Can A Mobile Ad Make You Cry? Not Likely

Well, unless the mobile ad is really, really awful…and believe me, I have seen my share of tear-jerking mobile marketing tragedies. Some of those QR rabbit holes I have jumped down for the sake of this column have registered a range of feelings.

For over a decade, digital creatives have asked the question of whether a digital ad carries the same kind of storytelling and emotional oomph as the great TV spots. In the original form of the question, marketers at the early digital conferences used to ask one another routinely whether they even could recall a recently viewed Web ad. Only in this decade has the bar been raised higher, and we have heard creative ask whether a Web ad can make you cry. Well, take all that is not engaging about desktop digital advertising and shrink it down to a fraction of its size -- and there you have the even bigger problem for mobile.    

But according to some fascinating research involving brainwave analysis and ad response, the basic elements of human perception, cognition and emotion stack the deck against advertisers getting from a mobile ad the kind of engagement we might get from a 30 second TV spot. “We find a very interesting correlation between emotional engagement and form factor,” says A.K. Pradeep, founder and CEO of Nielsen NeuroFocus.



His company measures brain waves to evaluate the effectiveness of advertising to engage attention, emotion and memory. Looking at how subjects respond to spots across every sort of large, small, medium, indoor and outdoor screen, scale matters. “The brain seems to have a very good engagement with emotions as long as the form factor or size of the face expressing emotion is the size of a normal human face.” Since faces often serve as the trigger for some kind of emotional connection with the content, this is critically important to sparking a feeling in a message. “If the face appears as big or bigger, my brain is happy to engage emotionally. When there is a reduction in the face, the emotional engagement is reduced non-linearly.” As the screen gets smaller, our ability to register a face emotionally diminishes quickly.

What this means for mobile media and advertising is not that mobile messages cannot engage the user, but that they do so across different and even heightened other parameters -- namely, attention and memory. As one would expect in the less cluttered environment of the mobile phone, the user does appear to be involved in the message, and their recall can be teased with the right creative. It will be important for marketers leveraging advertising on mobile to understand that certain kinds of engagement can be grabbed more easily than others. “Attention, memory and novelty will be critical neurometrics for devices with smaller form factors,” says Pradeep.

And for all of those TV programmers and marketers eying the tablet, the larger screen size does restore some of the emotional responses that diminish so markedly when content is viewed on smartphones.

This is also not to say that emotion can’t be engaged altogether on mobile devices, but that we have to recognize that the key trigger for emotion traditionally in ads –- the visual - has been compromised. This may be taken as an interesting challenge for marketers to find other ways to touch the user. For instance, Pradeep speculates: “When you see a drop in the visual, are there other sensory cues like audio that can become more important in mobile?” The same music that helps drive a TV spot might have to work that much harder or differently to compensate for the diminished visual power on the smaller screen. Likewise, the touch element, which isn’t even present in most other media, can be activated here in ways that might communicate feeling. You have a chance to compensate through audio or tactile.”

Pradeep says that in his research thus far, it seems that the dominance of attention and memory and the diminution of emotion in responding to content on mobile is an inherent attribute of the medium and not a property of the content itself.

The other parameter at work on mobile, of course, is context. Context does not only affect relevance, but receptivity. And Pradeep warns that mobile marketers need to account not just for physical location, although that is the easiest and first thing mobile might determine. “Time is an important contextual element, and the social networks. I think we are poised at a giant revolution in advertising where location, time and socially relevant data are factored in,” he says.

Nielsen NeuroFocus helps marketers manage the change in scale from TV and other larger screens to the smartphone by literally compressing 30-second spots down to the essential qualities that make them work on mobile. The subjects’ responses to 30-second spots are determined so NeuroFocus can see on a second-by-second basis what the viewer was responding to across the major metrics of attention, emotion and memory. “Our algorithms automatically compress the ad into a seven-second version for mobile,” he says. They extract the elements that the viewer was disregarding anyway and create a mobilized version just of the key elements that sparked response. “It is like taking a yellow highlighter to an ad,” he says. “But when I talk about this with creative, often they have a cardiac arrest.”

But this mobile version, while not broadcast-ready, is a kind of thought exercise that indicates to the marketer how the ad can be reduced to the things the brain liked about it


Of course for an even broader and more challenging test, Dr. Pradeep might want to wire up the skulls around my house. I am not sure what sort of emotion “Oh, look the puppies” is supposed to indicate. But when my daughter passes around to my wife her iPhone to show off her latest cute animal from wherever these twentysomethings find and share this stuff, something visceral is going on.

“Do you know how much I spend each month to keep this family in iPhones,” I protest. “This so you can see Labradors licking the lens on YouTube?”

“You see, you say stuff like that as if it were a bad thing,” my wife counters. “Have you seen this puppy? Look.”

Note to Dr. Pradeep. Yes, mobile media can engage this frustrated bill-payer’s emotions, but maybe not the ones marketers want to use.

On the other hand, he just gave me one more piece of evidence for the upcoming final family arguments over whether Dad really needs a 70-inch flat screen TV in the living room. 

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