Best Time to Advertise? When Consumers Are Too Tired for Anything Else

Just Make Sure the Creative's Strong Enough to Pull Them in, New Research Finds

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Derek D. Rucker
Derek D. Rucker
Consumers' ability to exert control or regulate their attention is taxed every day. Grueling work, demanding relationships or even following a diet can conspire to leave consumers rundown. In the academic world, prior research has shown that efforts to exert control in one area of life impair subsequent efforts to exert control in other areas of life. Psychologists Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota) and Roy Baumeister (Florida State University) put a name on this common phenomenon: depletion.

Conventional wisdom might dictate that it is best to advertise to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed consumers. One goal of advertising is often the precious encoding of a product's features. If consumers are feeling mentally and physically wiped out, one might suspect that their ability to grasp advertising messages would be hindered. With this in mind, advertisers face the challenge to find situations where consumers have their full faculties available for processing advertising messages, while avoiding situations where their resources have been taxed.

In recent work from a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, my colleagues Echo Wen Wan (University of Hong Kong), Zakary Tormala (Stanford University) and Joshua Clarkson (University of Florida) and I examined the possibility that depletion could actually benefit advertisers. Our reasoning: If consumers who were depleted actually did choose to devote their precious resources to attending to an advertising message, they might become more certain of their attitude toward a product.

The logic behind the idea
Here's our logic. When individuals are worn out, engaging in subsequent tasks requiring more effort should be even more straining than if they were at the top of their game. Depleted, compared to non-depleted, consumers should feel that they have invested even more of their resources in subsequent tasks. As a result of perceiving to have invested more effort into processing an advertisement, we reasoned that depleted consumers should feel more certain of the attitude they formed. Furthermore, being more certain of a favorable attitude should lead to a greater inclination to buy the product.

To test this idea, participants first completed a task that was designed to either create a state of depletion or not. In the non-depleted condition, participants wrote about whatever entered their minds. In contrast, the depleted-condition participants were told they could write whatever thoughts entered their mind except those of a white bear. Prior research by Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues has shown suppressing thoughts can reduce a person's regulatory resources. Next, participants were given 30 seconds to read a print ad for a new snack. We assessed participants' attitudes, certainty and choice to purchase a sample product.

Both groups of participants expressed equally favorable attitudes toward the products. But the "depleted" participants reported being more certain of their attitudes and, as a result, were significantly more likely to express interest in purchasing a sample. Subsequent experiments showed that the increased certainty resulted from depleted participants feeling that they had been more thorough in processing the message. A final experiment demonstrated that if consumers respond negatively to an ad, they become more certain of their negative attitude.

For media planners, this work suggests that scheduling advertising when consumers are likely to be rundown would work well, assuming the creative can pull consumers in. Of course, the question then becomes, how do you identify when a target segment is likely to be fatigued? Bear in mind that consumers are likely to be more depleted in the evening as opposed to the morning. In addition, certain times of the year might be naturally associated with consumer depletion, such as tax time or finals week for college students.

When to use the strategy
Here are some examples of when this strategy might be effective. First, let's say Ford is planning on premiering one of its new 2011 truck models. Should the brand advertise at the beginning, middle or end of a sporting event? One concern among advertisers might be that consumers will be worn out by the end of a sporting event. But these findings would suggest that -- if the creative execution is compelling enough -- Ford should value later advertising in the event more than earlier advertising.

Indeed, some brands, such as Apple's iPod, have already demonstrated that they can successfully generate creative and attention-grabbing campaigns, signaling an opportunity to use consumer depletion to their favor. Apple might ironically benefit from increasing advertising during, as opposed to after, tax time, when consumers might be depleted from financial ruminations.

Finally, during political campaigns, it is necessary that voters not only like a candidate, but that they are sufficiently confident to vote in favor of the candidate. Choosing to advertise later in the evening, when consumers might be fatigued, could increase certainty and, provided the consumers' response is favorable, increase consumers' likelihood of voting. Even the difference between advertising at 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. might provide the knowledgeable marketer with a strategic advantage.

If advertisers can engage consumers during these times, either through strong creative and/or message relevance, consumers might become more certain of their evaluations and thus more motivated to purchase. Of course, the challenge is to make sure depleted consumers can be engaged. One possible solution is to use integrated marketing efforts such as broadcast media to create enough interest for consumers to visit a website, even in a depleted state, where consumers could then work through information in a self-paced fashion.

Online use
Internet-based advertising might also be sensitive to the time when different types of websites are visited. For example, websites on which ads receive only casual attention might be preferred if they have high traffic in the morning, when consumers are still feeling fresh, but websites with advertising that is likely to be engaging might be preferred if they have high traffic in the evening, when consumers are at the end of their day.

This research also reinforces the value of attitude certainty as a marketing metric. Despite holding similar attitudes, participants who were certain of their attitudes were more likely to select the option of purchasing the product. Indeed, reducing consumers' certainty in a competitor's brand might be a first step in the conversion process. At the same time, increasing the certainty among one's existing users might be a strategy for strengthening brand loyalty. Given the added value of attitude certainty, advertisers should consider it as another tool for assessing advertising effectiveness.

Derek D. Rucker is an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he teaches advertising strategy.
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