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What Super Bowl advertisers don’t know about the human brain could cost $11.2 million per minute

“Are you not entertained?”


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Steve Genco

3 years ago | 12 min read

This year, Fox announced it collected an average of $5.6 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl advertising, raking in about $400 million overall. As I watched most of that money disappear in a puff of smoke (much as the San Francisco 49ers did in the 4th quarter), I couldn’t help but reflect on all the brain science principles advertisers ignored or violated in their creative efforts. Most of those ads, I’m sorry to say, are likely to achieve the outcome Lincoln feared for his Gettysburg Address — they will be little noted nor long remembered.

“Are you not entertained?”

Two themes seemed to animate most of this year’s Super Bowl ads. The first reminded me of a practice I learned about in my Intro to Anthropology many years ago called the potlatch. Invented by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, a potlatch is an opulent public ceremony in which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige.

Some economists, in trying to find a rational explanation for advertising, have speculated that ads are a potlatch-like celebration of wealth and prestige. The more a company can afford to spend on advertising, this theory goes, the more it signals the quality of the products and the trustworthiness of its brands:

“The advertisement offers a reassuringly expensive sign that the advertiser has either persuaded lots of people to buy his product already, a good sign, or has persuaded someone to lend him lots of money to finance the campaign.” ¹

Just paying the well-publicized entry fee for a Super Bowl ad is a strong indicator that an advertiser has (in the absence of a better term) money to burn. But a potlatch ad goes further: it signals not just spending, but gratuitous spending. In the Hard Rock-J-Lo ad, “The Hype,” for example, rapper Pitbull appears on screen for about a quarter second and rock legend Steven Van Zandt appears for less than 2 seconds. Neither may have been noticed at all during its single presentation (see below), but both no doubt received hefty paychecks for their appearances.

Whether it was celebrities (Bryan Cranston in a “Shining” spoof for Mountain Dew), movie and TV clips (17 scenes of people saying “yes” or “no” in 2 short-form Discover ads; 11 sci-fi movie scenes either spliced in or recreated in Walmart’s ad for its pickup service), or mashing up celebrities in costumes and brand mascots for no apparent reason (P&G’s wild “When We Come Together” ad), advertisers seemed to signal a willingness to overwhelm with excess.

What’s the message of a potlatch ad? “We’re here, we’re rich, we’re awesome, we’re fun, and we’ll spend whatever it takes to remind you of these facts, even if that spending is totally frivolous.”

Importantly, potlatch ads have little or nothing to do with the products they reference (if they reference products at all). They are selling the dominating power of the producer, not the value or benefits of any specific product.

Against this frenetic background of potlatch extravaganzas, a second, quite opposite theme was also portrayed in several Super Bowl ads. That was pathos, the presentation of an emotional appeal that evokes some combination of pity or sadness, usually resolving into a message of hope or inspiration.

The most talked about of these efforts was Google’s “Loretta” ad, in which an old man asks Google to help him remember his deceased wife. Neuromarketing vendor Sentient Decision Science did a very interesting implicit association study of this ad and discovered that younger and older people had quite different reactions to it. For the young it evoked positive emotions (measured by automatic facial expression coding) as the old man recounts a happy life now nearing its end, but for people in the 60+ age group it evoked consistently negative facial expressions, perhaps reflecting the personal relevance of its rather stark depiction of approaching dementia and death.

The Google ad, unlike a similar but more light-hearted and uplifting ad it ran during the 2010 Super Bowl (“Parisian Love”), has no happy ending. It failed to resolve into a countervailing message of hope or inspiration. Perhaps Google, in a kind of emotional jujitsu, meant for this ad to appeal only to young people, but I can’t imagine that the (likely young) internal team who put this ad together had any idea how older people would react to it.

Playing with pathos in advertising is tricky business

Compare the Google ad to the WeatherTech “Lucky Dog” ad. Here the narrator assumes the voice of the WeatherTech CEO’s dog, who tells a touching story about his life-saving surgery to repair a heart condition. The ad says nothing about the company’s products, praises the veterinary hospital that performed the surgery, and asks viewers to donate to support veterinary medicine. It closes with the now-cured doggy frolicking on the beach. Happy ending, sadness vanquished, lovable dog. What’s not to like?

For the most part, both potlatch and pathos ads were entertaining. But were they effective as ads?

To answer that question, we have to ask how the key features of these ads — the excess and the emotion — were likely to be processed by the 102 million human brains viewing them. How are such presentations likely to impact viewers’ future behavior, if at all? How are they likely to change or reinforce the associations and expectations people already have for the products and brands being promoted?

To put it in the terms the CEO might ask the CMO: what exactly did we get for the $5.6 million we just spent on that 30-second Super Bowl ad?

Brain science provides marketers with a window into the workings of human cognition and emotion when people come in contact with all types of media, including marketing and advertising. Many of these findings contradict traditional beliefs about how marketing and advertising work. Failing to take the latest brain science findings into account when designing advertising can lead to unintended consequences — and waste millions of dollars on ads that fall short of achieving their objectives.

Here are four brain science findings that might have caused advertisers to rethink some aspects of their Super Bowl ads, assuming their purpose was not merely to entertain, but also to strengthen how their products and brands were positioned and connected in consumers’ minds.

#1 Advertising needs repetition to work properly

Single-exposure ads, no matter how extravagant, are unlikely to have much of an impact beyond a very brief feeling of small emotional reward. In discussing small emotional rewards in Intuitive Marketing, I emphasize that repetition is key to the success of such ads, which are usually embedded in long-running campaigns. This is because small emotional rewards only translate into liking for an associated brand or product through conditioning, which is an implicit learning process that requires significant repetition to “take.”

“The key element in effective small emotional reward marketing that marketers need to keep in mind is repetition. In each of the successful ad campaigns just cited, a common feature is persistence, often extending over a period of years, even decades. Conditioning does not work without repetition. One-off Super Bowl ads are unlikely to strengthen emotional ties to products or brands if such feelings did not already exist in consumers’ minds.” ²

#2 Don’t blink: Brains have trouble processing rapid visual presentations

Advertisers have learned that rapid cuts and scene changes create an impression of excitement and kinetic energy. Rapid scene changes were on full display in this year’s Super Bowl ads. Porsche’s car chase ad, “The Heist,” featured 45 scene cuts in 60 seconds; Sabra’s “How I ’mmus” ad had 27 cuts in 30 seconds; the Jimmy Fallon/Michelob Ultra ad had 55 cuts in 60 seconds; and the most frenetic offering of all, the Hard Rock/J-Lo ad, “The Hype,” led the pack with an astonishing 74 scene cuts in 60 seconds.

What these advertisers might like to know is that the human brain cannot process 74 separate visual stimuli in one minute. Our brains have multiple memory systems that help us make sense of the world around us. Some operate under conscious control, others function automatically. One of these memory systems — sensory memory — plays a critical role in how we perceive changes in our environment. Each of our senses has a dedicated memory system: iconic memory is a fast-decaying store of visual perceptions, echoic memory is where we temporarily store auditory inputs, and haptic memory is a storage area for touch stimuli.

Why should marketers be familiar with the natural decay rates built into sensory memory systems?

“If marketers present media stimuli at a faster pace than our sensory memory is designed to handle, they risk producing results that literally cannot be perceived. In the visual realm, this has been documented in a phenomenon called the attentional blink.³ When two visual stimuli are presented in sequence, with only 0.3 to 0.5 seconds between them, the second stimulus usually cannot be detected. If an important marketing element like a logo or product image is conveyed within that attentional blink time window, as might occur in a particularly fast-paced video ad, it may never be perceived or consciously processed at all.” ⁴

It is simply impossible for human brains to make sense of 74 separate visual stimuli in 60 seconds. When displayed for less than half a second, each scene essentially overrides the previous one, destroying any sense of continuity from one cut to the next.

And that’s why you didn’t see Pitbull throw the pineapple.

#3 Tugging at heart strings? How we process intense emotional displays

Another belief on display in this (and every) Super Bowl is the idea that displaying an emotionally-moving narrative will improve viewers’ attitudes toward the sponsoring product or brand. According to this belief, when emotional advertising elicits a conscious feeling of liking or sympathy, it can directly prompt people to engage in the main forms of consumer behavior marketers care about: buying, consuming, advocating, and repeat buying.

Unfortunately, this notion of “emotional contagion” is vastly simplified compared to how emotional displays are actually processed in human brains and how they impact later behavior:

“Brain science tells us the road from emotion to consumer behavior is a bit more long and winding. There are two levels of complexity we need to explore. The first is the interplay of unconscious emotions — which brain scientists sometimes call unconscious affect — and conscious feelings. On top of that, we need to consider how both these types of emotion interact with and influence conscious reasoning, deliberation, analysis, choice, and ultimately, consumer behavior in the marketplace.” ⁵

Although it’s not possible to cover all these points in a short article like this, we can summarize the main brain science findings. First, consciously-felt emotions (aka feelings) are not direct causes of behavior. Before they can influence behavior, such feelings must be consciously interpreted. This means that the main effects of conscious feelings on behavior are going to occur after an emotional event, not during it, based on what is learned from the emotional experience, not how it feels in the moment.

Conscious emotions influence behavior as a function of learning and anticipation, not direct causation.⁶

Second, unconscious emotions are not just conscious feelings with the volume turned down. Unlike conscious feelings, unconscious emotional reactions do not produce explicit, accessible memories, either episodic (remembering when and where you saw an ad) or semantic (remembering the factual details of an ad). Rather, research has demonstrated that unconscious affect impacts behavior through the activation of approach and withdrawal motivation in the brain.⁷ An important aspect of this impact is that it is not very specific. Rather, the dominant element in unconscious affect is its diffuse positive or negative valence:

“Unconscious affect does not contain specific information about how to act, it simply evokes an approach or withdrawal reaction based on positive or negative associations with prior experiences in similar situations. … Because unconscious emotional associations contain little specific information, they cannot be precisely targeted. Rather than motivating consumers to seek out a particular product or brand, they are more likely to create a more general motivation to satisfy a more general want or need.” ⁸

And that’s why viewing a touching story about a homeless kid growing up to become an NFL star (Kia, “Tough Never Quits”) won’t cause you to go out and buy the Kia Josh Jacobs is driving while telling his story.

#4 Will you still love me tomorrow? Emotional narratives bias memory in unexpected ways

In order to learn from an emotional display, we must first record it in memory. It turns out the processes by which emotional events get encoded, consolidated, and retrieved in the human brain have some interesting properties of their own that add to the challenges marketers face when they try to understand and leverage consumer emotions in marketing.

The way in which we experience emotion when encountering an emotional display is by mentally reenacting the emotions we observe, thus experiencing the displayed emotion, or some slightly less intense version of it, in our own bodies and minds. We feel the emotion because we feel its physiological effects — the lump in the throat, the sweaty palms, the goose bumps, etc. We also automatically evaluate the emotion. We unconsciously assess its relevance to our immediate situation, its motivational implications (approach or withdrawal), its alignment with our current or future goals, and the degree to which it might require immediate physical action in response. All of these responses happen in the first few milliseconds of exposure to the emotional display. And all of these mental and physiological responses directly impact what we encode in memory. ⁹

Memory researchers have found that when we encounter emotionally-charged experiences, we tend to focus more on the central features of the emotional event or object and less on the peripheral details.

Elizabeth Kensinger, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Boston College, has documented what she called this “tradeoff effect” of emotional memory. Her research confirms that emotional arousal enhances memory encoding of an event, but does so only for some aspects of the event, not all. Details of the event that do not directly relate to the emotion itself tend to be more inaccurately remembered, or forgotten altogether.

“What is particularly interesting is which aspects of the event are more likely to be remembered. Details that relate to the spatial location of an emotionally-salient object, or details that would help identify a similar object in the future, tend to be remembered. But the order of events in time, contextual details, or any decisions made about the emotional object, tend to be forgotten or remembered incorrectly.” ¹⁰

The discovery that emotion-related experiences “narrow” memory encoding implies some dangers for marketers who want to wrap their products and brands in emotionally-saturated narratives. When emotional content is deployed in a Super Bowl ad to capture an audience’s attention and direct that attention to a traditional informational-persuasive message, findings such as Kensinger’s suggest that while the emotional event may be successfully transcribed into memory, the associated message may not.

“If the product or brand is not deeply embedded in the emotional moment, it is likely to be evaluated as peripheral to the central emotion, and therefore unlikely to survive the transition from sensory impression to lasting memory.” ¹¹

And that’s why you remember Scout the dog who survived heart surgery, but you probably don’t remember the company that sponsored the ad, or what it sells.

So what’s the purpose of Super Bowl advertising?

The Super Bowl is a unique event and a unique advertising opportunity. It provides advertisers with the largest one-time audience American TV is capable of producing. To gain access to that audience, it also demands the highest prices from those who want to participate.

As Super Bowl advertising has evolved over five decades, I believe it has become the preeminent potlatch ceremony of American consumer culture. Big name brands and aspiring newcomers compete to entertain, amuse, and tug at the heartstrings of football-loving Americans. In the process, they show they can afford to spend whatever is required to take their place at the big table. But if advertisers want their efforts to have a more lasting effect on their audience, beyond immediate entertainment, they need to become more savvy about how human brains actually process the messages they are delivering. Until they do, much of their incredibly expensive effort may be going to waste, at least in terms of actually promoting the products and brands footing the bill.

This article was originally published by Steve genco on medium.

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Steve Genco

Stephen Genco is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. In 2006, he founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms, and from 2009 to 2012 he was Chief Innovation Officer at one of the largest. He is currently Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting, helping clients develop and execute marketing programs and business strategies that leverage the latest advances in brain science.


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