Creative Drivers of Effectiveness

In Brief:

Creativity is the magic ingredient at the heart of TV advertising’s power.  Delivered at scale, it’s the biggest lever you can pull to drive advertising effectiveness.  It makes brands famous, gets them talked about and boosts a campaign’s efficiency tenfold.

We wanted to build on this belief by providing the creative community with more evidence to support the importance of storytelling and brilliant creativity, but also, we wanted to better understand what else matters when it comes to effective creative execution and just as importantly, what doesn’t? 

Key Points:

  • It’s not about shouting the loudest – hard facts often fail to deliver
  • It’s all about the classic story-telling techniques – make the brand intrinsic to an ad
  • People are paramount – focus on human interaction
  • Music can make an ad…or break it – it works best when it drives the action
  • Branding’s in the timing – don’t tell the brain it’s over too soon

Download the Charts for this research study here

In Depth

The background:

We commissioned Neuro-Insight to trawl their databank to identify the elements of creativity that are most closely linked to effectiveness. This is not painting by numbers, there was – and never will be – a formula for creativity.  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 push up the memorability of an ad.

The study explored the link between TV advertising creative and memory. By analysing the brain responses to over 200 TV ads and coding each of them against 50 or more different creative factors, Neuro-Insight could identify which of those factors were most strongly correlated with emotion and critically long-term memory encoding (LTME) at key branding moments.

Long-term memory encoding 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.

The initial data collection for the ads analysed in the study was done 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. All the TV ads which formed part of this study were from the UK. Each ad was tested against a minimum sample of 50 participants, all of whom were a target audience for the brand’s campaign.

The process of identifying the key drivers of creative effectiveness involved looking at the relationship between each creative factor and memory performance at final branding, and identifying where there was a statistically significant correlation between the two.  Memory at final branding was examined for both ‘detail’ and ‘big picture’ memory, which are recorded as distinct study metrics.  Detail memory, as it sounds, involves our response to the detail of an ad, including close-ups of faces, specifics of characters and places and, crucially, language (both written and spoken).  If an ad has a logo, call to action or tag line at the end, a strong response in terms of detail memory is essential to ensure that this information has been captured.  Big picture memory relates to the storage of memories relating to the overall feel of something; emotions, colours and music tend to be big picture responses.  High response in this part of the brain at end branding points to people taking on board the overall feel of what they have just seen, but not necessarily the detailed branding or message.

The Headlines:

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

It’s not about shouting loudest

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

The ‘overt sell’ in TV ads was a less effective way for ads to be remembered. Ads emphasising hard facts and scientific information were less appealing to the brain and generally performed within the bottom quarter of all the ads tested for LTME. Ads built around emotion, humour, and everyday situations (featuring either real people or actors) all performed far better, with memory encoding levels on average around 15% higher.

creative_drivers_excellence_slide1Showcasing a product rather than overtly selling it was also a better tactic when it came to LTME. 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

A great creative knows how to tell a good story and all of the adages about great story-telling rang true in this research. 

For advertising, the brand should be intrinsic to the story of an ad, not incidental to it, with brand cues interspersed throughout the narrative.  Where this happened, memory encoding was 9% higher 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.


Contrast, breaks and pauses – e.g. changes in pace or sound – can play a powerful role in driving memory response.  Ads that used these techniques created a 20% higher response than other ads where this didn’t happen. This is because our brains respond well to intrigue and anticipation.   These signal that we need to pay attention; that something significant is likely to happen.


People are paramount

We’re all human and humans are fundamentally dominated by our emotions and our need to connect with others.  The ads featuring high levels of human interaction – such as conversation or affection – elicited memory encoding responses 10% higher than those with low levels of human interaction.


And whilst we live in a celebrity culture, perhaps reassuringly, advertisers don’t need to spend big bucks on famous faces.  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 part 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

There are brands that have thrived on their soundtracks – Levis, M&S, John Lewis to name but a few.  We all know that music can be a hugely powerful tool and set the mood and tone of an ad.

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. In fact, it was better to have no music at all in terms of memory encoding than to get it wrong and use music in a way that didn’t add anything meaningful to the ad.


It wasn’t all about the chart hits either.  Neuro-Insight also found that all forms of music performed well in terms of memory encoding response at end branding, but the golden oldies 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 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.

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.


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 – particularly taglines. When a tagline is both written and spoken at end branding, our brains are given an “aid” to understand the message. This aid is likely to be translated into higher levels of brain response. Interestingly, the presence of a tagline alone (either written or spoken) increases levels of positive emotional brain response also. This could be because a tagline offers some more information about the brand – something that our brains may be interested in.


The audience is enlightened

There’s a lot of talk about diversity (or the lack of it) in advertising.  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.

In summary

Although there is no formula for creativity, we can take advantage of science to help reveal some of the magic.  By making small changes to our ads we can maximise our chances of the content we produce sticking in the brains of our audience and affecting their future behaviour.

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