Featuring diverse racial identities in communications is important to most marketers today, and yet there is little research showing how such communications affect consumer behavior. To help overcome this, researchers Gijs Overgoor, Koen Pauwels, Anatoli Covicev and Yakov Bart conducted a study which evaluated black actors’ share of ads in TV ad creatives, using facial recognition and race classification technologies. They then looked at the impact of this on consumer purchase intent. What the study found was, the impact on purchase intent is dependent on both public attention to racial inequality and the consumer’s own cognitive processing of the ad.
…we expect the heightened public attention to racial justice to increase the likelihood that central processing would lead consumers to perceive racial diversity as socio-politically motivated, rather than reflective of a genuine brand commitment to diversity cause. As a result, the positive impact of racial diversity in TV ads on consumer purchase intention may be further diminished, potentially turning into a negative effect instead.
Researchers put together a comprehensive dataset from two sources: iSpot’s 52 million smart TVs and set-top boxes and YouGov’s online panel. Over fifty thousand TV ad creatives were present in the dataset, coming from around 700 brands aired nearly 60 million times across 160 TV channels, occurring between January 1, 2018 and July 1, 2021. It also included metrics for viewer engagement and consumer purchase intention. What’s more, two facial recognition algorithms were used to determine the ratio of Black actors in all the TV ad creatives.
Researchers considered attention to TV ads from consumer “zapping” activity, such as whether they bring up the program menu, or fast forward when the commercial is running or not. In this way they evaluated whether consumers attended to commercials peripherally or centrally, altering their view of such TV ad creatives. During the timespan during which the study took place, the murder of George Floyd occurred. This created a “natural experiment” which showed how increased public attention to racial inequality impacted TV ads featuring Black actors.
Two models of this unique data set each account for over one-half of the variation in purchase intention. The effect of Black actors’ share of TV ads on purchase intent varies by the level of attention to the ads. This in turn varies before and after publicity about incidents such as the murder of George Floyd. Initially, the relationship between purchase intent and Black actors’ share of ads is positive and significant at low and moderate levels of attention (and thus peripheral cognitive processing). However, it is non-significant at high levels of attention (and central processing). After the murder of George Floyd focused public attention on racial inequality, the effect is negative and non-significant at low and moderate levels of attention (peripheral processing) and significant at high levels of attention (central processing).