In Advertising, as in Life, Popularity Doesn't Always Equal Success

Why Walmart's Philanthropic Approach Trumped Target's Humorous Holiday Ads

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Peter Daboll
Peter Daboll
Remember that nerdy guy in high school whom no one paid attention to? That same nerdy guy was the most successful person at your 20-year high school reunion, right? That classic zero-to-hero story applies to advertising and is particularly worth noting this time of year when so many lists of "top ads" are published. You see, as in life, many equate ad effectiveness with popularity at first blush. But once you peel back the layers, that ad that made everyone giggle and was forwarded around the internet is now flipping burgers, while the ads that really made an impact -- those hard-working "unsung heroes" -- are creating results and success for the companies they are promoting. Many of the most popular ads are fun. But fun usually doesn't equal effective.

Ace Metrix' 2010 Top Ten Holiday-Themed Retail Ads on TV*
Retailer Ad Title Ace Score
1 Walmart Help Home Feel Closer 623
2 Best Buy Who's Supporting Christmas? 614
3 Kohl's Can't Return a Scarf 605
4 Macy's Animated Children Mail A Letter To Santa 605
5 Victoria's Secret One Gift and a Thousand Fantasies 593
6 Entire Order Ships For Free 592
7 Employees Sing Jingle Bells Tune 592
8 Victoria's Secret What's Your Fantasy This Christmas? 591
9 Victoria's Secret Merry Christmas Angels 589
10 Macy's Everything Is Better at Macy's 588

Case in point: Walmart's "Help Home Feel Closer" ad, featuring its Procter & Gamble co-branded "" promotion, was the most effective single holiday ad -- measured by ads' ability to persuade, increase desire, change opinion, provide useful information -- according to Ace Metrix. The Walmart ad, which focused on helping people connect with Armed Forces personnel overseas, resonated across all demographic groups. It scored more than 100 points above the retail ad norm for "likability" and "attention" and more than 90 points above the average for all ads in the Ace Metrix database of nearly 8,000 national ads.

Philanthropic ads for major brands continue to show strong advertising value. Consumers respond better to a message about what companies are doing for them, instead of a straight sales pitch. The winning Walmart spot performed extremely well with men and women, especially those with children, and the ad resonates by promoting family, charity and empathy with those not able to be home for Christmas -- all moving elements consistent with the holiday spirit.

Effectiveness is a much different measure than "likability," which Target 's holiday campaign featuring comedian Maria Bamford was reported to have achieved in spades this holiday season. Interestingly, despite the fun and likability of the Target ads, the creative was far less effective than many other holiday ads and failed to even make it into Ace Metrix' top 10 most effective holiday ads list.

Target 's Bamford ads are both funny and polarizing, two combinations that don't always equate to effectiveness. In fact, polarizing ads generally fail, even if they succeed with a specific demographic. The goal is to have a high score within your core target , but not alienate the rest of the population. This is the mistake that many marketers make.

Ace Metrix' 2010 Top TV Holiday Ad Campaigns*
Brand Average Ace Score By Brand Range (highest vs. lowest scoring ad)
Victoria's Secret 591 4
Kohl's 578 55 574 54
Best Buy 558 92
Walmart 548 128

Budweiser, for example, does a masterful job at nailing the core beer-drinking male target , while still maintaining positive reaction from other groups. Brands like Heineken, Dos Equis and Coors Light generally don't score well with women, and women buy the bulk of the beer at home. The point is: Be careful what you wish for when you want a good response from a target consumer.

Victoria's Secret is an example of a polarizing brand that had very good results on a campaign level this holiday season. Despite disparate scores between men and women, Victoria's Secret's holiday campaign was more effective with men than women but did not go so far as to alienate women -- a fine line to walk. The Victoria's Secret campaign, which proved to be the most effective retail campaign this holiday season, proved that sexy was selling in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Interestingly, while both campaigns were top-scoring, Victoria's Secret and Kohl's appealed to very different demographic groups. Kohl's appealed primarily to older women, with high "information" and "relevance" scores, while Victoria's Secret appealed to men and younger women and scored very low within those two categories but very high on "attention."

All in all, the real measure of an ad's effectiveness is often lost in the approach. Popularity certainly helps with reach, but often doesn't have an impact on sales or other brand-success measures. Nine times out of 10, funny ads win the popularity contests, but "likability" is only one dimension of an ad's overall effectiveness. Just because an ad is funny or popular doesn't mean it is effective at driving consumer behavior.

The moral of the story: Think twice before jumping to the conclusion that popularity equals success.

Peter Daboll is CEO of Ace Metrix. With leadership positions at ComScore, Information Resources and Nielsen, Daboll has pioneered work on ad testing and predictive advertising response modeling, and recently filed a patent application on measuring consumer engagement. Daboll was most recently CEO of Bunchball, a venture-backed company focused on building consumer incentive and reward systems for brands and websites. He was also previously chief of insights at Yahoo.
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