6.5.09

The Rosser Reeves Fallacy

Follow your audience is the fundamental mantra of media planning. Today, that audience is spread increasingly wide and thin, and the fact that an audience is present on a media platform doesn’t necessarily mean that advertising there is effective. The evaluation of media’s effectiveness is the single biggest issue for planners today (or at least advertisers hope it is) and there are a variety of effects that contribute to the confusion surrounding it. Here is one common mistake.

Confusing cause and effect is a specific example of the Questionable Cause Fallacy. The QCF has the general form:

- A and B occur together.
- Therefore A is the cause of B or vice versa.

In fact, there may be no common cause that links A and B.

This fallacy is made when it is assumed that one event must cause another just because the events occur together: the conclusion is drawn, without adequate justification, that A is the cause of B simply because A and B are in concurrence. It is possible that cause and effect are both present but the mistake is in choosing which is which, or it is possible that both are caused by a third event. When people put up umbrellas cars generally become get wet, but putting up umbrellas does not cause cars to become wet, the rain causes both. A typical mistaken causal effect might be:

- People wear shorts when it is sunny.
- People wearing shorts causes sunny weather.

To bring this closer to the reality of media, Rosser Reeves, who fifty years ago was head of the Bates advertising agency in the US, demonstrated what became known as the ‘Rosser Reeves Fallacy’. He showed that consumers aware of his client’s ads were more favourably disposed towards those clients’ brands across a range of measures, including likelihood to buy. Did this mean his advertising was more effective?

No. Generally, brand purchasers have a higher awareness of a brand’s advertising than non-purchasers. We tend to remember better those things we like or are familiar with. So rather than those aware of the ads being more likely to buy the brand, it’s actually those who buy the brand being more aware of the ads.

Is there a direct lesson for media here? Yes. All media suffers the same plight: namely that more often than not, proxy measures such as brand and advertising awareness are used to measure effectiveness.

There is not one single piece of proof that demonstrates that increased awareness is a measure of advertising’s ability to build sales. Indeed the only measure of success for media that has any validity is the ability of adverts on that media to build sales.

‘I saw ad A and so I bought brand B’

Measuring and linking exposure to advertising to consumer behaviour is the Holy Grail for all media owners from Google to the Puddlewick Gazette, and it is Google who are putting the most effort behind this.

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