Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

What do consumers really think about advertising?

Published in Jul-Aug 2017

Why academic research on consumer attitudes to advertising is vital for the advertising industry.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Is the question worth investigating, let alone requiring rigorous academic research? After all, advertising is an investment that may or may not translate into sales and sales is a perfect barometer for advertising’s efficacy. Moreover, there is a trove of social media praise and scorn over ads which can tell us what consumers think about them. So isn’t this enough? Well, in a way yes; these are fairly effective barometers. Yet, there is more to the effectiveness of advertising in terms of what consumers think about advertising. During the past few decades, extensive academic research in consumer attitudes and perceptions to advertising has led to a number of robust frameworks. This article shares the outline of one such framework and how this work of academic research can be useful for the advertising industry.

Attitudes and attitudes towards advertising

We typically use attitudes to connote anything from arrogance to outlook. However, in the realm of social psychology, attitudes are defined as a consumer’s persistent like or dislike of an object. The list of ‘objects’ for which attitudes have been researched is seemingly endless. From voting to death, climate change to birth control, there is an ever-increasing number of studies on consumer attitudes toward these objects. This article is concerned about attitudes toward advertising (as a business activity). Studies in attitudes toward advertising use a number of quantitative and qualitative models. Among the prevailing quantitative models, there is a category based on multidimensional frameworks. In simple terms, these models suggest that consumer attitudes toward advertising are the aggregate of the beliefs or thoughts they hold about advertising. Using statistical procedures, different studies have identified different beliefs to be valid in different markets and for different types of advertising.

Materialism is a negative belief factor because consumers realise that advertising is turning us into a materialistic society and makes people buy things they don’t need or just to show off.

The Pollay and Mittal model

One model that stands out in investigating attitudes toward advertising was proposed by professors Richard W. Pollay of the University of British Columbia and Banwari Mittal of the Northern Kentucky University. This model was part of their 1993 paper published in the Journal of Marketing. The Pollay and Mittal model was based on earlier conceptions of attitudes toward advertising. The proposed model enumerates a number of positive and negative beliefs consumers hold about advertising. The aggregate of these beliefs is manifested as overall attitudes toward advertising. These beliefs are fairly simple; after all, advertising is a part of our daily lives. We are amused and moved by the jokes and stories we see in advertising. At the same time, we bemoan its excesses – clutter, moral degradation and exploitation. These belief factors represent these feelings and thoughts. Specifically, there are seven factors categorised as positive and negative factors. The four positive factors are information, hedonism, social role and good for economy. The three negative factors are materialism, value corruption and falsity. Information is a positive belief because consumers find advertising to be a source of information on new product launches and sales. Materialism is a negative belief factor because consumers realise that advertising is turning us into a materialistic society and makes people buy things they don’t need or just to show off.

The seven belief factors that lead to consumers’ attitudes toward advertising as shown in the illustration are:

Insights and usefulness of research

A couple of related and very pertinent questions are: given that consumers hold these thoughts all the time, what is the insight (if any) given by this research-based model? Also, what is the use of researching all this for the industry? There are two aspects to the first question. Firstly, this model is a comprehensive and systematic outlook on our beliefs and attitudes that can also be measured. Since it can be measured, it can be compared across other segments as well as across time. Secondly, this has revealed what is more prevalent in a particular society at a particular time. A number of studies in different markets have shown that at times positive beliefs about advertising dominate the negatives and result in overall positive attitudes toward advertising and vice versa. Different consumer segments value or ignore these beliefs differently, based on their cultural contexts. What is generally believed about advertising as a true given might not be relevant for a particular segment. For example, materialism, which has generally been a significant negative predictor for consumer attitudes appeared to be non-significant in a 2013 study on young consumers’ attitudes toward social media advertising of luxury products. Such non-significance might be because the consumer group in question valued luxury products and their advertising in a more positive light. Similarly, a 2011 research in Australia showed that consumers in recent times placed most value on the hedonic aspects of advertising. An additional benefit of undertaking such research is that consumer attitudes or perceptions about advertising are also predictors of their behaviour toward advertising – and in this regard ad avoidance is of special interest to the advertising industry; in fact, consumers have become increasingly more empowered to avoiding advertising.

Final word

Just like there are barometers for social trends, this model provides a measure of what consumers think of advertising. They help us understand not only the attitudes, but the underlying basis for those attitudes. What is happening in a particular market and how it has changed is best answered if there is ongoing research on consumer attitudes toward advertising. Although the discourse taken up in this article may be boring for some owing to its academic tenor, its usefulness is unquestionable. These researches and models are insightful for the industry and academia alike. This is the reason why some of the leading academic and professional studies in this arena were sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), Advertising Standards Authority (ASA of UK) and Advertising Standards Canada. It is hoped that such initiatives of sponsoring research on what consumers think of advertising are an inspiration for the Pakistani advertising industry.

Muhammad Talha Salam is a marketing academic and consultant.