Emotional Branding: Columbia University Study Shows Disconnect

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Geico TV commercial

Ever notice a mismatch between what’s unfolding emotionally on the screen in a TV program and what’s occurring on an emotional or energy level in the advertisement that you see next? You may not be ready for a comedic pitch for snack chips just moments after your favorite character in your favorite drama has just been killed off, or after your pick for The Bachelor has just been sent packing.

Researchers at New York’s Columbia Business School noticed this disconnect and wanted to better understand it in the abstract—and so help advertisers and TV networks learn how to make their pitches and messaging more effective.

Brands are actually hurting the effectiveness of their ads if they ignore this dynamic, concluded Keith Wilcox, a marketing professor at Columbia. “The creation of ad content is so separated from the decision of where it’s actually going to be run,” he told brandchannel.

“Advertisers’ decisions are about who’s going to be seeing the ad and how to reach them, based on what programming reaches which audiences,” Wilcox explained. “But these are usually made without thought of what the context of the medium actually is presenting.”

What kind of context? If a sad TV drama is coming to a conclusion and fading to black as the music swells, leaving the audience emotionally torn about some character or issue, it can be jarring when suddenly the screen cuts to a peppy commercial and the relentless cheer of a brand pitch or spokesperson.

Wilcox’s research showed that such a juxtaposition of discordant emotional content “can leave TV viewers puzzled at the swing in content and emotion, so much so that these potential consumers may ignore the ad altogether and will be unlikely to recall the advertiser,” as Columbia put it in a press release.

It’s not just a matter of a program leaving a viewer sad and then encountering a happy ad but, also, a matter of “activation.”
“A viewer in a state of high activation,” Columbia explained, “is alert, both physically and mentally, while one in a state of deactivation has relatively lower physical and cognitive activity, which makes the viewer less responsive to high-energy commercials.”

As Wilcox put it, “When you feel low or sad, ads that are high-energy are difficult to watch. So you spend less time watching, and the ad is less effective.”

Specifically, the Columbia researchers had 142 people watch one of two short videos: a clip from the 1979 movie, The Champ, in which a young boy cries over the death of someone close to him; or a clip from a documentary about Albert Einstein. Next, the participants watched one of two 30-second commercials for Geico—one rated “highly” energetic, the other “moderately” energetic.

Among its findings, the study showed that viewers who had watched The Champ clip and were therefore experiencing a “deactivating” emotion spent less time watching the subsequent highly energetic commercial, compared with viewers who watched the moderately energetic commercial.

Wilcox told brandchannel that, among others, media buyers for brands could benefit from the findings. “It’s much more of a science and very analytical,” he said. Marketers might focus more on “the creative aspects of things,” including the effects of commercials in the context of the programming they surround.

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