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When and How Advertising Creativity Works

When and How Advertising Creativity Works

Sara Rosengren, Martin Eisend, Scott Koslow and Micael Dahlen

illustration of desk and creative materials

Effective advertising should be considered a two-part construct that includes originality and appropriateness 

Marketers are increasingly skeptical of advertising creativity as they face an economic recession and revenue pressure due to COVID-19. A new Journal of Marketing study discusses why decreasing investments is a mistake and how marketers can maximize ROI from advertising creativity. 

Our research team finds robust empirical evidence that advertising creativity has significant positive effects on consumer responses, with no indication that this effect is becoming less (or more) effective over time. However, any judgments of creativity are subjective and contextual. Our team demonstrates that in order to be effective, advertising creativity should be thought about as a bipartite construct comprising both originality and appropriateness, and consumers (rather than experts or award shows) should be used to judge it. 

We also find contexts in which advertising creativity is more impactful: 

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  • First, advertising creativity has a stronger effect on attitudinal outcomes than memory outcomes. This suggests that the value of creativity is derived less from its ability to cut through clutter and increase memory and more from the positive signals that it sends. 
  • Second, we find that effects are stronger for high-involvement contexts. For marketers, this challenges the established view of advertising as a tool for gaining attention and suggests that creativity is especially valuable in contexts where consumers are likely to process advertising, such as for products they find important or in media contexts that consumers voluntarily seek out (for example, branded content on social media or a webpage). 
  • Third, we find that it has marginally stronger effects for unfamiliar compared to familiar brands. By investing, unfamiliar brands can increase the value of their advertising to consumers. This suggests that advertising creativity is especially valuable when establishing a new brand in the market.

Our findings also explain why advertising creativity has positive effects. More specifically, we find that creative ads are more liked, more processed and signal that the brand has put effort into them. These three mechanisms jointly lead to positive consumer response. However, liking is mostly tied to originality whereas signaling requires appropriateness. By investing in bipartite advertising creativity, marketers can therefore increase the chance that their ads will be liked, processed and interpreted as signals of what the brand has to offer. Although marketers who focus on originality can expect positive effects due to affect transfer, they will miss out on the potential effects of signaling and appropriateness. 

Taken together, the results give marketers evidence of the value of advertising creativity. When investing in creativity, marketers should focus on both originality and appropriateness. The effects of advertising creativity as a marketing signal are especially important to consider because they offer the strongest explanation for the effects. Advertising creativity can produce effects by way of the signals it sends rather than the specific message it conveys. Signals are especially important in situations where there is information asymmetry between marketers and customers. This is arguably the case for unfamiliar brands and high-involvement products, but also in other situations where the decision-making process is complex, such as B2B, business-to-government and recruitment contexts. Although beyond the scope of the present study, recent research suggests that the effect of advertising signals extends beyond consumers to other stakeholders, such as employees and investors. 

Key Takeaways

We find robust empirical evidence that advertising creativity has positive effects on consumer responses. The results highlight the importance of considering both originality and appropriateness when investing in advertising. Advertising creativity has a stronger effect on attitudinal rather than memory outcomes, suggesting that the value of creativity comes less from its ability to cut through clutter and more from the positive signals that it sends. Effects are also stronger for high- (versus low-) involvement products. 

How Practitioners Can Put the Findings Into Action

In order to be effective, advertising creativity should be thought of as a bipartite construct comprising both originality and appropriateness. Consumers—rather than experts or award shows—should be used to judge it. Advertising creativity is especially impactful in high-involvement contexts, meaning that marketers should use it in contexts where consumers are in control and actively seek out advertising. It is also important to evaluate the effects of creativity in terms of brand rather than ad response. 

What Comes Next

Given the nature of our meta-analysis, we could only analyze consumer responses that previous researchers had investigated. Future studies are needed to investigate the effects of creativity in a digital context and to link consumer responses to sales outcomes. 

Sara Rosengren is a professor in the Center for Retailing at the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden.

Martin Eisend is a professor in the marketing department at the European University Viadrina in Germany.

Scott Koslow is a professor in the department of marketing at Macquarie University in Australia.

Micael Dahlen is a professor in the Center for Consumer Marketing at the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden.