What makes TV Advertising more memorable?

A new neuroscientific study has identified creative factors that can help make TV advertising even more effective. 

The study, by Neuro-Insight, world leaders in consumer neuroscience market research, was commissioned by Thinkbox to explore the link between TV advertising creative and memory. Analysing over 150 ads and coding each of them against different creative factors in order to identify which are most strongly correlated with long-term memory encoding (LTME) at key branding moments.  We know that once a message is processed by our long-term memory, it can last a lifetime, with researching showing that LTME correlates strongly with decision-making and future behaviour.

The results of this analysis was to identify creative factors which make it more likely that brands in TV ads will be stored in our long-term memory. It also revealed some factors which do not make a difference to LTME.

The audience is enlightened

The study found that neither the ethnicity of characters in TV ads nor the portrayal of women in ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ female roles makes a difference to memory encoding response. The viewing audience’s subconscious is enlightened. This finding underlines that there is no reason for creative agencies to be cautious or conservative when casting and scripting ads. 

It's not about shouting loudest

The study found that overt selling of products in TV ads was a less effective way to be remembered. Ads emphasising hard facts and scientific information were on average in the lowest performing quarter of all the ads tested for LTME. Ads featuring live filming of real people, emotion and humour performed far better, with memory encoding levels on average around 15% higher.

The research also found that it was better for long-term memory to showcase a product rather than to overtly sell it. Ads where a product was intertwined within the narrative of the ad elicited a 17% higher memory encoding response than ads that went for the hard product sell. 

It’s all about the classic story-telling techniques

Making branding intrinsic to the story of an ad, such as having branding cues interspersed through the ad’s narrative, gave a 9% higher memory encoding response at the final branding, compared to ads where the brand was only weakly present throughout the story. The brain works by association, so if a brand has been seen during an ad it will elicit a stronger response at the final brand sign-off.

Also, the study found that using contrast, breaks and pauses in an ad – e.g. changes in pace or sound – created a 20% higher response than other ads. This is because our brains respond well to intrigue and anticipation as these signal that something significant is soon to happen. 

People are paramount

The ads featuring a high level of human interaction – such as conversation or affection – elicited memory encoding responses 10% higher than those with a low level.

The use of celebrities in ads had no significant impact on brain response at end branding. However, if the call to action in the ad was delivered by a celebrity, viewers showed 13% higher levels of memory encoding for that particular bit of the ad. Therefore, celebrities could be used as a useful tool for delivering messages and calls to action as it can add a sense of personal endorsement. 

Music can make an ad…or break it

The analysis discovered that music in TV ads works best at creating long-term memory when it drives the action of the ad, for example when lyrics or the cadence of the music matched what was seen on screen. Ads that did this generated a 14% higher memory encoding response compared with when music in an ad was a recessive, background feature. When music was at odds with the narrative of the ad, the study found that this dissonance jarred with viewers.

Neuro-Insight also found that all forms of music performed well in terms of memory encoding response at end branding, but that older music performed best. Ads with music dating back to before 2000 had an 8% higher response than more recent chart hits. 

Branding’s in the timing

The study also revealed the importance of ‘conceptual closure’, and the point at which it appears in an ad. Conceptual closure is a pattern of brain activity that occurs when a sequence of events apparently comes to an end.  The brain treats this as a punctuation point – it takes what it has just seen, bundles it together and files it away.  Whilst it’s occupied doing this, it is relatively unreceptive to new information and brain responses fall sharply for a second or so. This can occur throughout an ad at junctions in the narrative, and is a positive thing - a sign that the brain is responding actively to a good story.

However, if conceptual closure happens immediately before a key branding moment in an ad, it’s a problem, because the branding will coincide with the period of low receptivity and so is likely to be missed.  

The study found that in those ads that suffered from conceptual closure at the end of the ad, memory encoding fell on average by around 30% in the moments moving into final branding. The clear conclusion is that any ‘reveal’ in an ad should happen a few seconds before end branding, or feature the brand as a key part of the ‘reveal’ itself, in order to avoid the negative impact of conceptual closure.

Other factors that defy categorization

Other creative factors in ads that do not make a significant difference either way in terms of their effects on memory encoding response include claims and demonstrations; calls to action; voiceover and dialogue; music genre; children and animals; and type of narrative structure. These elements were found to be secondary to the overall narrative of an ad. 


The UK ad industry has an exceptional tradition of creativity in TV advertising. These insights should complement that expertise not by prescribing a to-do list for advertisers, but by giving an understanding of how specific ad elements can heighten creative effectiveness and lead to improved ROI for brand advertisers.

Heather Andrew , UK CEO, Neuro-Insight

There is no recipe for success in TV advertising. But what this fascinating study by Neuro-Insight shows is that there are lessons to be learned from how the brain reacts to different creative approaches. It provides some good rules of thumb to bear in mind for increasing the likelihood of ads being remembered for the long-term.

Matt Hill , Research and Planning Director, Thinkbox

Article originally featured on Thinkbox