February 26, 2024

Repetition, repetition, repetition – but not too much

Years ago, in my old office, a colleague once asked me to move a speaker. I forgot.

He asked again. I forgot. And again. This time I meant to do it, but I got distracted.

But then, a few minutes later, he asked again. And now, this time, I certainly remembered – but I was annoyed. There is no way I’m moving that speaker. This is now the hill I will die on. I will never move that speaker.

I now know that this speaker-standoff was partially the result of the repetition problem. When I heard something once, I forgot it. When I heard it a couple of times, I remembered it. But when I heard it too many times, I despised it.

This sort of thing happens with chores, advertising, political messages, and more. Some repetition is good. Too much and you’ve just annoyed your audience.

In 1979, researchers John T Cacioppo and Richard E Petty studied this effect. They showed participants the same message one, three, or five times and then asked them how much they remembered and agreed with the message. They found that agreement increased with repetition – and then decreased with too much. Here’s what they said:

The present experimental results indicated that regardless of the position advocated, message repetition led to (a) increasing, then decreasing agreement with the advocacy; (b) decreasing, then increasing counterargumentation; and (c) increasing topic-irrelevant thinking… At high exposure levels, however, tedium and or reactance may have motivated the individual to again attack the now offensive communication.

Repetition helps at first, but you don’t want to go off that cliff. But if that’s the case, then why do we often see advertising breaking this rule?

I’m sure you’ve been there, watching something on YouTube or Hulu, and every single commercial break you get the same ad again and again – to the point where you can recite it word for word.

A couple of years ago, David Pierce in The Verge wrote about how streaming services keep doing this. Here’s Pierce’s explanation of why this happens:

There’s a perfectly rational reason for why this happens, by the way. It’s all about ad targeting. Let’s just take my own recent example, CroppMetcalfe [a local HVAC installer]. I’m a new homeowner, in the company’s area of service, with a 20-year-old HVAC unit that we know is going to need to be replaced soon. There’s a pretty good chance CroppMetcalfe knows that, too! I’m absolutely the company’s target market. But there aren’t that many people in my exact situation, and Peacock surely promised the company a certain number of ad impressions. If there were a million people who fit the bill, no problem. But if there are 500 of us, and a million impressions to serve, I’m going to get an awful lot of that five-star jingle.

Targeting works great, but once you run out of audience, that’s when you get repetition. Those ads need to be shown to somebody, even if that’s you again (and again). The result is that you start to get annoyed by them.

So, for one last repetition before I piss you off: repeat yourself a bit, but then lay off.

By the way, I eventually I did move that speaker, my friend was right – but I sure didn’t want to.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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