Gallup Research

Published on .

Reprints Reprints

George Gallup was born in Jefferson, Iowa, on Nov. 18, 1901, and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Iowa. As an undergraduate, he edited the campus newspaper, The Daily Iowan, and became interested in finding out which features people read most often.

At that time, researchers believed they could ask customers what they read in the paper and receive truthful answers. Mr. Gallup challenged this conventional wisdom, arguing that people might not admit their real interests. For his doctoral dissertation, he proposed a different approach in which interviewers visited people at their homes and asked them to point out, page by page, everything they had read in a given issue of the paper, from articles and editorials to ads and cartoons.

Disproving earlier studies

The results of his research astonished everyone. Earlier studies had shown that people read foreign news, business columns and political reports—or so they said. Mr. Gallup found, however, that more people read the comics than the lead front-page story and that the picture page was the next most attractive feature.

Men and women displayed different interests: Women read the obituaries and stories dealing with people's lives; men favored the weather report and the sports page. Department store ads were also more popular with women than were articles dealing with political events.

After he finished his Ph.D. in psychology in 1928, Mr. Gallup taught journalism at Drake University and carried out additional reader recognition studies for the Des Moines Register & Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Cleveland Plain Dealer. Those studies provided further evidence of the popularity of comic strips and drew the attention of trade publications such as Advertising & Selling and Printers' Ink.

In March 1931, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst decided to make the comics section of his Sunday papers available for advertising. To persuade advertisers to buy space there, he cited Mr. Gallup's finding that more people read that section of the paper than any other.

Several months later, General Foods and its ad agency, Young & Rubicam, decided to try comic-strip advertising for Grape Nuts cereal, whose sales had been declining. The agency designed ads in a comic-strip style that used humor and suspense to wrap the commercial message in a soft sell. Within two months, Grape Nuts shipments reached their highest level in eight years. One year later, 43 other papers announced that they would accept advertising in their comics sections.

In July 1931, Mr. Gallup left Iowa to become professor of journalism and advertising at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. During the summer of 1931, he used the method developed in his newspaper work to carry out a study of magazine readership. Interviewers in six cities throughout the U.S. visited 15,000 homes to ask what people had read in The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, Literary Digest and Collier's. A follow-up study one year later focused on the ads in those magazines.

Mr. Gallup evaluated which ads attracted the most attention according to the emotions they appealed to, their use of headlines and illustrations, and the kind of product they promoted. Again, differences between men and women became apparent. While both males and females responded to ads that employed sex appeal as an attraction, men favored ads that stressed product quality while women noticed those that appealed to their vanity.

As part of his research, Mr. Gallup also surveyed hundreds of ad executives. He found that what worked with advertisers did not work with the public and vice versa. Ads that stressed a product's efficiency and low price ranked high with executives but carried much less weight with the public. As a result, Mr. Gallup argued that ad executives could not rely on their own instincts; instead, they needed to use empirical research as a guide to public preferences.

Joining Y&R

Y&R hired Mr. Gallup to be its director of research in 1932. At Y&R, Mr. Gallup and his staff analyzed the components of an ad down to the smallest unit to determine which features attracted customers' interest. Drawing on the theories of Walter Dill Scott, a pioneer in the psychology of advertising, Mr. Gallup held that ads appealed to readers on a sensory level rather than a logical one.

Mr. Gallup and his staff found evidence to support the common belief that ads "above the fold" of a newspaper attracted more attention than those below it. They also determined that ads placed on the right-hand page of a newspaper did not attract enough attention to warrant paying the higher cost of that popular position.

The research department also studied the impact of various layout designs. Mr. Gallup suggested that instead of presenting ad copy in blocks of text that required close reading, copywriters should break the blocks into smaller units and use asterisks, italics and boldface to highlight important ideas. Within five years, smaller blocks of text became the industry standard.

Mr. Gallup also measured what percentage of an ad people read and whether they just noticed it or actually read part or all of it. As those studies accumulated, the agency began to compile "noting and reading" scores for ads of comparable size. Researchers used those tables to compare new ads with those of proven success and to measure Y&R's work against that of other agencies.

In 1937, for example, Mr. Gallup demonstrated that Y&R's page magazine ads had an average readership of 14%, compared to only 9% for ads produced by other agencies. Knowing how many people read an ad enabled the agency to calculate a cost per thousand readers and to determine which strategies were most cost-effective for clients.

During the 1930s, Mr. Gallup also changed the way radio ratings were determined, introducing the "telephone coincidental method" for research in which interviewers asked people what programs they were listening to at the moment they had been called.

Audience Research Institute

In 1939, while he continued to work at Y&R, Mr. Gallup established a separate company, the Audience Research Institute, which attempted to isolate the specific elements of a film that made viewers want to see it, such as titles, stories and casts.

After World War II, ARI developed methods to track the impact of film advertising. The company conducted surveys that asked viewers if they had heard of a particular title or story, and those who said yes were said to have been "penetrated" by the film's advertising or publicity. The measure of so-called publicity penetration enabled producers to track the impact of ad campaigns and time the release of films accordingly. ARI also used measures of publicity penetration to forecast box office returns.

By 1947, Mr. Gallup's activities outside Y&R—his political polls and the Audience Research Institute—were taking up more and more of his attention, and he decided to resign from the agency to pursue those other interests.

In August 1948, he and Claude Robinson, the former head of Opinion Research Corp., formed Gallup & Robinson, which introduced a new method of advertising research called "Impact" to determine whether people absorbed the sales message of ads.

The Impact method used a specially produced magazine that was designed to look like an actual publication. Advertisers could test ads under circumstances that approximated normal reading conditions while controlling the position of an ad on a page and its placement relative to editorial material and competing ads. They could also use more than one format for an ad to compare the effectiveness of different sales strategies.

Researchers visited people at their homes to give them copies of the magazine, then returned a few weeks later to question them about what they remembered. Using so-called "aided recall" procedures, interviewers determined whether readers could remember an ad's content when given the advertiser's name and product.

Later, the agency expanded its research to cover weekly and monthly magazines. In the 1950s, it began to study TV spots as well.

In the late 1950s, Gallup & Robinson used a new method, "Activation," to pinpoint when a sales message had prompted a purchase.

Researchers found people who had purchased a product and asked them to recount the events leading up to their decision to buy. Gallup & Robinson found that it was easiest for people to recall the steps leading to a purchase in two circumstances: buying a product for the first time and switching from one brand to another. In some product categories nearly half of all purchases could be traced back to advertising.

The Impact and Activation research methods pioneered by Mr. Gallup represented the continuation of interests that distinguished his advertising career from the 1950s until his death in 1984.

Four years after Mr. Gallup's death, the Gallup Organization was acquired by SRI, which had been founded in 1969. James Clifton of SRI became the CEO of the Gallup Organization. Over the next decade the company's volume grew tenfold as it expanded its operations tracking consumer product and service approval.

In 1992 Gallup teamed with CNN and USA Today to produce daily polls that were more accurate and comprehensive than before, producing such polls into the 21st century. It later added a "Tuesday Briefing" and on the Web, the Gallup Brain, a searchable archive of its survey information.

In this article:
Most Popular