure. Well, it is quite easy. It polishes all right… but it’s not the same really. There’s not the same sort of feeling about it. She probably won’t buy it again.

Maybe if this seed of an idea germinates and is properly nourished she will buy Glo next time round – or the time after that.

Her mother calls while she is finishing the polishing. Her eyebrows rise at the sight of the Whistle. Their brief conversation confirms the housewife’s tentative resolution to go back to good old Lewis’s, after all, that’s what polishing’s really about, isn’t it.

That afternoon she goes to the shops again, once more passing the Glo poster without a glance. In the supermarket she is walking past the polish shelves when she notices the display of Glo, slightly bigger than last week. She doesn’t stop – she has a lot to get, and she won’t need any more polish for a month or so yet. Her brief flicker of interest in new polishes has died. Well, more or less died anyway. As her eye lights on the Glo the thought crosses her mind that she has heard good reports of it. With that one you really would get a finish you could be proud of. Now, where did I see those tomatoes.

She has this vague feeling about Glo now (which strengthens a tiny bit as she passes the Glo poster on the way home, and gives it a quick sideways glance as she wonders whether the last shop short-changed her). It comes partly from the look of the pack, which has a kind of traditional polishy feel about it; and partly from that beautiful shiny floor she keeps passing on the Glo poster without apparent recognition; and maybe even partly from the brand name, who knows. The lady herself certainly doesn’t – and wouldn’t care much if she did. After all, it’s only polish.

Maybe if this seed of an idea germinates and is properly nourished she will buy Glo next time round – or the time after that. Maybe she will just go back to good old Lewis’s (she knows where she is with that one). It all depends what happens next week – and the week after that – as the same processes go on and on