Do customers need to see an advertisement seven times?

A few years ago, when I was buying magazine ad space  for my table planner software, I was told by an ad salesman that customers need to see an advertisement seven times before it is effective. How very convenient for his commission. I have heard variants of this “advertising rule of 7” quite a few times since, but I have never been able to find out where it originally comes from. I have now taken to asking people that quote it what evidence they have to back it up. So far no-one has been able to point me at a paper, study or any other form of credible evidence.

I have just searched google for see “ad seven times” and I found lots of mentions of the “advertising rule of 7”. Here are some of them that appeared high in the search results:

surveys prove people need to see the same ad seven times in order to buy

After all, they say, a person needs to be exposed to your ad seven times in order to create an impression.

The standard wisdom is that a consumer has to see a particular ad seven times before the message of the ad will even begin to sink in.

In fact, the Direct Marketing Association will tell you the average person needs to see an ad SEVEN TIMES before he responds to it.

Statics show that people see an ad seven times before responding.

The last statistic I saw pertaining to impressions stated that consumers must see your ad seven times before they really even notice it.

It’s estimated that potential members need to see an ad seven times before the marketing begins to register in their awareness.

This is not all bad since people generally need to see your ad seven times or more before they buy

A cardinal rule of advertising, known as “The Seven Times Factor,” says as a general rule, potential customers needs to see an ad seven times or more before they buy.

After all, research shows that, on average, you have to see an ad seven times before you even notice it.

In marketing, it is said that a customer has to see an ad seven times to remember it.

Marketers like to talk about “The Rule of Seven”: the idea that people need to see your marketing message seven times before they take action. Actually, research has shown that the number ranges from five to twelve, but seven is a good rule of thumb.

The Rule of Seven is an old marketing adage. It says that a prospect needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action and buy from you.

But again, no links, references or citations to back it up, even from the people that said it was based on “statistics”, “surveys” or “research”. What statistics/surveys/research? Is it based on some form of scientific study that can be reproduced, is it a rule of thumb that has been given more credit than it deserves or is  it total bullshit made up by a crafty ad salesman? I suspect the latter, but I would love to know. If you know the origin of  this “rule of 7”, please post a comment below.

** Update 09-Jun-10 **

I have had some useful feedback from this post, particular in the private ASP forums[1] (always a great resource). David Trump posted a link to this paper:

THE REPETITION/VARIATION HYPOTHESES CONCEPTUAL AND METHOLOGICAL ISSUES [Schumann & Clemons]

I used references and keywords in this paper to find 3 other relevant papers:

Beyond Effective Frequency: Evaluating Media Schedules Using Frequency Value Planning [Cannon & Leckenby]

The shape of the advertising response function [Simon & Arndt]

The Shape of Advertising Response Functions Revisited: A Model of Dynamic Probabilistic Thresholds [Vakratsas, Feinberg, Bass & Kalyanaram]

These papers talk about an ‘advertising response function’. This is a curve plotting the number of exposures to an ad against the customer likelihood of being influenced.  Some theorise that there is a threshold below which ads don’t have an effect, a saturation point above which exposures may have a negative effect and a sweet-spot in between. This ‘S’ shaped response function could provide some support for ‘you have to see an ad 7 times’, except support for the presence of a threshold effect seems to be weak to non-existent. Only one of the papers [Vakratsas, Feinberg, Bass & Kalyanaram] cited any evidence and that seemed less than convincing from my quick reading.

For effective frequency to be valid, advertising must be subject to a threshold effect, reflected in an S-shaped advertising response curve (Stankey 1989). But research suggests that, in actual advertising situations, response curves tend to be concave, characterized by Continually diminishing returns (Simon and Arndt 1980; Schultz and Block 1986; Zielske 1986). [Cannon and Leckenby]

In brief, then we are satisfied that the field experiments as a group show no solid evidence for increasing returns over operating ranges. … Taken together, the studies using physical and monetary variables add up to the conclusion that there are not increasing returns to advertising—that is, no S-shaped response function-over the normal operating range. [Simon & Arndt]

Futhermore, some of the papers mention a theory that a customer might have to see an ad 3 times, but none of them mention 7 times.

Krugman (1972; 1977) captured the imagination of the industry with his three-exposure theory, which described an intuitively appealing sequence of consumer responses to television advertising that appeared to be consistent with a communication threshold. He suggested that the first exposure causes consumers to ask, “What is it?” The second causes them to ask, “What of it?” The third exposure is both a reminder and the beginning of disengagement. … The magic number “three” came to be a commonly accepted industry standard (Lancaster, Kreshel and Harris 1986). [Cannon and Leckenby]

Al Harberg pointed out that those claiming a “7 times rule” might be confusing the ability to recall information (where 7 has been shown experimentally to be the “magic number” for short term memory) with the number of ad exposures taken to influence someone. Two completely different things.

So please shout “bullshit” very loudly next time you hear the “advertising rule of 7″ mentioned. Especially if it is by someone trying to sell you ad space.

[1]Private correspondence in the ASP forum referenced with permission.

9 thoughts on “Do customers need to see an advertisement seven times?

  1. Joel

    The query “advertisement seven times” on Google Scholar returns a couple of potential results, but I can’t tell how much they each do about it. I don’t have access to my uni’s electronic journal subscriptions any more :(

  2. softwarecandy

    Getting the answer to this one is tough. Try searching for an article from 1997 by A. Kirmani entitled:

    “Advertising repetition as a signal of quality: if it’s advertised so much, something must be wrong.”

    Google Scholar will let you read it for $30… but if you use regular Web search, you will find the full text for free in several places.

    The phrases “seven exposures” and “positive cognitive responses” are mentioned there but it’s not clear that this confirms the rule of thumb mentioned in your blog post.

  3. Marcus from London

    As Winston Churchill once quipped ‘a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’.

    There’s many examples of a claim being galvanised as fact no matter how dubious its origin. One of my favourites regards a Yale ‘study’ which concluded that successful people have written goals although there’s no evidence the study ever occurred.

    http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/06/cdu.html

    Another was the effect of ‘subliminal’ advertising in 1950’s cinemas. It claimed that flashing advertisements a fraction of a second so the subconscious mind would register it but the conscious mind would not would affect people’s purchasing habits without their knowledge. The public fear led it to be outlawed in several U.S. states. More recent studies have concluded that subliminal advertising is bunk.

    So in the case of 7 exposures I’d suspect you’ve got the answer with your ad salesman. Some salesman once made the audacious claim that has now been repeated and sited so often its taken as fact

  4. Peter - Software Marketing Secrets

    Seven is just an example. Not sure where it comes from and pretty sure it’s irrelevant.

    According to Rossiter and Percys book “Advertising and Promotion Management” (1987)

    Effective frequency is normally between 1 – 13 exposures per buying cycle.

    When calculating your number of the minimal level of effective frequency of exposures you need to consider:

    1) the media (the attention of it)
    2) the target groups relation to the brand (do they know you)
    3) the goals of your communication
    4) how much word of mouth you can count on.

    According to R&P a simple rule is that a minimum of 3 exposures are necessary.

    Cheers,
    Peter

  5. S. Tanna

    I suspect it’s either made-up, or over extrapolation based on a tiny study and/or a specific area. Ask QVC if they need to show a product 7 times to sell it (I don’t think so).

    It is probably survived because of a memorable turn of phrase, and it’s easier to quote than actually checking whether it’s 6 or 8 (or 1 or 100) for a particular product/ad type.

    Reminds me of S.J.Gould essay on Eohippus and the Fox Terrier (a common comparison, because it’s easier to quote somebody else’s comparison, than comparing bones yourself or looking up what a Fox Terrier is).

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  7. Brian Hemsworth

    The origin of the “Law of 7” remains somewhat of a mystery, but the rest can be cleared up pretty easily.

    The Naples Study conducted back in the 70s resulted in “effective frequency” to be AT LEAST 3 times. The Krugman Study found the same thing. This doesn’t mean 3 is magic, but it means don’t expect much until at least three times running an ad.

    I teach advertising media at California university, and this is well know research you can find in Advertising Media Planning by Jack Scissors.

    The so-called “Law of 7” seems to have been mostly advanced by Jeffery Lant and the Direct Marketing Association. I have never seen the actual research to support it.

    I have personally conducted tests of controlled media and tried 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 times frequency. My result: 7 did pull the most responses, but 4 times was more profitable. Put a different way, the sales still came in, but the most profitable return on advertising was actually 4 times.

    Thomas Smith authored a book back in 1885 called Successful Advertising that postulated that it took 20 times of seeing an ad before purchasing.

    Ultimately what savvy marketers know is that we must always test to determine our own product and media’s effective frequency.

    Brian Hemsworth
    http://www.newmangrace.com

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