Finding out what makes us tick.

IT'S a Friday morning and Vicki Phelps wheels her shopping cart to the checkout counter at the Big Y in Pittsfield, Mass. She hands the cashier a special ID card. Then she watches as her groceries, including a liter of Pepsi-Cola, whip past the red-eyed bar-code scanner. A telltale ``beep'' signals that the Universal Product Code has been read and socked away in computer memory. A week later, PepsiCo knows Mrs. Phelps bought its soft drink; also the price, bottle size, place, and time of purchase. Oh, yes. PepsiCo also knows the Phelps family was watching a ``M*A*S*H'' rerun on Thursday night when a certain Pepsi commercial aired. The source: Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm, for which Mrs. Phelps is serving as a volunteer. The company's sales have swelled to some $90 million in just eight years on the strength of its Orwellian-sounding service known as BehaviorScan.

An impressive-sounding system, increasingly sophisticated and suffused with the latest technology. But is Madison Avenue any closer to knowing how to influence us to buy a product?

Closer, yes. But the botched debut of New Coke in 1985 shows just how fallible even the savviest marketers can be. Indeed, more than half of the 4,000 consumer products introduced in the United States this year will fail.

Why is success so elusive?

For one thing, viewers have become inured to the advertising clutter on TV. Twenty years ago, only one ad was shown during a program break. Today, it's not uncommon to see four or more each break. Remote controls allow people to skip commercials with the tap of a finger. With cable and independent stations, there are now dozens of alternatives to watching ads. One recent study finds the average viewer ignores 80 percent of all TV ads.

Even if ads are seen, there's no guarantee people will buy the product. ``There simply is no formula for manipulating people or causing people to do what you want them to do,'' says Joel Baumwoll, former president of Needham Harper & Steers and now head of Baumwoll & Tannen Associates, a New York research boutique.

Still, advertisers have learned a thing or two since the Edsel. GETTING TO KNOW YOU BETTER THE process of honing creative instincts and probing the consumer psyche is continuous. Through focus groups, telephone and mail ``audits,'' and such recent tools as UPC scanners and ``people meters,'' researchers can amass gobs of data about buying habits, attitudes, and life styles. And computers have provided the means of compiling the data cheaply.

One research firm, Claritas, uses United States census data to segment the nation's 240,000 neighborhoods into 40 demographic groups and claims to predict with startling accuracy what may sell within a group. Another firm, JFY Audit America, has used its own polling information to amass a data base of 24 million US households (out of 84 million) and can tell advertisers which homes use Crest toothpaste, Heinz ketchup, or any one of 50 other products.

And since the '70s, specific ``psychographic'' groups have been studied regularly. To enable its clients to tailor messages more specifically, the N.W. Ayer ad agency recently sliced the baby-boom generation into three sections: the optimistic ``satisfied selves,'' the conservative, homebody ``traditionalists,'' and the insecure ``worried traditionalists.''

To some extent such data are hype. They're used to attract new clients or to hold on to current ones. Michael Schudson, author of ``Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion,'' calls such studies an attempt to use pop psychology to codify common-sense understandings about the way people behave. But for a range of reasons (including that such techniques are useful - but not always crucial) the emphasis on psychological measurement of human feelings and perceptions continues. ``The more I know about you, the more I know how to appeal to your emotions in a particular product area,'' says Mr. Baumwoll. ``You may care more about clothing than cars. Therefore advertising that deals with clothing will probably be more effective if it's emotionally related.''

Richard Vaughn, director of research and planning at Foote, Cone & Belding Communications in Los Angeles, agrees. ``Over the last five years,'' he says, ``advertisers have been strategically trying to elicit an emotional response. You don't just focus on features but on establishing a personality, building an emotional aura that will appeal to a certain person.''

For some products, an emotional sell is not new. Perfume, jewelry, cosmetic, beverage, and cigarette ads have long emphasized life style and image-enhancement while excluding information on product features. But today many more products rely increasingly on an emotional appeal. ``There are more and more categories where the difference between brands is minimal,'' Baumwoll says. ``You find you get involved with the brand you like best. Your feelings take over. An irrational [product] choice [is made].''

In addition, research shows that evoking emotional responses is the best way to grab a viewer's attention. ``If you don't catch their attention, you waste your client's money,'' says Sid Hecker, copy research director at Young & Rubicam, in New York. ``You've got to entertain and reward viewers. Why not portray the situations in which people use the product rather than touting the product [features] and boring them beyond belief.'' TOO AFFLUENT FOR FACTS? YET another reason for the emphasis on psychology: consumer affluence. For a large segment of the US population, basic physical needs have been met. Products must now be sold, some advertisers say, on the basis of meeting some unfulfilled psychological need. ``The feeling a man gets from being a Marlboro man is often more important than from smoking Marlboro cigarettes,'' said Mr. Hecker in an American Marketing Association speech last year. ``In some cases ... the advertising is the product. Consumers are buying the advertising more than the product.''

Can psychological needs be met through a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of shampoo? Is that a real or imagined product feature?

``An emotional benefit is a real benefit,'' argues Ted Dunn, president of Dunn & David Inc., a New York market research firm. ``If you use hair spray and it enables you to feel confident about your appearance and good about yourself - that's a real benefit.''

Triggering the ``right'' emotional response in a large group of people is not easy. Many agencies rely on a heavy dose of instinct and experience. Some, such as Lowe Marschalk, also add a measure of social-science theory. Through extensive testing, research director Stuart J. Agres developed ``The Wheel of Emotions'' in 1984. He says the wheel shows how people organize emotions.

``The best commercials incorporate emotional empathy and operate by cutting across the wheel,'' Mr. Agres says. ``You create a heightened arousal level. When you generate this biological-psychological excitement, it yields better communication and learning. But you have to resolve that emotion by the end of the commercial - hopefully with the product.''

In 1985 Marschalk produced one of the controversial, award-winning W.R. Grace federal-deficit TV ads: Two somber Internal Revenue Service agents enter a nursery, lean over a newborn, and hand it a bill for $50,000 - its share of the deficit. The ad then advises concerned viewers to call a toll-free number. The ad was a huge success, Agres says, because it started with anxiety, confusion, a sense of being overwhelmed. Then it cut across the wheel, providing a serious, determined means of resolving those feelings.

At Chicago-based Foote, Cone & Belding, ad campaigns are built using its FCB Grid. The grid is derived from the split-brain theory, which designates the left side of the human brain as analytical and the right side as creative. Products that consumers tend to analyze logically before purchasing are placed somewhere in the left-hand portion. The right side is for products that people tend to buy based more on feeling, looks, taste, touch, smell, or sound. The grid is also divided horizontally: The top represents ``important'' purchase decisions; the bottom covers items people consider less important.

Let's say Foote, Cone & Belding lands a new perfume client. First, research has shown that perfume is a second-quadrant product: high involvement, high feeling. Next, all competing perfume campaigns are plotted. The grid now ``represents the advertising environment the consumer is living with. Then we ask, `Are there any holes in those strategies?''' explains Mr. Vaughn.

To distinguish a product from the pack in this quadrant (``creating emotional excitement is the priority here,'' Vaughn says), advertisers sometimes position themselves on the outer edge of the quadrant. ``In the effort to shock and get attention, they run the risk of violating the canons of good taste,'' he adds.

In addition to these techniques, researchers are starting to pay more attention to nonverbal communication, because feelings are often largely communicated through subtle visual or audible cues. Also, the prized baby-boom market was ``raised'' on TV, creating another impetus for more visually expressive advertising. WATCHING OUT FOR SUBTLE VISUAL CUES ADVERTISERS are becoming more attuned to the subtle psychological messages sent visually, according to Ronald J. Cohen, a Spring Valley, N.Y., consultant and editor of Psychology & Marketing magazine. But he says he still sees ``an incredible level of ignorance'' in the use of this technique. He cites such miscues as a woman tasting Cool Whip by dipping unwashed fingers in the container, a recent Chevrolet truck ad that depicts a meter maid writing a ticket (``a motorist's worst fear,'' he says), and an award-winning futuristic but ominous-looking British Airways commercial that confuses and could create anxieties in prospective passengers.

Eye-tracking systems have been used for almost a decade to study visual stimuli. The devices are mostly used to test package designs, product placement on store shelves, and magazines to discover what does or doesn't attract attention.

Only recently has eye tracking become sufficiently advanced to be used in designing TV ads. The Gallup Applied Sciences Group has taken technology used for ``heads up'' instrument display helmets for military jet pilots and applied it to eye-tracking TV ads.

And although such research is largely peripheral, advertisers are also exploring such things as eye contact, facial expressions, spatial orientation, the pacing of video images, the power of aromas released by scent strips in magazines and supermarket aisles, and the role of music in creating moods and feelings.

How do advertisers know which ads are effective? In-home tests. And one of the most significant developments in years has been the integration of store sales data and television viewing information. KEEPING TRACK WITH BEHAVIORSCAN ONE of the leaders of this nascent ``single source data'' industry is Information Resources. Its BehaviorScan service tracks 3,000 volunteers in each of 10 test cities. Every supermarket and most of the drugstores in each town feed sales information collected by bar-code scanners into Information Resources each week. A cable TV hook up enables viewing habits to be monitored. And IRI can vary the advertisements (up to four campaigns in each city) seen on the television of each household.

``We use it quite a bit,'' says Bill Boundy, senior marketing research manager at Campbell Soup Company. When new products debut nationally, ``I track it as it goes across the country so I know whether we're hitting our marketing goals. If not, I can tweak the market plan - more coupons, more ads, whatever's needed.''

Where BehaviorScan has data gaps, other firms are quickly plugging the holes. ScanAmerica, a joint venture of Arbitron Ratings Company and Selling Areas Marketing Inc., gives its volunteers a hand-held bar-code scanning wand to track products they buy from any retailer. And R.D. Percy & Co., of Seattle., recently unveiled a state-of-the-art ``people meter'' system that can monitor cable, broadcast, and videocassette viewing. The Percy meter, a small bread-loaf-size box that sits atop the TV, also has a heat-sensing device that ``knows'' when someone suddenly leaves during a commerical. And the Percy system provides demographic profiles of viewers as well as unprecedented second-by-second monitoring of viewing habits, so every zap of the remote control is noted.

Given that a 30-second network spot on ``The Cosby Show'' can cost $350,000, such tools represent an invaluable leap for advertisers in measuring the cost effectiveness of ads.

``If more people who buy V-8 juice watch Dallas, we're going to advertise on Dallas,'' says Campbell's Mr. Boundy.

In short, except through experience and instinct, advertisers remain unable to gauge the response to a given sales pitch ahead of time. But research can and is reducing the likelihood of miscommunication, while technology is providing quicker, surer ways of monitoring the success or failure of an ad campaign.

First of a four-part series. Next: What is advertising really selling? - 30 -{et

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