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Irritating Your Way into Consumers’ Hearts

Irritating Your Way into Consumers’ Hearts

Don E. Schultz

over worked thinker

In one week, two directly conflicting studies were reported. That seems to summarize the situation advertising finds itself in today. Conflict, confusion and maybe a bit of concern.  

At the American Academy of Advertising’s annual convention in Seattle, Professor Kelty Logan, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, reported results of her updating of a previous study conducted in 1995 and 1996 by Robert Ducoffe. In the original study, Ducoffe hypothesized a model of advertising value. He argued that consumers determined the value of advertising based on the information and entertainment value provided, discounted by irritation. In 1996, Ducoffe extended his model to include consumer perceptions of internet advertising based on consumer’s perceptions of value, again, discounted by irritation. Nineteen years ago, Ducoffe found the irritation factor of Internet advertising was only somewhat irritating.  

Logan conducted her study in 2016 using essentially the same questions but with a larger online sample. She, however, got dramatically different results. Logan found today the internet is less informative, less entertaining and has significantly less advertising value. The only thing that grew was the irritation factor. We essentially have more advertising with less value and more irritation than we had 19 years ago.  

At the same time Logan was reporting her study update results, the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) was holding its annual ReThink 2016 conference in New York. Based on the opposite results that were reported, it seems appropriate that the two groups were meeting at separate ends of the country. 


The study ARF released claimed to be the “biggest [advertising] study in a quarter century.” In that study, the ARF researchers—to quote the headline Ad Age used in reporting the event—said: “Brands should be spending $31 billion more this year than last.” The reported ARF argument seemed to be that advertisers need to diversify their media spending; that is, not just spend more but spread that spending around in multiple media forms. In most cases, that means the internet. In other words, advertisers should be everywhere, meaning more messages in more media over more time periods, and probably more irritation based on Logan’s findings. Excess or largesse? Your choice.  

Holding these two studies side by side, one can only wonder what is going on. Consumers are saying advertising has less value and more irritation while the ARF is saying advertisers should generate more exposures in more media—and spend more to do it.    

We have a conundrum. While advertisers are being encouraged to spend more on more media forms across the media spectrum, consumers are saying “let up.” Give up the bombardment. You can’t spend your way to success. It’s simply not possible for you (the advertisers) to irritate us into buying.  

In this uneven contest, who do you think is going to win? One would hope it will be the consumer. But that’s not likely. Deep pockets make for big spending—and increased saturation—and the concomitant irritation which the ARF blithely ignores.      

For the advertisers, this situation reminds me of the old adage: “If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” Apparently, marketers have the hammer in the form of new media forms and dollars to purchase time and space. Consumers look like the nails to the marketer, or maybe it’s the new media forms that look like nails. Whichever it is, marketers seem to believe that through increased use of media, consumers can be beaten into submission (made to buy what the marketer wants to sell) whether that be through irritation, excess or inanity.  

What the ARF study really seems to be saying is that whenever and wherever there is a new “thing” that can be directed toward users or prospects or just innocent bystanders, the advertiser needs to spend in it or place ads on or around, or over, or under, or nearby, or within it. Leave no stone unturned. Irritate your way into the hearts and minds of consumers.  

In their defense, advertisers have always claimed that advertising exposure—or in this case, seemingly overexposure—is simply the fee consumers must pay to get free entertainment, internet access, Facebook pages or all of the other communication values U.S. consumers enjoy. And, up to a point, that may be a fair trade. But what happens if advertisers take the advice of the ARF and pony up another $31 billion in spending in an attempt to become ubiquitous? Will that still be a fair trade, or will that tip the scales in the other direction?  

There is increasing evidence that the balance between advertising exposure and consumer irritation is getting out of whack. Online ad blocking by consumers is growing since consumers perceive this as one way of fighting back. Media firms decry blocking and advertisers become irate, but what other alternative does the consumer have besides unplugging their access to the world through the internet? 

At some point, advertisers are going to have to come to grips with a concept which they have long ignored or avoided: reciprocity. Shared values. Shared benefits. Equal returns for equal inputs. That doesn’t seem to be in the lexicon of the ARF, which in its report claimed that was “how much the advertisers were leaving on the table” by not taking their advice and bombarding consumers with even more exposures in more media over more periods of time. Sounds a lot like “carpet bombing with advertising” doesn’t work.  

Granted, these two studies present the polar opposites of the advertising spending spectrum. And, most of us, advertisers and consumers alike, live somewhere in the middle. These two studies, however, also represent what is happening in the marketplace and we really can’t ignore that. What to do? Is this something akin to the continuing search for world peace?  Only time will tell.

​Don E. Schultz is a professor (emeritus-in-service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.