A Qualitative Approach to Understanding Audience's Perceptions of Creativity in Online Advertising

Article excerpt

Introduction

Problematising Online Advertising Creativity

In this paper I seek to understand audience's perceptions of creativity in online advertising. Online advertising is the fastest growing advertising media sector, increasing to $4.9 billion in the first quarter of 2007 (IAB, 2007). However, due to its comparative recency (compared to offline advertising) coupled with the complexity of researching media audiences users' perceptions of online advertising are poorly understood.

In recent years, more audience research into online advertising has been undertaken. However, this largely consists of quantitative experimental and survey research to determine key advertising-related features of online audiences, such as internet demographics and psychographics (Assael, 2005; Rodgers & Harris, 2003), perceptions of online advertising's value (Brackett & Carr, 2001; Ducoffe, 1996), online advertising's interactivity (Liu, 2003; Tse & Chan, 2004), and online advertising's effectiveness (Dahlen, 2001; Dahlen, Rasch, & Rosengren, 2003; Gallagher, Foster, & Parsons, 2001; Havlena & Graham, 2004; Martin, Durme, Raulas, & Merisaco, 2003). There is much less naturalistic, qualitative research focusing on how people perceive and engage with online advertising (see Phelps, Lewis, Mobilio, Perry, & Raman, 2004), and even less looking at how audiences perceive creativity in online advertising.

As Bell (1992) points out, creativity in advertising is slightly different from creativity found in other spheres due to the constraints of marketing objectives, budgets, the advertising brief, hierarchical approval of creatives' work and collaborative constraints. In advertising, the role of a creative department within an advertising agency is to give form to the strategy for the advertisement--strategy consisting of the target market, how the advertisement should speak to the target market (for instance, tone of voice), and the media best suited for reaching that target market. As such, creativity is the visual and aural component of the strategy made manifest (see Sasser, Koslow, & Riordan, 2007) for a discussion of how strategy may impede creativity in multiple media integrated marketing communications [IMC] campaigns).

Ironically, despite the centrality of creativity to determining advertising effectiveness, researchers repeatedly note the paucity of literature on creativity in both online and offline advertising sectors (Boyd, 2006; Cunningham, Hall, & Young, 2006; El-murad & West, 2004; Plummer, 2004; Romeo, Denham, & Neves, 2004; Sasser et al., 2007; Smith & Yang, 2004; Till & Baack, 2005; Zinkhan, 1993). Only a handful of researchers have investigated creativity in advertising empirically (Boyd; Koslow, Sasser, & Riordan, 2003; Till & Baack; Sasser et al.). Smith and Yang also note that major reviews of the conceptual space of creativity lack any significant reference to advertising (citing Amabile,1996; Sternberg, 1999). Although this is starting to be redressed with the expansion of the discourse on the cultural and creative industries from government (House of Commons, Culture, Media & Sport Committee, 2007) and academia (see Bilton, 2007), few books on creative industries significantly examine advertising (Hartley, 2007; Hesmondhalgh, 2002; Negus & Pickering, 2004).

Where creativity in advertising is explicitly addressed, it is found to be the least scientific aspect of advertising and the least understood or agreed upon concept by practitioners (Koslow et al., 2003; Ogilvy, 1985; Reid, King, & DeLorme, 1998), laypeople (White & Smith, 2001) and academics (El-murad & West, 2004). The small amount of research on creativity in advertising finds creativity to be a complex and ambiguous term (Ambler & Hollier, 2004), or even a random process (El-murad & West, p.188), with little research clarifying how creativity happens (see Hill & Johnson, 2004). …