Connect with me

View John Griffiths profile on Facebook
Follow John Griffiths on Twitter
View John Griffiths profile on LinkedIn
Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Low Involvement Processing

Interview with Robert Heath on Low Involvement Processing

The Hidden Power of Advertising was published a year ago and has ruffled feathers and generated rave reviews in equal measure. It costs £45 and is available on the WARC website which is why most planners haven’t yet read it. Planning Above and Beyond brings you an exclusive interview with the author Robert Heath. In it he introduces the key themes of Low Involvement Processing and the implications for development research, and campaign tracking. Click here to read my review of The Hidden Power of Advertising. Or here to click through to Amazon to order your own copy.

Why Low Involvement Processing is important

Low Involvement Processing is not a new idea. It hypothesises that we process marketing messages at least as much when we are paying little or no attention to them as we do when we consciously take them on board. However at low levels certain simple elements get through. What is more these elements do not decay because they are stored in implicity memory. Virtually all advertising theory and practice is based on the conscious assimilation of advertising messages. Low Involvement Processing implies that the high involvement models may at best be of marginal use and at worst be totally irrelevant. Clients who are spending a small fortune on creative development research and tracking studies based on the conscious understanding and recall of advertising may wonder exactly what they’re paying for. They may wonder why they are paying millions a year to develop new creative work when the old stuff is still working. Low Involvement Processing is a bombshell. It is either dreadfully wrong or dreadfully right. Either way you cannot afford to be ignorant of it.

The Robert Heath Interview

The following extracts come from an interview I conducted with Robert Heath on Sept 6th 2002. Click on the icons to hear the mp3 files play back.

    play What in a nutshell is low involvement processing about? (834K)

    play So are you saying that there is too much emphasis trying to produce ads which require high involvement ? (559K)

    play Can you have high level processing without low level processing? (931K)

    play So once you have completed high level involvement on TV say, would you switch to lower cost media for more passive learning?(867K)

    play Can you explain the difference between passive learning and implicit learning as opposed to active learning ? (910K)

    play If the advertising works mostly at a low level then at what point does it wear out? (868K)

    play If implicit memory is what counts then why bother changing the advertising? (381K)

    play If marketers took you literally then wouldn’t they turn to sponsorship and programme making of their own using simple images and associations rather than expensive advertising? (688K)

    play How do you do development research with low involvement in mind? (762K)

    play Doesn’t tracking become completely problematic if the issue is no longer the conscious recall of advertising messages? (738K)

    play Why haven’t Millward Brown put a contract on your head? (563K)

    play Does direct response and call to action require high involvement? (496K)

    play Isn’t low involvement processing the same as subliminal advertising? (999K)

    play So you don’t think that it makes advertising morally untenable? (659K)

Review of Hidden Power of Advertising by Robert Heath

The Hidden Power of Advertising is a well kept secret. Conspiracy theorists might have a field day wondering why a theory that challenges the way advertising is currently developed and measured is printed in monograph format with a non descript navy blue cover. And if you don’t subscribe to Admap or WARC you won’t even know of its existence. Suspicious grow even stronger when you read rave reviews from the likes of Wendy Gordon, Jeremy Bullmore and the late Simon Broadbent.

What Robert Heath has done is to return to the forgotten theories of Herbert Krugman who in the 60s claimed that television worked because it was a medium with which people were not strongly involved. At the time commercial TV was at its zenith. Krugman found himself at odds with Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett. Forty years television advertising isn’t the panacea we once thought it was. There’s a lot more of it and collectively we watch a lot less of it though advertisers have to pay a whole lot more for it! But what Heath has been able to do is to draw on the latestmodels of brain structure and cognitive processing, based in part on the recent advances in neuroscience. Which means we have a much greater understanding of how the brain works when it is only partly paying attention or perhaps isn’t paying attention at all.

Heath goes through the evidence carefully then outlines a new theory of low involvement processing. In addition to cognitive processing there is passive learning and implicit learning. Passive learning takes place when we stop paying direct attention and implicit learning happens when we don’t pay any attention at all. However learning still continues though at this level what is stored is basic concepts and perceptual memories such as sounds and shapes. However this is quite sufficient to build up strong brand associations. Having outlined the theory Heath then goes on to provide of successful examples of advertising campaigns whose success must in large part have derived from low involvement processing. The examples are varied though they are mostly illustrative as most of them predate his formulation of the theory so are in effect post rationalised.

Heath then goes on to look at the implications for creative development research and ad tracking. Here he is particulary scathing about the extensive use of image banks in tracking studies which can be shown to create perceptions that were not there before the respondent was questioned! One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is that it confines itself to advertising when the current communications environment extends so far beyond and there are so many alternatives for marketers to consider and the ramifications for ambient or online media are as great.

The challenge for low involvement processing is how useful it can be for the practitioner who will struggle to develop effective advertising messages that people take on board but don’t notice at the time, and measuring the effects when respondents aren’t conscious of the effects. In the end the effects of low involvement can’t be isolated from those of high involvement without a test matrix of awesome proportions complete with controls.

There are clearly ethical issues waiting in the wings. Opponents of advertising now have proof that much of the effect of advertising takes place when consumers are unaware of it. Arguing that there is nothing covert about it is a bit like saying that someone who thought they’d poured themselves a single measure of vodka subsequently discovers that they have swallowed an entire bottle has only themselves to blame!

The real breakthrough this theory represents is that it begins to undermine the centrality of consciousness to communications. For the last 400 years we have been taught that to learn anything or understand anything you had to think about it. If the theory of low involvement processing is right that may no longer be true.

Click here to order your own copy of The Hidden Power of advertising.

Click here to find out more about other business titles from WARC




Designed by Matthew Pattman