Context has always been an important consideration in television advertising. Media buyers are sensitive to the genres of programs that provide a good fit with a particular brand’s image and targeting objectives. Until now, the ability to fine-tune the contextual effects of programming content on advertising has been beyond the control of this powerful mass medium.

Recently Turner Networks has begun offering advertisers the opportunity to frame their advertising with adjacent programming segments that have been customized to maximize the impact of the embedded advertising. The degree of customization varies from as little as inserting a category or brand cue into the program all the way to full brand integration into the program storyline.

Last year Turner commissioned Ameritest to conduct a large-scale study of how programming context affects TV commercial performance. In this online study we interviewed over ten thousand consumers about their in-depth responses to over two dozen commercials to explore the different ways that context can leverage audience receptivity to the advertiser’s message.


One of the ways contextual programming can work is by priming the audience to be more receptive to an advertising message. The advertising performance metrics that are impacted by priming are Attention and Branding, which can be combined into a Branded Attention score.

One of the findings of Turner’s research is that contextual priming can turbocharge commercial breakthrough power, improving Branded Attention scores on average by an additional 45%.

A simple way to understand why priming works is to think about how an advertising agency controls the process of selling a creative concept to a client.

A creative director would never walk into the conference room and abruptly begin presenting a storyboard to her client. Instead, the agency first prepares the sale by doing a “set-up.” By putting the client in the appropriate frame of mind to see the creative concept in a particularly compelling way, a commercial is being sold before the client ever sees the storyboard.

Similarly, when the last minute or so of television programming or a contextual segment before a commercial break is designed to work by activating associations that link thoughts and feelings to a given product, the audience is more likely to be receptive to the commercial for that category and brand.



Another performance dimension determining in-market ad effectiveness is motivation. To impact motivation scores, we learned that what matters isn’t priming but rather the congruence between the program content and the commercial execution.

Contextual programming can function like a matte you would put around a picture, a background to the foreground of the commercial, which combines with the advertising to frame a larger experience of the brand. For this synergy to take place the programming matte must be matched artistically with the commercial to create perceptual harmony—congruence—between context and content.

In this large-scale study Turner found that by creating congruence between programming context and commercial content, the motivation scores of embedded advertising could be improved by an average of 15%.

Four Types of Congruence

One of the interesting new findings from neuro-science is that there are actually two distinct neural pathways connecting the eye to the brain. One pathway asks the question, “What is that?” (e.g. Is that a tiger?) The other pathway asks the question, “Where is that?” (Is the tiger on that rock about to spring on me—or across the river, so I’m safe!) In other words, a sense of Place is fundamental to visual perception.

The question of “Where is that?” answers the question of context, or placement. The first type of congruence, therefore, consists of creating a continuity of place in the mind, between program and ad.

i. Congruence in terms of Place matches the program context to the staging of the ad, in terms of setting, lighting, color palette, etc., in order to create the perception of being in the same visual space.

An example of this type of executional congruence was found in a transitional segment following an episode of The Office, where characters from the show are shown outdoors, in a suburban setting, looking to buy a house. This was matched with a commercial from an insurance company showing a family standing in a yard in a similar suburban setting talking to their agent.

Unlike the interruption associated with a normal commercial break, this programming matte expanded the visual “space” around the insurance ad, allowing the audience more mental room to think about their insurance needs. The result was that the Motivation score for the insurance ad increased +10 points when compared to how the ad tested in a non-customized programming context.

Three other types of congruence are determined on the basis of the types of memories being laid down. Science now knows that there are at least three major memory systems in the mind. First, there is the semantic memory system—rational, accessible with words, measured by recall. Second, there is the episodic memory system—where emotional, personalized memories are stored. Third, there is the procedural memory system—how to drive a car, or hold a fork—where physical or body memories are stored. In Advertising terms, we might think of these three memory systems as Think-Feel-Do.

ii. Congruence Through Thinking matches the thoughts and ideas generated by the program with the communication strategy of the advertising.

An example of strategic congruence was seen in the shared meaning created by Turner programming and a Yoplait commercial. The context piece involves dramatic film close-ups of steam boiling out of a machine, generating a state of anticipation that is resolved when the camera pulls back to show a woman making a hot cup of tea to go with her yogurt. The commercial generates anticipation of a different kind by showing shots of highly indulgent desserts, in order to demonstrate that Yoplait is satisfying and tasty without sacrificing nutrition.

In this case, both videos lead the audience to the same thought: satisfaction. As a result of the reinforcement of this strategic idea, the Motivation to buy Yoplait went up + 7 points.


iii. Congruence Through Feeling matches the program to the ad in terms of relevant emotions to evoke a resonant response from the audience.

An example of emotional congruence was a program that transitioned to a scene of a fictional audience watching the same program, followed by a handoff to the actual commercial. In this case the contextual segment mirrored and amplified the emotional structure of the actual commercial. In the transitional audience segment, a fictional audience character reveals that with the money he saved by shopping at Walmart, he was able to buy his girlfriend a teddy bear; in the actual commercial, a grandfather was able to buy a plane ticket to visit his granddaughter with the money he saved shopping at Walmart. .

Unlike executional congruence, which provides visual continuity for what the audience sees on the screen, emotional congruence provides continuity for the audience’s internal emotion state, which can strengthen the emotional attachment the consumer forms with the brand. As a result of the emotional reverberation of these two storylines, Motivation to shop at Walmart increased by +6 points.

iv. Congruence Through Doing matches the physical behaviors and actions being rehearsed in the virtual reality simulator of the mind so as to create a rehearsal of the brand consumption experience.

Our example involves a show where the main characters end up having a business meeting in their local Chili’s restaurant. By first watching the characters enjoying a social experience in the restaurant, identified by Chili’s signage and unique menu offerings, the audience became more engaged with the food shots in the adjacent Chili’s ad which elevates the virtual consumption experience they have with the food in the following ad.

In general, restaurant brand advertising has two components: first, an emotional component linked to the social experience of eating in a restaurant with friends and family; and second, a sensory component linked to the food’s appetite appeal. By rehearsing these two aspects of the branded restaurant experience, Motivation to visit Chili’s increased by +12 points.


To sum up, what Turner learned is that context can leverage the psychological factors of both priming and congruence to significantly increase advertising performance. And to get the context right for your television advertising, you should be asking, “Is this the right…Think, Feel, Do, Place?