Thinkbox and Neuro-Insight: how to do brainy TV ads

TV marketing body Thinkbox has commissioned a new neuroscientific study which, it says, has identified creative factors that help make TV advertising work. The study is from Neuro-Insight, said to be a leader in ‘consumer neuroscience market research.’

It analysed over 150 ads, coding each of them against over 50 different creative factors to identify which strongly correlated with long-term memory encoding (LTME) at key branding moments. According to Neuro-Insight, once a message is processed by our long-term memory, it can last a lifetime and research shows LTME correlates strongly with decision-making and future behaviour. Without LTME, an ad is just entertainment.

The outcome of the correlation analysis was an identification of creative factors that make it more likely that brands in TV ads will be stored in long-term memory. It also revealed some creative don’ts which don’t help at all.

Background design of cutout of male head and symbolic elements on the subject of human mind, consciousness, imagination, science and creativity
Background design of cutout of male head and symbolic elements on the subject of human mind, consciousness, imagination, science and creativity

Here are some of the findings:

*The study found that neither the ethnicity of characters in TV ads nor the portrayal of women in ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ female roles makes a difference to memory encoding response. The viewing audience’s subconscious is enlightened. This finding underlines that there is no reason for creative agencies to be cautious or conservative when casting and scripting ads.

*Overt selling of products in TV ads is a less effective way to be remembered. Ads emphasising hard facts and scientific information were on average in the lowest performing quarter of all the ads tested for LTME. Ads featuring live filming of real people, emotion and humour performed far better, with memory encoding levels on average around 15 per cent higher.

*Ads where a product is intertwined within the narrative of the ad elicited a 17 per cent higher memory encoding response than ads that went for hard product sell.

*Making branding intrinsic to the story of an ad, for example by having branding cues interspersed through the ad’s narrative, gave a nine per cent higher memory encoding response at the final branding compared to ads where the brand was only weakly present throughout the story. The brain works by association, so if a brand has been seen during an ad it will elicit a stronger response at the final brand sign-off.

*Ads using contrast, breaks and pauses – e.g. changes in pace or sound – created a 20 per cent higher response than other ads. This is because brains respond well to intrigue and anticipation as these signal that something significant is going to happen.

*Ads featuring a high level of human interaction – such as conversation or affection – elicited memory encoding responses ten per cent higher than those with a low level.

*The use of celebrities in ads had no significant impact on brain response at end branding. However if the call to action in the ad was delivered by a celebrity, viewers showed 13 per cent higher levels of memory encoding for that particular bit of the ad. Therefore celebrities can be a useful tool for delivering messages and calls to action.

*Music in TV ads works best at creating long-term memory when it drives the action of the ad, for example when lyrics or the cadence of the music matched what was seen on screen. Ads that do this generate a 14 per cent higher memory encoding response compared to music as a background feature. When music was at odds with the narrative of the ad, the study found that this dissonance jarred with viewers.

*It also found that all forms of music performed well in terms of memory encoding response at end branding, but that older music performed best. Ads with music dating back to before 2000 had an eight per cent higher response than more recent chart hits.

*Any ‘reveal’ in an ad should happen a few seconds before end branding, or feature the brand as a key part of the ‘reveal’ itself, in order to avoid the negative impact of conceptual closure (when the brain switches off).

Neuro-Insight UK CEO Heather Andrew says: “The UK ad industry has an exceptional tradition of creativity in TV advertising. These insights should complement that expertise not by prescribing a to-do list for advertisers, but by giving an understanding of how specific ad elements can heighten creative effectiveness and lead to improved ROI for brand advertisers.”

Thinkbox research and planning director Matt Hill says: “There is no recipe for success in TV advertising. But what this fascinating study by Neuro-Insight shows is that there are lessons to be learned from how the brain reacts to different creative approaches. It provides some good rules of thumb to bear in mind for increasing the likelihood of ads being remembered for the long-term.”

We probably knew most of that already but it’s no doubt useful to have the scientists agree. They could, maybe, have saved time by looking at some John Lewis ads and concluded: “do it that way.”

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