How To Create Truly Memorable Commercials

While the first job of advertising is to get itself noticed, the second job is to be remembered. If not successful, the third job, being persuasive, won't have a chance to succeed until the advertising is experienced directly at point of sale.

So, from my study of how memorable advertising works, as well as a decade using facial coding to scientifically quantify emotionally effective advertising, what actually works in generating high recall?

Here's a primer, involving several variables:

1. A visual impression enters the brain's sensory storehouse for no more than half a second. In that brief time, consumers intuitively make a decision as to whether the image if worthy of retaining. Everything else gets discarded, given that the brain is like a paper-shredder constantly avoiding overload.

Radical simplicity is the first secret. As the joke that has to be explained is never as funny as the joke you just get, visual complexity kills recall potential. Since half the brain is devoted to processing visuals, failure to leverage imagery is fatal.



2. Invoking emotional engagement through relevance continues to be another key attribute of memorable advertising. But relevancy isn't only whether the offer fits our needs, or wants, or what we don't want (fears). It could be that we relate to the talent on screen or in print, to a problem that's depicted, or to a storyline or theme.

Visuals serve as metaphors to help us understand the world so leverage them to establish a need or want. Case in point: the famous Maxell audiotape advertising that shows a guy in a chair inside his room, the lamp shade and the guy's scarf both blown back from the force of the music coming from the loudspeakers. There, the visual metaphor being exploited consists of conflating loud (versus soft) and fast (versus slow), given that the guy is dressed to resemble a motorcycle rider (i.e. "Easy Rider"), excitement and rebellion are the evoked want.

3. Associations aided by familiarity provide another point of leverage. The storage of memories is often based on the degree to which information is associated with what else we've already retained. That's because people are inherently lazy, and retained works ties in to what they have already deemed important, interesting, etc.

The greater the number of these links (evoking stories already in our hearts and minds), the better the chance of recall. The Maxwell ad takes advantage of a number of associations we have regarding the outlaw status/myth of bikers. Link a key product attribute to a meaningful memory and use the latter to hook us on the former.

4. Speaking of associations, since neurons that fire together wire together, repetition does work. But since that approach can cost you lots of money, and runs the risk of alienating people, let's check three more ways to generate recall.

5. The opposite of repetition is novelty. What's new, surprising and of interest can literally make our eyes open wide with curiosity. Just make sure the mind's eye has time to absorb it and register emotionally, which takes at least 1/6th of a second (5 frames). That sounds easy but, believe me, in testing advertising I've seen many instances of "bald spots" where consumers aren't engaged because everything is happening too fast.

6. Change works, because real or implied motion gets our attention. The explanation is from an evolutionary point of view -- survival. Any change in the status quo may provide an opportunity or pose a threat. When the change involves intensity, even better. What's red-hot invites or even demands scrutiny.

7. Finally, make sure your advertising involves an explicit, or at least, an implicit story, and that the story has a climax. Nothing bores people more than a story, or joke, without a punch line. Far too many commercials are like a drive through Kansas, instead of Colorado. Everything's flat, with the problem/solution scenario not really working because the problems depicted are as dull as the outcome.

A great ad should have at least one peak, maybe two. Our research shows that a peak that comes later is better, letting the emotional momentum build. For TV spots we've tested, peaks that come later enjoy a true-smile, top-box emotional pay-off that's 12.8% greater than a peak that occurs at or before the mid-point of a 30-second spot.

This material is excerpted from Dan Hill's new book, About Face, the secrets of emotionally effective advertising, to be published in October.

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