Ad Frequency: Familiarity Breeds Intent


The rule of thumb regarding efficient frequency in advertising is guided by an old adage that states that a person needs to see an advertisement at least three times for a message to start to sink in. However, our new groundbreaking research study, published in the Journal of Advertising Research, on frequency and purchase intent suggests that the optimal level of advertising exposure is much more than three.

We have found that the level of optimal exposure in today’s fragmented media environment is actually over ten exposures –  a level where prior research has suggested led to over-exposure, ad fatigue and diminishing returns. In addition, our research also suggests that advertisers may want to vary the level to which they appeal to consumers’ emotions or cognitions depending on frequency.

Study Purpose

Our research examined the influence of repeated exposure to an ad on purchase intent as a way to test the proverbial “rule of three” which states that it generally takes at least three exposures for the ad message to make an impression on a consumer. In addition, past studies have indicated that frequency has a tipping point of ten exposures beyond which ad effectiveness greatly diminishes and consumer annoyance increases.

But the media ecosystem has greatly changed since those old truisms were tested. Today, consumer attention is much more fragmented and there is a proliferation of media touchpoints that can divert attention. We wanted to explore whether the “rule of three” still applied and, in examining something totally new, whether ad frequency can serve as a proxy to determine the stage in a consumers’ decision-making process.

Our thought was that if frequency could be used to ascertain the stage of the consumer journey, it has the potential to enable marketers to better to use both traditional and nontraditional forms of media to influence the underlying purchase motivations that consumers are experiencing at each of these stages.

Study Conclusions

Contrary to historically accepted findings, the fragmented atmosphere of today’s media ecosystem actually requires more exposure to ads to drive consumers through the purchase funnel. Our research concluded that there is less wear-out factor in high ad frequency than previously thought. In fact, our research found that consumers who saw an advertisement ten or more times had greater purchase intent than those who saw the ad fewer times.

In addition, our study found that purchase intent was driven by different motivations, depending on the amount of frequency. Emotional motivations fueled those consumers who had seen an ad one or two times or more than ten times while cognitive factors drove those consumers who had seen an ad three to ten times. The difference in motivating factors based on ad frequency has great implications for advertising development and media-planning strategies.

Here are the major takeaways and suggested actions:
  • Media planners should strive for an average frequency of greater than ten to maximize purchase intentions.
  • When targeting consumers who have seen an advertisement two or fewer times, advertisers should use an emotional approach to capture consumers’ attention and trigger the problem-recognition phase of the purchase-decision process.
  • Consumers who have seen an advertisement three to ten times are persuaded most by cognitive approaches, which help guide them through the information search and alternative evaluation stages of the decision-making process.
  • When consumers have seen an advertisement more than ten times, the most effective approaches remind consumers of their summary evaluation of the product and provide them with the satisfaction of having made the right purchase decision.

Study Methodology

Our research was conducted via a multiple-choice online survey of 651 consumers fielded by BDI Solutions. This nationally representative sample was compensated via virtual currency to watch and answer questions concerning twenty-five Super Bowl 2013 ads across a range of product categories. Positive and negative attitudes towards the ads were captured in addition to the number of times that ads were viewed.

The measurement components used in the study were:
  1. Positive emotions toward the ad such as liking, appeal, funny, unique, interesting, eye-catching, memorable, engaging, and “for someone like me.”
  2. Negative emotions toward the ad such as how confusing, insulting, offensive and annoying it was.
  3. Cognitive evaluations of the ad such as how informative, believable, serious, newsworthy and important the advertisement was.

All components were correlated with purchase intent which was measured with the question, “Would you consider purchasing the advertised product?” as rated on a 5-point scale.

Looking Ahead

This study has helped to upend industry shibboleths regarding excess frequency in regard to purchase intent.  We recommend that a next study could explore the outer frequency boundaries for ad wear-out. Previous research has suggested that 14+ exposures are excessive, annoying and a turn off to consumers. It would be instructive to explore the possibility that the range of excessive frequency tolerance has expanded in this new and fragmented media world.


About the Authors

Jennifer Lee Burton is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Tampa. Her research focuses on the topics of persuasion, marketing communications, and social media. Her work has been published in top journals, such as the Journal of Advertising Research and International Journal of Research in Marketing.

Jan Gollins was the principal and founder of the Delta Modelling Group. Delta provides advanced analytics, predictive models, and consumer research services to CPG and pharmaceutical companies. Mr. Gollins held adjunct faculty positions at three leading Universities in Chicago—Depaul University, University of Chicago, and Loyola University.

Linda E. McNeely is an assistant professor of management at Mississippi University for Women. Her research focuses on the topics of customer satisfaction, managing innovation, and marketing communications. Prior to entering academia, Dr. McNeely was an executive with Syniverse Technology, where she focused on growth strategy and product development.

Danielle M. Walls is the co-founder and research director of BDJ Solutions. BDJ Solutions is a custom market-research company founded in 2010. Ms. Walls specializes in research design, project management, data analysis, and data visualization.


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