Memory lies at the heart of what a brand is. And we now know that memory is more complicated than the original recall-testers thought. There are, for example, multiple memory systems in the mind, not just one. The place in the brain where memories of product facts and positioning concepts go is different from the place where the emotional memories of storytelling go, which is different from where the memories of our physical, sensory experiences with a brand are stored. There are explicit memories, which we can recall with conscious effort, that are different from implicit memories, which may be evoked only with a recognition stimulus. Finally, there may be advertising-induced memories we associate with brands—memories that may operate only at the level of the unconscious mind.

Forming The Brand Image

One of the most important things to learn about memory is which parts of an ad will stick to the brand to become part of that brand’s image. An outmoded view is that memory is a recording process, where commercials are tagged and stored away in their entirety. In fact, memory involves a complex process of selectively deconstructing an experience into various parts that are later reconstructed when we call that experience back to mind. Our own research on advertising, for example, has shown that an engaging television commercial will generally produce one long-term brand memory every five to seven seconds.

While the underlying mental activity driving this process of selective memory formation is not well understood, it appears that one factor that affects the creation of long-lasting brand memories involves the intersection of unconscious emotions and conscious feelings.

One of the primary diagnostics that Ameritest uses for gaining insights into television commercials is a simple frame-by-frame memory test we give respondents about twenty minutes after showing them a test ad.

While the technique was originally developed to explain recall scores, it quickly became apparent that by coding the visual peaks of an ad for different types of content, this technique is predictive of various breakthrough measures, such as the Millward Brown AI Score.

The number of peak images in the memory graph of an ad is highly predictive of the ad’s attention-getting power as a whole. This suggests the close connection between the two distinct mental processes of attention and memory. In fact, we call the memory graph generated by our picture sorting data the Flow of Attention® because it is a measure of selective attention.

As neuroscience has now taught us, our unconscious emotions drive conscious attention. By definition, unconscious emotions cannot be self-reported by respondents—one of the main reasons ad researchers have turned to physical measures like EEGs, or brain wave measurement, to better understand consumer engagement with advertising.


However, the Flow of Attention is an indirect way of measuring engagement with consumer emotions because we are measuring the effects of the unconscious emotional filtering process. We fire a stream of images at the brain in the form of television commercials and measure which images stick.

The images that we remember twenty minutes after seeing an ad—the ones that have moved from our short-term working memory to longer-term memory—are not necessarily the ones we remember the next day, or weeks or months later. While all memories decay over time, they don’t decay at the same rate.

As ad researchers interested in using short-term pretesting data to more accurately predict the longer-term memories measured in ad tracking studies, we need to better understand the connections between short- and long-term memories. To help explore these connections, we recently conducted an experiment in which we exposed 180 respondents to five fast food ads that tested above average in attention-getting power and then measured frame-by-frame memory of the ads after different periods of time: twenty minutes, one day, and one week after exposure

Not surprisingly, the more time consumers had to forget, the less of each commercial they remembered. While viewers remembered 77% of the images from the ads twenty minutes after exposure, they only remembered 62% after a day, and only 52% after a week.

Of course, the story told by these data is incomplete and potentially misleading because not all of the images from an ad are forgotten at the same rate. To illustrate this important point, look at the Flow of Attention graph measured for a Taco Bell commercial at these three points in time, shown in Exhibit 1.

• The twenty-minute graph shows the rhythmic structure and variability in image recall we typically expect to see as a result of selective attention. The overall pattern of remembering is high, with over half of the images recalled at levels above our database average. There are also six peaks of attention—an above-average number, which is characteristic of highly attention-getting advertising.

• After twenty-four hours of forgetting, the average level of image recall falls significantly, so that none of the pictures is remembered at levels above the average line. While at first glance the rhythmic pattern produced by selective attention appears intact, close inspection reveals some slight shifting around in relative memory. For example, image 2 is no longer a peak.


• After one week of forgetting, the average level of image recall has fallen further, so that the average image is remembered by less than half of the sample. We now see only five peaks, instead of six, as the memory of the opening storyline has flattened somewhat—though the five peaks that remain are the same ones identified after twenty minutes.

Patterns of Remembering

As we looked across the five commercials in our experiment, we found similar patterns: fewer images are remembered over time, but the rhythmic peaks and valleys of remembering stay intact. But we also found that across all of the ads, there are slightly fewer peak images remembered over longer periods of time: there were an average of five peaks across the five commercials after twenty minutes of forgetting, but only four after a week—a statistically significant difference.

This is relevant because one of the most important uses of the Flow of Attention is to identify the peak images that stand out as consumers engage with a commercial. The number of peaks, along with the type of visual content present in these peaks, is predictive of other important commercial metrics such as attention, recall, branding, and communication. What this experiment reveals is that while the majority of Flow of Attention peaks are long lasting, some of them are only transient.

To better understand the difference between long-lasting and transient peaks of attention, we went back to the original pretest results for these five commercials and examined another measure that we collect as a standard part of a normal pretest—the Flow of Emotion®.

The Flow of Emotion is a second picture sort that we collect by having respondents do a frame-by-frame sort of images based on how they felt about each image as they were watching the commercial. In general, the Flow of Emotion graph looks quite a bit different than the Flow of Attention and is predictive of different kinds of commercial performance characteristics. For example, while the Flow of Attention is predictive of attention and recall, the Flow of Emotion is more predictive of motivation and persuasion.

When we compare the “permanent” peaks from our five test ads, i.e., those peaks that last at least a week in consumers’ memories, to the “transient” peaks, which fade after a day, we find that the best recalled images are more highly charged with consumer feelings. In Exhibit 2, you can see that the long-lasting permanent peak images score better than non-peak images on the short-term memory measure of the Flow of Attention and on the Flow of Emotion. In contrast, transient peak images are better recalled than non-peak images in the short term, but perform no better than non-peak images in terms of generating a conscious emotional response.

In other words, the imagery from commercials we remember for a long time is not just the imagery our unconscious minds select to allow into the working memory of our conscious minds. It is also the imagery for which we have the strongest conscious feelings.

So what’s our short answer to why some advertising imagery lasts a long time? It goes something like this…The Unconscious Mind says: “Look at this!” And the Conscious Mind responds, “Wow, that was something!”