In Ads, It Pays to Aim for the Heart

Commercials with a high level of emotional content carry more resonance with the public, a B-school researcher finds. Plus, reasons for retailers to avoid the Web, and the repercussions of a grouchy boss

Apparently, the old saying, "It ain't what you say, it's how you say it," is true—at least according to research on the effectiveness of advertising, published this month by a B-school professor. "People don't want it to be true, but it is," says Robert Heath, a lecturer at the University of Bath School of Management, who published his finding in the December issue of the Journal of Advertising Research.

Heath tested 23 television ads in the U.S. and 20 in Britain for levels of emotional and rational content before having a sample of 200 people watch the ads and respond to questions about their feelings toward the company. Ads with high levels of emotional content—such as the one for Renault Clio luxury cars that focused on French philanderers and had the car playing the role of accomplice—resonated more with the public than those that delivered a clear message about a particular product (see, 7/15/05, "First Sight: Renault Clio"). The study also showed that ads that were high in practical information had no effect on how people felt about a brand.

Heath, working with research company OTX, measured the level and effectiveness of ads with high emotional content and little or no news and information, and published his findings.

"The surprise is that people will generally say that it's the message in the ad that drives their willingness to drive the brand, but that's not the case," says Heath, author of the book The Hidden Power of Advertising (NTC Publications, 2001). "It's really creativity."

But he adds that companies probably won't catch on right away because many are stuck on developing messages about the usefulness and need for a good or service. Conversely, those advertisers who want to disseminate information will face some ethical problems if they focus solely on creative catch-phrases or storylines for ads.

As part of his next research project, Heath is looking into the effect emotion has on attention levels, and he's already discovering that people tend to pay more attention to things that threaten them as opposed to ads that they like, which points to links between the two studies. The bottom line is that our heart may have more effect than our brain on our purchasing decisions and brand loyalty.

Resisting Web Pressure

Brick-and-mortar retailers don't have to give in to the pressure to open an online store, according to new research conducted by Yunchuan "Frank" Liu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Sunil Gupta of Harvard Business School, and Z. John Zhang of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and published in the November issue of Management Science.

Traditional stores might be better off sticking with their original business model and avoiding the online sphere because entry causes intense competition and attracts other e-tailers into the mix.

Liu, who made the results part of his dissertation at Columbia University where he received his Ph.D in 2003, says that even if operating an online store is costless, retailers should think twice before entering the market. He found that it's easy for consumers to click between competitors when shopping online, but they are less likely to walk out of one store and travel to another when offline.

In addition, online competition is fierce and often too much for traditional retailers to handle. "Imagine a boxer is fighting Mike Tyson and Tyson is not that intense until the challenger puts on iron gloves. Then, Tyson gets angry," says Liu. "Before the iron gloves, the challenger didn't have to worry about being beaten to death." It's the same for offline stores that enter the online arena. Their entry causes online-only competitors to price aggressively to attract more clicks. Other e-tailers, including manufacturers who can sell their goods directly to the public thanks to the Web, might see this as an opportunity to strike it big.

As a result, sticking to your proven strengths is often the best bet. Otherwise, traditional retailers risk getting knocked out by the competition, and the original store could end up taking a beating as well.

Bossy Bosses

After hearing one too many stories about grouchy or even abusive bosses, Wayne Hochwarter, professor of management at Florida State University, decided to find out if there was truth to the suggestion that people break up with their supervisors and not a particular company.

Along with doctoral students Paul Harvey and Jason Stoner, he surveyed over 700 people from a variety of jobs about their opinions of their supervisors. They found the prevalence of abusive bosses startling. "Many managers don't know how to manage or lead," says Hochwarter. "Most get promoted because they're good at a particular task and that doesn't mean it translates into a leadership role." In fact, the No. 1 reason people leave jobs is because of a poor relationship with their boss.

About 39% of respondents to Hochwarter's survey said their supervisor failed to keep promises, 37% said their boss failed to give credit when it was due, and 31% said their supervisor gave them the silent treatment. And the list of offenses goes on. A full explanation of the study is scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of The Leadership Quarterly journal.

The tension between managers and subordinates comes from the intensity of an era when fewer people are forced to work more hours. Add to that the complicating factor of dueling generations, who see the world through different glasses, says Hochwarter. Although he admits that many young people have unrealistic expectations about how the business world works, he adds that their lack of loyalty isn't always their fault. "A lot of times, it's not young people jumping ship, it's somebody pushing them off the ship," he says.

If you have a Grinch for a boss, you might want to keep your résumé updated and ready to go. Hochwarter and his team also found that employees carry their work stress home with them, which can cause problems in marriages, and depression. Even on weekends, employees have a hard time escaping the problems. "It's a bad recipe," says Hochwarter. People should stay positive, take action, and protect themselves from abusive bosses, he suggests. The lesson: Next time you're thinking about taking a job, check your list twice to make sure your new supervisor is among the nice and not the naughty.

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