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Our finished diagram shows all the main elements of psychological work that we talk about in everyday life. Any or all of them can affect a finished perception. The more complicated the process the more elements are involved. The trouble is we can’t see all of these at any one time and some of them, like the unconscious we can’t really see at all.

So how does something like a TV ad or a product pack get treated by these components?

The first thing to ask is whether or not it gets our attention. Do we notice it or does it simply exist in the same space as us for a time without us noticing? Let’s take TV advertising as an example. As early as the 1980’s up to 40% of us were leaving the room when the ad breaks came on. By the 1990’s two-thirds of us were doing another activity when watching TV. By 1994 half of us actively disliked TV advertising and nowadays almost everyone fast forwards through the ads on previously recorded material. Some people, my eldest son included, actually record programmes rather than watching scheduled transmission, so they don’t have to watch the ads.

Obviously, quite a lot of effort goes into avoiding the ads on TV! What accounts for this low level of interest and attention? The most generous explanations are that it is low levels of interest in the product field together with low expectation of learning anything new that drives our inattentiveness. However, we must also suggest that a dislike of opening ourselves up to persuasion or manipulation must be prominent. What do you do when a salesman knocks at your door? Have you ever ignored or got rid of him? Well getting rid of the ads by avoiding them is less stressful and less guilt inducing – and the TV ads ‘knock on our door’ much more often than salesmen.

So we have a lot of people deliberately avoiding the ads, whether they appear on TV, online, in press or hoardings.

But that doesn’t mean that these ‘unnoticed’ ads have no effect. Quite the contrary. It seems as though the ads that slip in under the radar so to speak are easily recognised should we see them again – and that we attribute some of the properties of these ads to their brands unprompted.

That means that there are at least two routes that shape our final perceptions, one conscious and the other unconscious. What is rather discouraging for the viewer, yet encouraging for advertisers is that we have little defence against the intrusion of advertising which passes along the unconscious route without even touching our awareness!

What is disturbing for qualitative researchers is that engaging people in rational discussion about their perceptions of advertising is far removed from their actual subjective processing of advertising. It is too much to suggest that all is confabulation (making up answers to appear sensible, helpful or thoughtful in focus groups) but much certainly is!

Next time, we will start to propose some ways we can alter our methods to get a better glimpse of what is really going on.