Congruence Counts in Advertising’s New World Order

a hand holding a tv remote in front of a screen with an advert playing

In days of yore, advertisers interrupted the regular scheduled program with a brief message. But those days are over. Viewers can watch what they want, when they want, and how they want. And no one wants their viewing experience interrupted. TV media channels have finally gotten that message, and now we’re witnessing the most innovative period in media with new offerings that benefit advertisers and improve the viewing experience. Broadcasters are reducing interruptions by offering reduced ad-load programs and shorter commercial breaks. And advertisers are paying a premium for premium placement.

But does this premium placement translate to added value? Not always.

At Ameritest, we’ve conducted independent research on how ads perform inside and outside of premium pods (commercial pods with only 2 ads) during a 30-minute TV program. We found that while reduced ad clutter offers the potential to improve performance, to get the biggest bang for the buck, ads need to be congruent with the programming that immediately precedes it. But not any congruency will do – ads need to be tonally congruent to take full advantage of premium placement.

What do we mean by that?

There are different ways to align an ad with a program. Historically, audience congruence has been the sole focus: ensuring that an ad is placed on a program whose viewership demographically aligns with the target market. Also, the subject matter of an ad can align with that of a program. Subject-matter congruence is the focus of evolving AI products that look for certain words or phrases in a program’s script that align with potential advertisers’ products or brands. But we’ve discovered for ads with strong creative quality, even if an ad’s audience and subject align with the program, if the mood and tone of the ad are incongruent with that of the program—if the ad is not tonally congruent—ad performance will suffer.

This makes sense because an ad that is tonally incongruent can create more of an interruption. For example, when you sit down to relax and watch a sit-com, a tear-jerking ad is a more interruptive experience than a funny ad. Or if you’re watching the U.S.A. crush their latest opponent in the World Cup, a preachy P.S.A. is not what you’re in the mood for.

However, tonally incongruent ads don’t perform poorly because viewers don’t enjoy them. Tonally incongruent ads underperform because these ads get noticed less than tonally congruent ads. You can thank top-down attention for this.

There are two types of attention: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up attention is what most people think of when they say, “It grabbed my attention.” It’s when something is attention-getting because it stands out against everything that surrounds it. For example, when you look at a picture of a red apple surrounded by green apples, the red apple stands out. And this leads to the misconception that an ad that contrasts with programming content will stand out.

Top-down attention is when something stands out because it fulfills an objective; it matches what you’re looking for. The brain will filter out stimulus that doesn’t meet that objective. (A great example is the Awareness Test on YouTube). If a viewer’s objective is to watch a light-hearted comedy, an abrupt transition to a somber, dramatic ad will fall out of attention. After the program is ended, viewers are less likely to remember the incongruent ad, even if it had premium placement.

And, even when viewers notice a tonally incongruent ad, because of narrative co-creation, their minds can alter the ad’s story to match the experience they expect. As a result, a tonally incongruent ad will struggle to deliver the intended brand message.

Narrative co-creation is the idea that a story is not only created by the storyteller, but also by the story-hearer. When you tell or show the same story to different people, the perception of the story can differ based on what the audience members bring with them – their value-systems, their backgrounds, even the context in which a story is delivered.

A TV program creates a context for the advertising that occurs within it. And this context sets an expectation. If someone does not hear the story they expect to hear, their memory of the ad’s story can change to match their expectations—quite dramatically, it turns out.

Let’s get a few things straight. Creative quality still reigns supreme. While tonal alignment can strengthen or diminish ad performance, starting with strong creative is critical. That said, ads with tonal alignment are less interruptive, improving the viewing experience, performing better, and ultimately giving advertisers more bang for their buck.