Have you seen this commercial?
The first time I saw this commercial, I hated it. It was 6 am on a weekday. I had just turned on the morning news and was fumbling with my Keurig when it came on.
I found it loud and obnoxious that early in the morning. I said to myself, “Why is Freddie Mercury yelling at me?”
But looking back on it now, I know that something else happened that morning on a deeper, subconscious level.
The ad made me feel cool, in an insider kind of way.
You see, I’m a big music fan. I knew that the commercial featured the Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which is not one of the band’s bigger hits in the US.
I took a little smug satisfaction in knowing what the song was. And beyond that, I thought it was cool that whoever created the ad chose to use the isolated vocal track. That made me feel a tinge of respect for whoever created the ad. (“Maybe they’re cool like me.”)
So the meaning of this ad for me came from a mash-up of the ad’s content – really, just the song – and my own experiences and my own identity. I was using the commercial, decoding it and recrafting it, to serve my own selfish psychological needs.
My subconscious mind used the commercial to reinforce something I like to believe about myself; that I know and appreciate music on a deeper level than the average person.
What I did with this ad is what we all do with every ad, package design or other form of marketing communications we encounter and pay a modicum of attention to. We actively interpret it. Or, as communications scholars would say, we “decode it.”
We human beings aren’t passive recipients of communications. We actively engage with messaging, decoding it and using it to construct our own meanings. We take what we see, hear and read and mix that content with the memories, associations and emotions from our own life experiences. We use all of that to create a narrative that has meaning and relevance for us on a very personal level.
Now certainly I’m not saying we are free to make up whatever meanings we want based on anything we see. There are parameters of meaning that we share. That’s what binds cultures. But the meaning of this ad for me is probably a little bit different than it is for you. And it is probably a little bit different than the meaning intended by the agency team that created it. That’s because my life experience is different from yours and from theirs.
Once you understand that your audience is actively decoding your messaging, you realize that what makes an ad effective is not whether your audience likes it. It’s whether it tells a story that is at least in part consistent with the story your audience wants to tell itself.
Now, if I had been in a focus group and a moderator had asked me, “What do you think of this commercial?” I would have said, “I hate it.”
But he or she would have come to the wrong conclusion about what was really going on between me and this ad. He or she would have missed the reality that on a deeper, subconscious level this ad had at least one element that I found very relevant and consistent with my Narrative Identity. My Narrative Identity, by the way, is what psychologists call the story I tell myself about who I am. If you’re not familiar with the concept of Narrative Identity, check out these past blog posts on the topic.
When we conduct advertising analysis for our clients, we explore a very different question than “What do you think of this ad?” We explore the question, “What does this ad make you think of?” The difference may sound subtle. But this is a dramatically different question.
“What does this ad make you think of?” – and a range of other questions we ask in this vein – elicits the personal thoughts, feelings and experiences a marketing message brings to mind for people. We are interested in the personal stories people create based on a piece of marketing and the specific creative elements they use in doing so.
People are lousy at evaluating advertising. They’re not qualified. But people are great at telling stories about themselves. So the next time you want to know the real impact of your messaging on people, start by asking them “What does this make you think of from your own life and experiences?” Spend some time listening to them tell these stories and find out what it is about your ad, package design or digital video that brought these thoughts and feelings to mind for them.
Then you’ll get the real story of your message’s meaning.