Businesses spend billions of dollars every year on marketing campaigns. For that spending to be effective, not only do marketing messages have to reach the target audience, but that audience also has to understand them. Marketers make this critical connection through the three main perceptual processes of marketing: exposure, attention and comprehension.

Exposure: Receiving the Message

Exposure occurs when a person's senses are stimulated by a marketing campaign, such as seeing an ad on television or taste-testing a soft drink at a supermarket. Individuals can often choose whether they're exposed to a marketing message. They can fast-forward through ads in a recorded broadcast or switch channels when an advertisement comes on. The stimulus needs to be above a certain threshold level to constitute exposure. For example, sound level in television commercials may be louder than the surrounding programming, and product claims often tend to be exaggerated.

Attention: Processing the Message

Attention is the voluntary, selective or involuntary processing of exposed stimulus. Voluntary attention is the active search for information, such as clicking on an online ad to visit the sponsor's website, looking up a product website after seeing an ad on television, or dropping in on a demo booth at a trade show. Selective attention is the focus on relevant information only, such as by watching sports or business channels exclusively. Demographic data of television viewers provide clues on how and where to target advertising: for example, an ad for a running shoe is unlikely to show up on a business news program, but an ad for an online brokerage might. Involuntary attention is the exposure to unusual sounds, smells, colors or movement.

Comprehension: Decoding the Message

Comprehension, or interpretation, is the decoding of marketing messages. A message can be comprehended accurately, miscomprehended or not comprehended at all. Comprehension can also be selective, meaning only parts of the message might be accurately decoded. Marketing campaigns should be designed to reduce and eliminate the chances of incorrectly decoded messages. For example, a car aimed at the family market should probably not feature a single person driving at high speeds through the countryside. It should (and often does) feature a mother picking up her kids from soccer practice or dropping them off at school.

Holding Onto the Message

Acceptance and retention of a marketing message are possible only after the first three perceptual processes are complete. Acceptance is the evaluation and logging of information in long-term memory, which is based on an individual’s background, the source of the message and the manner in which it is presented. For example, an anti-smoking ad by a government agency is more likely to be accepted than one by a pharmaceutical company touting a particular drug. Repetition of key messages, including placing ads in different time slots and in different media outlets, increase the chances of retention of information in memory.