Context is defined simply as the environment or situation in which the ad is experienced. In recent years, targeting has gotten nearly all of the excitement and attention, a reflection of the big advances in targeting technologies. We want to serve the ad to just the right person at just the right time. But the focus on targeting has tended to set the value of the context at zero, despite decades of research indicating that context has a big influence on advertising recall, brand perception, and persuasiveness.
Traditionally, advertisers used the context for targeting. Consumer packaged goods advertisers bought TV spots in the daily soap operas in order to reach housewives. Fashion advertisers bought pages in Vogue in order to reach fashion-oriented affluent women. Contextual targeting ruled and the media were quick to alert advertisers to potentially embarrassing situations that might arise, giving them the option to reschedule their ad to avoid problematic adjacencies.
However as targeting evolved in the digital space, ad calls were based on cookies, device IDs, 3rd party data overlays, and ever-more complex sets of supposedly person-level attributes. What’s more, the real contexts in which ads were seen multiplied dramatically. Contexts came to include not just editorial environments but also different contexts provided by platforms and devices, widely varying rational and emotional contexts (at work, standing in line, multitasking), and different social contexts.
The ARF’s research staff presented initial results of a multi-pronged, multi-year inquiry into context effects. This research engaged more than 25 ARF member companies in a partnership to measure the advertiser value of contemporary contexts.
Initial results align closely with the older literature. Some context effects work through attention transfer—a fancy way of saying that advertisers benefit when consumers are paying closer attention (i.e. are engaged). Other context effects work through halo effects, in effect transferring some of the authority, legitimacy, coolness, or style of the context onto the advertised product. One intriguing part of the study looked at the negative impact of having your ad follow a (negative) political ad from the recent Presidential campaign.
A deeper dive is promised in the next installment to be delivered at the ARF’s Audience Measurement conference in June. But the timing is excellent since recent events have served as a useful reminder that targeting isn’t everything. Advertisers need to pay attention to context—now more than ever.