It is the meaning of emotions evoked by a particular string of images that is critical to the strategic brand-building process, particularly the meaning that lies below the surface communications of an ad. If a marketer wants to convince the consumer that a new product is “cool,” for example, she can’t simply say it. If you say you’re cool, you’re not.

As the screenwriter Robert McKee points out in his book “Story,”

“An old Hollywood expression goes: ‘If the scene is about what the scene is about,  you’re in deep shit.’ It means writing ‘on the nose,’ writing dialogue and activity in which a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings are expressed by what the character says and does—writing the subtext directly into the text.”

But, of course, it’s the attempt to get below the surface, to understand the non-verbal response to advertising, which is where our Ameritest Picture Sorting techniques add insight into the true meaning of an ad to consumers. An example of this can be seen in a recent commercial test we performed.

Powerful Ad
The commercial for Volkswagen Passat, “The Force,” was created by the Deutch advertising agency and first aired on the 2011 Superbowl. In the media coverage that followed, it was ranked by most commentators as the number one commercial shown during the game.

Surface Meaning of the Ad

In terms of brand perceptions, the message communicated by this ad is that the new Passat is a “fun” car to drive. At least, this is the “surface” meaning of the ad that consumers report, based on conventional brand ratings.

The Subtext of the Ad
Based on the 3 Ameritest Picture Sorts, these images are the images in that stand out as the most attention-getting, the most emotionally charged, and the most meaningful images and words in the ad– those images and words that represent the essence of the ad.

And what is the story that they tell?
It is the story of a young boy who is engaged in a quest for power. After overcoming repeated struggles, the boy achieves his goal, with the support of his father, in the surprising form of a new Volkswagen Passat.

The true meaning of this commercial, therefore, is not just that the Passat is a fun car to drive—but that it’s surprisingly powerful for $20,000.