Starch Ratings: The Definitive Guide

When you pick up a newspaper or magazine, which part of the page do you look at first? The top line? The bottom right hand corner? The middle? What about your customers? If you knew which part of a page your target audience was most likely to look at first, what advertising spaces would you buy, and what type of marketing message would you put in that space? 

This was the big question posed by Dr Daniel Starch when he developed the Starch Ratings way back in 1923. Advertisers had been measuring the effectiveness of advertisements based on response for years (tracking local sales figures and coupon returns to see which ads worked best), but there was no way to impartially measure the attention won by each advertisement until Starch Ratings came along.

Starch Ratings data revolutionised the way in which advertisers used magazines and newspapers, but its value isn’t limited just to print media. In fact, if you understand the principles behind the Starch Ratings system and how it worked in print, you’ll be able to craft a better online message, too. 

What is the Starch Rating?

First and foremost, Starch Rating was an attention metric. It was an impartial, reliable way for advertising buyers to see if the space they had bought in leading print periodicals was actually getting looked at

Prior to Starch, an advertiser had no way of telling whether readers would skip the page of the magazine or newspaper that they were advertising in. Marketers could spend a fortune placing ads in high-circulation periodicals, and if response was low, they would have no idea whether the problem was due to the content or the position of their advertisement. It was also impossible to verify whether a magazine’s print circulation figures were accurate. In this uncertain landscape, Starch Ratings gave advertisers a firm, reliable set of independently-researched facts that they could count on. 

How was Starch Rating calculated?

Starch was a Harvard professor with a PhD in Psychology, so it’s no surprise that the methodology he created was scientific and rigorous. 

To start with, Dr. Starch would send an interviewer to the home of a member of the public. The interviewer would ask their test subject to read a copy of a newspaper or magazine, then they would ask a series of follow-up questions to see which parts of the publication that person remembered. Starch and his team collected hundreds of reports from these in-home interviews, then collated that information and scored each advertisement against three simple metrics: Noting, Brand Association and Read Most.

The 3 Main Starch Rating Metrics

  • Noting showed the number of readers who remembered seeing an advertisement in a magazine or newspaper. In other words, Noting measured an advertisement’s ability to grab the reader’s attention.
  • Brand Association showed the number of people who remembered any specific part of one brand’s advertisement. The Brand Association score proved whether the reader had read and understood at least part of an advertisement.
  • Read Most showed the number of people who read at least half of the advertisement. The Read Most score measured how many readers were engaging with an advertisement in a meaningful way by reading through most of it.

The impact of Starch Ratings on the advertising industry

In 1923, the world was generations away from the first computer or mobile phone. There weren’t even talking pictures until 1927, so this level of insight was cutting-edge. 

Armed with the three metrics of ‘noting’ ‘brand association’ and ‘read most’, the world’s biggest advertising agencies suddenly had the power to identify — and book — the very best spaces for their clients. Agencies were able to prove to their clients that full-page advertisements won significantly more attention than half-page advertisements. If a client had resisted adding captivating headlines or images to their advertisement in the past, the agency could now educate their client with cold, hard data.

Starch Ratings and Aided Recall

The Starch Ratings system wasn’t a perfect fit for the advertising industry. It never linked the investment and return metrics of advertising.  Rather than trying to provide cold, hard proof that an advertisement was delivering sales, the Starch Ratings system focused on how many people had read an ad … and stopped there. 

There were problems with the integrity of its results, too. Using a technique called ‘Aided Recall’, a Starch Rating interviewer would name every specific advertisement they wanted to discuss with their test subject. Many in the industry felt that, just by naming an advert, the Starch researchers were ‘leading their witness’. By potentially reminding their test subjects of adverts that might otherwise have been forgotten, they were negating their own test results. The critics may have had a point: there were reports of readers claiming they had seen ads that did not exist in the magazine they were being tested on.

To Starch and his team, these complaints over the ‘aided recall’ methodology were irrelevant. As far as the researchers were concerned, their test was designed to see which parts of a page had been read. They weren’t testing to see which parts of an ad had been remembered. This wasn’t a good enough answer to people in the advertising industry, who had clients to report to. They needed more data.

Ogilvy, Gallup and Unaided Recall

In the 1940’s, a young(ish) David Ogilvy, working with the world-class researcher Dr Gallup, came up with a new research system called Unaided Recall. Unlike Aided Recall, Unaided Recall tested how many people remembered an advertisement 24 hours after they had read it. This data was much more valuable to advertisers than whether or not a reader had seen an ad. 

Aided Recall might have told advertisers which ad slot to buy, but Unaided Recall gave advertising agencies proof that their campaigns had ‘stuck’ in the minds of their target audience. .

How did Starch Ratings help advertisers?

In his 1963 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy explained how Starch data helped him hack the traditional advertising format and win more exposure for his clients. 

“When we analysed Starch data on advertisements in Life [magazine], we found that on the average twice as many people read the captions as read the body copy. Thus captions offer you twice the audience you get for body copy. It follows that you should never use a photograph without putting a caption under it, and each caption should be a miniature advertisement, complete with brand name and promise.”

David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1963

Tracking Attention in the 21st Century

Print advertising has been dwarfed by online advertising in recent years, but it’s still absolutely vital to know where the target customer’s attention is. Online, the best way for small businesses to do this is with heatmaps

Third-party heat mapping software like hotjar can show businesses precisely where their site visitors are hovering and clicking. Heat maps make it easy for clients to see where their site visitors’ attention is going … and when you know where your visitors are looking, it’s easy to move things like ‘buy’ buttons and contact forms into their line of sight. 

Find out more about Daniel Starch

Before entering the field of market research, Daniel Starch was a Harvard Professor with a PhD in Psychology. The business he established almost 100 years ago kept him employed for 50 years, and it’s still going today:

An academic, first and foremost, Daniel Starch published his research in advertising in three books. The most famous book, written while he was still an academic, was Advertising: Its Principles, Practice, and Technique (1914). He followed this book with Principles of Advertising, then Measuring Advertising Readership and Results (McGraw-Hill, 1966) towards the end of his life. Original copies and reprints of these books occasionally appear online.

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