Many of us remember the story of the blind men and the elephant. One touched the trunk and thought an elephant was like a fire hose; another the tusk and thought the elephant was like a horn; a third yanked the tail and thought the elephant was a kind of snake. All of them were correct but none of them had the full picture: what an elephant really was like.
For too long, this has been the story of communications research. Most of the common measurements give us something. None of them by itself tells enough of the communications story to make more than blundering guesses (or sold to clients as a kind of magic to make decisions.)
Now, at last, we have moved into something called communications science. A wide combination of measurements – some quite new, some old – can be interpreted and combined. That combination lays out the complete outline of the elephant: cognitive content filtering, impact, excitement, meaning, affect, and predicted response in the real world.
It is not one measurement any more. Rather, a combination of the old ones plus neuroscience plus tiny measurements of physical response. They are different (and explore different aspects of peoples’ responses); right now, different kinds of specialists need to learn to work together to integrate their findings., I believe that a new kind of communications scientist will arise, one who can (in that one person’s body of knowledge) span all the different disciplines, pull all the inner workings of that elephant together, and at last really tell how people respond to advertising and all other communications. And that kind of scientist is lurking around right now—the person who is able to integrate all the different findings into one cogent and powerful story.
Maybe I am too optimistic but I think that the day has just dawned, one in which communications research can give decision-makers full information about the people to whom we communicate. And, at last, those people can tell us what is really happening to that enigmatic elephant.