Don't Flush Your Ad Down the Super Bowl

Unless Your Spot Has Fundamental Cognitive Elements, No One Will Recall Your Brand

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If you're not Bud, don't bother.

It's so tempting: the biggest stage in the advertising world, a collection of all your biggest customers and their friends. Why not throw that $2.7 mil at it and watch the bottles fly off the shelves?
Lisa Haverty is a cognitive scientist at Brain on Brand, Brookline, Mass.
Lisa Haverty is a cognitive scientist at Brain on Brand, Brookline, Mass.

Well, because it probably won't work.

You might make a cool ad, a memorable ad, an ad beloved by all who behold it, but unless you've incorporated some very fundamental cognitive elements, your ad most likely will be attributed to Bud.

In a study released at this year's Cognitive Science Conference, that is exactly what researchers found. Ads with poor "cognitive scores" were misattributed by consumers, and beer ads were attributed to the huge Super Bowl presence that is Budweiser.

Beer wasn't the only category with problems. Many of the more popular ads suffered from the same breakdowns in cognitive principles. Remember those funny Ameriquest ads a couple of years ago -- the turbulence on the plane, the crash paddles in the hospital? They made the Ad Meter top 10, but not a single person in the study could recall which brand they advertised.

It doesn't have to be that way. Understanding how people think, learn and remember -- the basics of cognitive science -- can produce reliable brand recall. The same study proved that researchers, using a model from cognitive science, could predict with stunning accuracy which ads would fare well and which would fall prey to misattribution. Those principles can just as easily be applied during development.

Take, for example, the concept of "working memory." Information has to go through working memory to get into long-term memory, where brand awareness and loyalty reside. One of the principles of cognitive science is that a person can hold and process only about seven items in working memory at any given moment. This actually varies from about five to nine in the general population. If your ad has so much information that it exceeds working-memory capacity, you'll lose control over what consumers are able to remember. Cog-sci lesson: Respect working memory.

At this point, some of you think I want to "kill the creative spark." You are mistaken. Science is here to augment good ideas, not replace them. Surely we can all agree that likability alone is not enough to make an ad effective. There is no ad sexy enough to overcome misattribution.

So here's another tip: There's a difference between a "punch-line" ad and a "piggyback" ad. Using a brand as the punch line to a story or joke is very effective. But a piggyback ad is entertaining for only 25 seconds and then has another five-second ad at the end. The hope is that the piggyback ad will enjoy some reflected glory from the ad it clutches on to, but that's not how the brain works.

Take the Nationwide commercial where Fabio rows a boat and then turns into a cryptkeeper, because "life comes at you fast." We already know Fabio, but now we're supposed to think "life comes at you fast" when we see him, and thus recall Nationwide. It's too much. Only about 4% of consumers remembered the brand.

It's not that a brand has to be mentioned early to be remembered. The FedEx caveman ad had a nice, funny story, and FedEx itself was the punch line. A year later, cavemen were synonymous with Geico, but 22% of consumers still named FedEx as the brand for this ad. Cog-sci lesson: Punch lines work; piggybacks don't.

Of course, an ad can make the "Cognitive Science Top 10" without any formal input from science. But the same could be said for making the Ad Meter top 10, and no one leaves that to chance. So you'd better hope you make both if you don't want to make another ad for Bud.
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