The art of persuasion usually involves solving the problem of how to make a connection with your audience. For advertisers of consumer brands, this problem can be solved in one of two ways. First, you can reconnect with your current customers, using advertising to strengthen the attachments they already feel toward the brand. Or second, you can connect a new idea or a new feeling to consumers’ existing neural network of beliefs in order to stretch the brand in terms of what it means to them.
Advertising film connects our thoughts and emotions in time. But though images from television or Internet videos are delivered to the screen in a linear sequence, that is not to say that we in the audience experience the meaning as a logical, one-dimensional pattern. Our memory and imagination interact with each successive image on the screen to create our interpretation of the overall content of ad film.
The movie pioneer Sergei Eisenstein pointed out that the meaning of the whole film emerges from the unexpected juxtaposition and fusion of images in the mind of the audience:
“The film-frame can never be an inflexible letter of the alphabet, but always must remain a multiple-meaning ideogram. And it can only be read in juxtaposition…”
The concept of metaphor is like this, where the juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate images creates meaning by revealing the hidden connection between the two. And metaphor is certainly one of the most commonly used rhetorical tricks in the advertiser’s toolkit.
The order in which we see the visuals in a TV commercial also matters. Comprehending the context of the images that came before—and anticipating those that come after—the image we see at a particular moment on the screen is key to our understanding the intended communication of the advertiser. Continuity shapes the meaning of a film experience.
Continuity in film means that each image on the screen is well connected to the image that came before it in the viewer’s mind. In mathematical terms, this means that each image in the time-series of images that form a movie should be correlated with its neighboring images. This idea of autocorrelation is an indicator of how much structure a message contains; it’s the degree to which, if you interrupt the transmission of a message, the receiver can etrapolate the succeeding part of the message.
Stories and Persuasion
This kind of structure is important in two types of advertising. The first, of course, is narrative structure, where storytelling is used to move an audience emotionally closer to the sale. The second is rational advertising, where the logical connections between the ideas in a presentation form a persuasive argument.
Whether emotionally or rationally, how well connected the parts of an ad are to each other would seem to be related to the performance of the ad as a whole. To explore the relationship between visual connectedness in TV commercials and persuasiveness, we performed some research-on-research.
This study was done among twenty-four television CPG commercials. All of these commercials were, in fact, also tested by one of our competitors, a system well- known for the predictability of its report card measures in marketing mix models. This system measures persuasiveness by means of a pre and post-exposure brand-choice technique. Of the commercials in our sample, nine were considered to be highly persuasive ads, six were considered average, and nine were considered below average in terms of persuasion.
As a diagnostic tool, the Ameritest Picture Sorts® has been validated not only against our own performance metrics, but also against those of the other leading pre-testing systems. It is not unusual, for example, for some of our clients to use our system as a creative-friendly diagnostic complement to their standardized “report card” systems.
One of the interesting aspects of this study is that one group of respondents was used to predict the responses of a separate group of respondents, so that the internal autocorrelation between different questions in the same interview, i.e. persuasion and diagnostics, is not a potential factor contaminating our conclusions.
In the study, the Flow of Attention® was a particularly good diagnostic for testing the idea of how visually connected these twenty-four commercials were. Because it is based on sorting pictures from a commercial based on what respondents remember from the ad, we could explore the idea of film continuity in the context of memory.
Mathematically, we define ‘connectedness’ in terms of the conditional probability that picture ‘n’ is remembered, given the recognition of the picture ‘n – 1’ that preceded it. We did this for all of the adjacent pairs of images in our picture sorting decks for each commercial.
What we found was that in persuasive advertising, viewer attention to each picture in the ad is highly correlated with attention to the picture that follows it. In contrast, for ads low on persuasiveness, there are many more instances of well-remembered pictures that are followed by pictures that are poorly remembered. In other words, in persuasive ads, the imagery seems to be better “glued together” in the mind of the audience.
Exhibit 1 summarizes the distribution of the joint probabilities for image recall for all adjacent pairs of images from all twenty-four ads in our study, representing more than 500 data points. For the high-persuasive ads, we found that 93% of the time, sequential pairs of images in the advertising were recognized at average to high levels. This is higher than the percentage obtained for average-persuasive commercials, 80%, and much higher than the percentage obtained for low-persuasive ads, only 69%.
Conversely, for low persuasion ads, we see that 31 percent of the time, recall is low one or both of the images in the image pairs, suggesting that something is interrupting the ability of these images to stick in consumer memory. This problem only happens 7 percent of the time in high persuasion ads, and 19 percent of the time for average persuasion ads.
What this tells us is that, for low-persuasive commercials, there is a frequent failure to achieve linkage between images. Failure to recognize one or both images in a pair of pictures is clear evidence that viewers are not connecting the dots in terms of the intended meanings of the commercial imagery.
In general, it appears that high-persuasive ads are characterized by high levels of paired-recognition—and by inference, a high degree of linkage is occurring between images juxtaposed in the flow of the viewer’s visual experience of the advertising. This visual connectedness reflects the continuity of the audience’s experience of persuasive advertising.
In our experience in diagnosing the problems associated with poorly performing advertising, we have identified two distinct types of discontinuities that undermine commercial effectiveness.
To understand the difference between the two, think about the following simple metaphor: Imagine that the information coming through an ad is like water coming out of a water faucet. If you turn the handle just a little bit, the water comes out in discrete drips. This is like the features and benefits of a brand being enumerated by a simple stand-up presenter.
Turn the handle a bit more and water begins to rush out more quickly. But if you look at the stream of water closely you can see it has a braided structure holding together the shape of the stream. This is like an emotional ad where the narrative structure holds together the fast moving flow of imagery in the mind of the audience.
Finally, if you turn the handle, all the water begins to rush out in a torrent, losing its structure and splattering everything around. This is like a poorly executed montage, where the audience failed to grasp the controlling idea linking all the images together. Montage commercials that fail to communicate a simple idea that glues all the images together in the mind of the consumer will generate low scores on persuasion. Unfortunately, when this type of problem occurs, it is a difficult one to fix because there’s usually not a clear idea at the center of the ad.
The second type of discontinuity is what happens when you’ve opened the faucet to release the flow of water and you put your finger over the spout to momentarily interrupt the flow. An example of this type of break in continuity is shown in Exhibit 2. This break is usually a result of a poorly handled transition between one idea and another in the flow of an ad. If the break occurs in the wrong place, it can hurt the overall persuasiveness of the ad quite a bit. But if it is diagnosed properly by research, this type of problem can almost always be easily fixed in the editing room.
Persuasive commercials are more likely to preserve the continuity of visual imagery in consumer memory. Conversely, non-persuasive commercials are characterized by a high degree of fragmentation of picture recall. You might think of this as a kind of entropy, or disordering of the imagery of a commercial as it is stored in consumer memory.
Since advertising creatives tend to think of creative ideas holistically, and not in the frame-by-frame way researchers analyze ads, they may fail to appreciate that many good creative ideas fail the test of Persuasion because of the consumers’ inability to see the whole idea, or at least to process it wholly into memory.
Breaks in the continuity of an ad film are a failure of execution, and not usually of the creative concept. One way to use research effectively in the creative development process, therefore, is to identify those moments in the flow of the film when the visual storyline makes a change in direction, and the audience fails to make the turn, so that the continuity of the illusion is broken.