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Creative Drivers of Effectiveness
Creative Drivers of Effectiveness

Creative Drivers of Effectiveness

Posted on: June 21, 2023

In Brief

At its best, advertising is a welcome guest in our lives. Creativity is the gift that earns its welcome. With creativity the most powerful driver of advertising effectiveness within our control, this research is designed to help provide some pointers on how we can make ads that get brands into the memories of our customers.

It’s been seven years since we last explored the Creative Drivers of Effectiveness (2016) – which aimed to better understand the factors to consider when it comes to effective creative execution. Given that the world continues to evolve at a rapid pace, we’ve put creativity back in the spotlight to understand whether any factors have changed from the first iteration and to build some new elements into the research.

Key points

  • Showcase your product, don’t shout about it
  • People are paramount, it’s important to focus on human interaction
  • Brand assets can be impactful
  • Give audio a clear role
  • Impact is in the timing, both for ad duration and final branding

In Depth


When ‘Creative Drivers of Effectiveness’ first launched in 2016, we worked with Neuro-Insight to provide evidence to support the importance of storytelling and brilliant creativity. Given that the world has seen major changes in recent years (e.g. the pandemic and Brexit to name a few), we re-commissioned Neuro-Insight to update this valuable piece of research. The context of the world that we live in hugely impacts the way in which we consume and respond to stories, media and therefore advertising, as a result, it is worth noting that the array of societal shifts have impacted our subconscious and is an important piece of context to keep in mind when looking at this data.

Neuro-Insight trawled their databanks to explore whether the elements of creativity that are most linked to effectiveness that were previously identified in the 2016 iteration had changed. It’s important to note that creativity and the making of ads and narratives does not have a perfect formula. But if science can help decipher just a small part of the magic we can identify those instances where a few changes in the edit could boost the memorability of an ad.

The study explored the link between TV advertising creative and memory by analysing the brain responses to 150 TV ads. The ads were categorised against a list of different creative variables such as brand assets, category, children, sonic branding, style, etc. These ads were taken from 2019 – 2023, which encompasses the time before, during and after the pandemic. By coding the ads, Neuro-Insight could identify, using statistical analysis, which of those factors delivered strong and meaningful results.

The initial data collection for the ads analysed in the study was conducted using Neuro-Insight’s science based technology, Steady State Topography (SST). Study participants wear an electrode cap with sensors that captures brain activity during exposure to stimulus (in this case TV ads). You can read more about Neuro-Insight’s technology and work on its website.

Neuro-Insight can use SST to look at what goes into our long-term memory. This can include both detailed encoding (like text, branding, key messages etc.) and global memory encoding (big picture, narrative connection and overall feel of an ad).

Long-term memory encoding (LTME) is important. There is a wealth of academic evidence that supports the link between LTME, decision making and future behaviour. Short-term, or ‘working’ memory, lasts just a few seconds – long enough to jot down a phone number that we quickly forget. LTME is anything longer than that and once information is stored within our long-term memory, it can stay with us for a lifetime. For advertisers, this is crucial. If an ad doesn’t reach this part of the brain then it serves no purpose as a marketing tool. It is purely an expensive piece of entertainment. Other metrics they can explore is personal relevance, emotional responses and the direction of the emotion (e.g. how appealing or unappealing something is.)

For this particular study, Neuro-Insight focused on three key metrics. The primary metric is long-term memorability, specifically detailed long-term memorability as this has shown to directly correlate with future purchase behaviour. The secondary metrics were specifically selected as they are key drivers of long term memory. The first is personal relevance which will show how engaged and relevant the ads feel to the audience. The second is emotional impact, which allows us to understand how the audience is responding on an emotional level. 

The Headlines

The analysis revealed five key creative factors that can make a difference to the impact of TV ads on our brains:

Showcase your product, don’t shout

Whilst we consistently encounter advertising in our daily lives, our brains are not necessarily receptive to everything, nor do they like being advertised to. Essentially, our brain has a built in ‘ad blocker’ which develops during adolescence, it is an evolutionary mechanism that allows us to avoid danger. Therefore, if we feel as though we are being overtly advertised to, this ‘ad blocker’ fires up, making the TV ad less effective and less memorable.

A way to navigate around this ‘blocker’ is to weave the product into the narrative. Analysis found that utilising this technique elicits more peaks of memory and personal relevance throughout an ad. This gives a brand more opportunity to get into the audience’s memory as there are 1.4x more peaks of strong brain response throughout the ad, than when you have an overt focus on the product.

We’ve long known that emotion is an integral part of successful TV advertising, even in very rational categories and the study supported this.

People are paramount

We’re all human and humans are fundamentally dominated by our emotions and our need to connect with others. The analysis from Neuro-Insight found that human focus is important to ad success and that ads with people present, deliver more impact – reinforcing the findings that were discovered in the first iteration of this study. The ads featuring people were 15% more relevant to the audience and drove 24% higher levels of memory encoding at final branding in comparison to ads with no people.

Making the narrative of an ad revolve around a person allows the audience to create a connection with the on-screen character and provides an opportunity for the audience to become more involved.

However, not all onscreen characters work the same. Further analysis showed that the audience did not relate to the narrative as much when children are the focus. As an alternative, seeing children appear briefly or as more secondary characters was significantly more impactful.

Utilise your brand assets

A great creative knows how to tell a good story. For advertising, the brand should be intrinsic to the story of an ad, not incidental to it, with brand cues interspersed throughout the narrative. The analysis discovered that integrating brand colours drove strong emotional impact (+9%). The brain works by association, so if a brand has been seen or alluded to during an ad, it will elicit a stronger response at the final brand sign-off. Utilising brand assets is a subtle way to weave branding into the narrative your audience is trying to connect with. As a result, when the switch to final branding is made, it feel cohesive and more congruent with the narrative that has just unravelled and therefore driving a more positive emotional outcome.

Give audio a clear role

There are brands that have thrived on their soundtracks. We all know that music can be a hugely powerful tool and set the mood and tone of an ad. Given that hearing is an always-on sense, utilising audio to its full extent is important. When categorising the use of music into different levels – no music, passive/background music, music prominent and music driving the ad, Neuro-Insight found that ads which used music to drive the action, elicited significantly more peaks of memory and emotional impact throughout the ad. As a result, this gives a brand more opportunity to deliver the intended impact in comparison to not using music or using a passive background track.

Essentially, the music should drive the action and the sentiment should be well aligned.

Impact is in the timing

The question of time-length has always been a recurring theme, and Neuro-Insight explored whether the ad duration influenced the impact of the ads analysed. Analysis showed that ads that are under 30 seconds often fail to create a strong connection with the audience and develop a compelling narrative, causing the audience to be less involved emotionally and therefore less likely to store these stories into memory. On the other hand, ads over 30 seconds were still memorable, however they lose their emotional impact slightly, this metric can be driven by pace, music and developing excitement but after 30 seconds these mechanisms can start to lose their strength.

As a result, the findings suggest that 30 seconds seem to be the optimal time to develop a narrative and build a strong connection with your audience and therefore deliver the greatest impact.

The timing of end branding is hugely important. The brain processes information in chunks. When it takes a moment to process what it’s just seen, this is known as ‘conceptual closure’. 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.

Analysis showed that ads that kept branding on screen for longer (in this case 3 seconds or more), delivered stronger levels of impact, with significantly higher levels of memory (+3%), emotion (+11%) and relevance (+11%). 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. In addition, brains are inherently lazy. They don’t like to work hard to understand messages in ads and like latching onto the easiest explanation or the easiest form of communication in order to make sense of something. Therefore, the end of an ad is important

Creative license to play

Whilst the majority of the findings are focused on the factors that saw statistically significant responses, Neuro-Insight unearthed other factors that are worth considering:

Branding moments

  • The analysis showed that there was no statistically significant difference in how many branding moments you use, either visual or audio. Therefore, this means that as long as the brand is woven into the narrative, there are no hard and fast rules on how many times you should show branding.

Brand assets

  • Neuro-Insight also looked at brand assets other than colour which included the use of celebrities, brand characters and iconic packaging and shapes.
  • Findings shows that there was no statistically significant differences due to low sample sizes, but previous analysis has shown that brand assets, like colour, can be used as a good way to get around the ‘ad blocker’. However, this would be an area for potential future investigation.


  • Neuro-Insight also investigated different tonalities – such as light-hearted, factual, serious, humorous etc.
  • There was no statistical difference seen but analysis did show that they worked slightly differently to each other. For example, factual ads were well remembered but not appealing, whereas humorous ads were less memorable but more appealing.


  • The study also explored the use of celebrities in any shape or form, rather than celebrities that had a strong connection with the brand. Findings show that celebrities had little impact on any responses and therefore will not either make or break your ad.

Character Interaction

  • Whilst the 2016 iteration found that character interaction was highly impactful, when reconducting this study, analysis showed that having interaction or no interaction made no statistically significant difference. However, when the type of interaction was broken down, there were interesting differences between the use of verbal and physical interaction. This time, physical interaction elicited a less positive response.
  • It is important to note that these ads were tested throughout and immediately post pandemic. With physical interactions restricted during this unprecedented time, negative associations have likely been built with the idea of physical interactions - this was reflected in the subconscious data.
  • Contrastingly, verbal interaction elicited strong levels of response as this was the only type of ‘safe’ interaction during the pandemic. It is likely as we get further away from the pandemic, there may be a shift back towards physical interaction.

In summary

Whilst there isn’t a clear formula for creativity, we can benefit from the learnings of neuroscience and put together a toolbox of techniques, discovered through unveiling the subconscious to maximise the opportunity to produce impactful, memorable and effective ads.:

Read the WARC paper (behind paywall): The neuroscience of creative effectiveness in TV advertising

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