The Science of Super Bowl Ads [Watch]

To win over viewers, a television advertisement should be set up like a joke, according to UT marketing professor Raj Raghunathan.

In his research, Raghunathan found that the plot structures of television ads help determine how successful they are with audiences. The researchers looked at ads that use a series of repetitions, followed by a “break” that introduces an element of surprise, which they refer to as “rep-break” plot structure. Just as a joke with an unexpected punch line causes laughter, “rep-break” ads also tend to win over viewers.

“It turns out that the rep-break plot structure is generally thought to be more engaging, more involving, and the brand is better liked than similar kinds of ad executions that do not use the rep-break plot structure,” Raghunathan says.

Just in time for the Super Bowl and its onslaught of high-priced ads, Raghunathan looked at a pair of ads (one recent, one classic) that went over well with television audiences, as well as an ad named the “Worst Ad in America 2011.” How well did these loved—and loathed—ads use the rep-break plot structure?

The Force: Volkswagan Commercial

Raghunathan: Here, the number of repetitions [of the kid trying to use the Force] is actually more than sufficient: there’s a dog and then there’s the baby, and then there’s the dog again and then with the food. He finally does it with the car and, as a viewer, you’re expecting nothing is really going to happen.

They did a nice thing by not showing to us that [the car] was activated by the remote initially. We are taken aback that it actually worked when the kid tried to do his magic on the car. Then, of course, we see something that all of us recognize. It’s just a remote. Portraying it in this way makes us pay attention to the ad, and then the cleverness of the ad is attributed to the brand. We think “Yes, this is a nice brand. I like this brand.”

On top of that is this idea that kids are lovable, and combining an evil character with a kid doesn’t dilute the liking for the kid. Especially in a culture like the U.S. where it’s not uncommon to see kids dressed up in a Darth Vader costume for Halloween. All this cultural understanding is taken advantage of, but it all would really come to nothing if it didn’t have the rep-break plot structure.

I think it’s a very, very clever ad. I’m not surprised that it was such a big hit.

Mean Joe Greene Superbowl Ad: Coca-Cola Commercial

Raghunathan: This is an ad made in the 1980s about this character called Joe Greene.

It is not a plot structure that we would think of as the prototypical rep-break. It doesn’t have any of the repetitions as we think of them normally, but in an abstract way, you can think of it as taking advantage of the rep-break plot structure as follows: People know that he is mean, and so in their minds there’s a cultural understanding of one repetition having happened.

You can see him here not explicitly being mean but not really being that positively disposed toward a kid. He just thinks of the kid as a bit of a nuisance. He’s obviously hurt and he’s walking back into his locker room, and here’s this kid who’s asking him questions and pestering him. He’s not overtly mean but he’s in a subtle way dissing the kid.

Finally, he gives in and he takes the Coke from the kid, and then there’s a kind of a break in his meanness and he actually throws [his jersey] to the kid. So we are left with a warm glowing feeling in our hearts that this mean guy ended up being nice. It would be partly attributed to the brand, which is Coke in this instance.

Poop There It Is: Luvs Diaper Commercial

Raghunathan: Most parents have experienced diaper leakages and it’s uncomfortable and somewhat disgusting.

I think the reason why this ad may not have succeeded that much is partly because there’s a disgust factor associated with human excrement. [In this ad] there wasn’t necessarily a clear break, so there’s poop quantity A, poop quantity twice as A, and then poop quantity humongous times A. There wasn’t any violation of expectation. All the diapers held their poop.

The rep-break plot structure can be used across many different kinds of context, in many brands, in many products, but I don’t know if it’s conducive for use for this kind of a storyline for diapers because of the disgust involved. As long as the initial repetitions don’t evoke a strong sense of disgust, I think the repetition-break plot structure can be used.

People are not aware that there’s this big difference in how engaging an ad can be if it had this plot structure. Our message goes out to a lot of the ad execs and TV execs, and we strongly encourage them to take advantage of this rep-break plot structure.

This story first appeared on Texas Enterprise.


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