Don't shout...and other things that help us remember TV advertising

  • Neuroscientific study reveals creative factors that make TV advertising more memorable
  • Some creative factors make no difference, including the ethnicity of characters in TV ads

London, 22 March 2016: A new neuroscientific study has identified creative factors that can help make TV advertising even more effective. 

The study, by Neuro-Insight, world leaders in consumer neuroscience market research, was commissioned by Thinkbox to explore the link between TV advertising creative and memory. It analysed over 150 ads, coding each of them against over 50 different creative factors to identify which are most strongly correlated with long-term memory encoding (LTME) at key branding moments.  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 from the correlation analysis was an identification of creative factors that make it more likely that brands in TV ads will be stored in our long-term memory. It also revealed some factors which do not make a difference to LTME.

The audience is enlightened

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. 

It's not about shouting loudest

The study found that overt selling of products in TV ads was 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% higher.

The research also found that it was better for long-term memory to showcase a product rather than to overtly sell it. Ads where a product was intertwined within the narrative of the ad elicited a 17% higher memory encoding response than ads that went for the hard product sell. 

It’s all about the classic story-telling techniques

Making branding intrinsic to the story of an ad, for example by having branding cues interspersed through the ad’s narrative, gave a 9% 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.

Also, the study found that using contrast, breaks and pauses in an ad – e.g. changes in pace or sound – created a 20% higher response than other ads. This is because our brains respond well to intrigue and anticipation as these signal that something significant is soon to happen. 

People are paramount

The ads featuring a high level of human interaction – such as conversation or affection – elicited memory encoding responses 10% 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% higher levels of memory encoding for that particular bit of the ad. Therefore, celebrities could be used as a useful tool for delivering messages and calls to action as it can add a sense of personal endorsement. 

Music can make an ad…or break it

The analysis discovered that 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 did this generated a 14% higher memory encoding response compared with when music in an ad was a recessive, background feature. When music was at odds with the narrative of the ad, the study found that this dissonance jarred with viewers.

Neuro-Insight 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 8% higher response than more recent chart hits. 

Branding’s in the timing

The study also revealed the importance of ‘conceptual closure’, and the point at which it appears in an ad. Conceptual closure is a pattern of brain activity that occurs when a sequence of events apparently comes to an end.  The brain treats this as a ‘punctuation point’ – it takes what it has just seen, bundles it together and files it away.  Whilst it’s occupied doing this, it is relatively unreceptive to new information and brain responses fall sharply for a second or so. This can occur throughout an ad at junctions in the narrative, and is a positive thing - a sign that the brain is responding actively to a good story.

However, if conceptual closure happens immediately before a key branding moment in an ad, it’s a problem, because the branding will coincide with the period of low receptivity and so is likely to be missed.  

The study found that in those ads that suffered from conceptual closure at the end of the ad, memory encoding fell on average by around 30% in the moments moving into final branding. The clear conclusion is that 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.

Other factors that defy categorization

Other creative factors in ads that do not make a significant difference either way in terms of their effects on memory encoding response include claims and demonstrations; calls to action; voiceover and dialogue; music genre; children and animals; and type of narrative structure. These elements were found to be secondary to the overall narrative of an ad. 


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.

Heather Andrew UK CEO, Neuro-Insight


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.

Matt Hill Research and Planning Director, Thinkbox


Press contact: Simon Tunstill | Head of Communications, Thinkbox | [email protected]


Using a database of over 150 ads, Neuro-Insight coded them against a range of over 50 creative criteria, focusing always on data relating to the target audiences for the ad in question.  The results were then correlated against levels of long-term memory encoding at final branding (proven through other work to correlate with decision-making and purchase behaviour) to identify the likely drivers of real world effectiveness. A statistical analysis was carried out, and all factors described here as drivers of effectiveness showed effects that were significant at a 95% confidence level or better. 

About Thinkbox

Thinkbox is the marketing body for commercial TV in the UK, in all its forms. It works with the marketing community with a single ambition: to help advertisers get the best out of today’s TV. 

Its shareholders are Channel 4, ITV, Sky Media, Turner Media Innovations and UKTV, who together represent over 99% of commercial TV advertising revenue through their owned and partner TV channels. Associate Members are Discovery Networks Norway, Disney, London Live, RTL Group, TalkTalk, Think TV (Australia), Think TV (Canada), TV Globo (Brazil), TV2 (Norway) and Virgin Media. Discovery Channel UK, UTV and STV also give direct financial support.

TV today has more to offer advertisers than ever before, not least because this growing medium remains at the heart of popular culture and advertising effectiveness. From understanding how audiences engage with TV advertising, uncovering what the latest technological developments mean, explaining innovative and affordable solutions, and encouraging creativity to providing the rigorous proof of effectiveness that advertisers need, Thinkbox is here to help businesses meet their marketing objectives. 

In recent years, Thinkbox has won a number of awards including Media 360’s Industry Body of the Decade; Best Business to Business Marketing at The Marketing Society Awards for Excellence; the Grand Prix award for Best Media Research of the Year from the Media Research Group; the awards for Advertising and Media Research from the Market Research Society; Research Team of the Year from Mediatel; and its TV advertising has been awarded by The British Television Advertising Awards/ The British Arrows, the APA, D&AD and Creative Circle. Thinkbox’s ‘Harvey the dog ad’ was voted 2010’s Ad of the Year by a poll of ITV viewers, with the follow up TV Ad – ‘Harvey & Rabbit’ – appearing in Nielsen’s study of the Most Liked Ads of 2012 and Campaign’s Top 10 TV & Cinema Ads of 2012. ‘Harvey & Harmony’, the third ad in the Harvey series, was one of the nation’s top ten most liked ads of 2015 (source: Ebiquity / TNS).

About Neuro-Insight

Neuro-Insight is a market research company that uses unique brain-imaging technology to measure how the brain responds to communications. It is the only company in the world licensed to use this patented technology, enabling the measurement of second by second changes in brain activity. Neuro-Insight delivers unique insights into how a piece of design or advertising is affecting people at both a rational and an emotional level.

You might also like

Highlights from ITV

Celebrate the weekend with Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, The Jonathan Ross presents an evening of entertainment and conversation. Love Island is nearing the finale, and if you missed Vera previously, now is your chance to catch up.


What to watch on Channel 4

Join Kathy Burke on an exploration into ageng with Growing Up. Your DIY pick-me-up is sorted on Monday afternoons with Tool Club. And visit the real Downton Abbey in Highclere: Behind The Scenes.


What’s on Sky in the next fortnight

Trouble is brewing in A Town Called Malice. Discover how the Irish capital transformed in Dublin Narcos. There are new guests staying in Room 104. Follow Liz Bonnin in Above the Arctic and see who wins at the 95th Academy Awards.