While Americans gather around the nachos today to find out whether the Patriots beat the Giants and how much clothing Danica Patrick wears in her GoDaddy spot, advertisers will have their fingers crossed that their commercial makes a good impression. They've paid millions of dollars for each 30-second ad. That's because they assume this piece of TV real estate is the most valuable there is. But they should be crossing their fingers for a close game--with their ad aired at the very end.
A theory called excitation transfer says that your excitement from one event can overflow into the next thing that happens. So researchers from the University of Oregon decided to find out whether a hotly contested sports game makes the ads that interrupt it more exciting too. They also wanted to know if it mattered where in the game an ad was shown. And finally, did the commercial itself have to be exciting for the effect to work?
Colleen Bee and Robert Madrigal gathered 112 undergrads and 4 TV ads. In earlier testing, people had rated these ads as especially suspenseful or especially not suspenseful. (To prove it, the authors describe each ad in their paper. A suspenseful Nike ad: "International football (soccer) commercial featuring international players against monsters/demons in a dramatic match for the survival of football." An un-suspenseful ad: "Two women playing golf illustrating the frustrations and subsequent solution to bladder control issues." I'd argue that bladder control issues are pretty suspenseful, but apparently that urgency didn't carry over to the commercial.)
In small groups, subjects watched footage of basketball games involving their college team. The footage was edited into four different mini-games (each consisting of two four-minute halves). Subjects saw a close game that the home team lost; a close game the home team won; a win where their team had a wide lead the whole time; or a loss in which their team was always well behind.
Subjects also saw two ads at "halftime," and the other two after the game was over, making note of their reactions to each ad. The order of the four ads was shuffled between the different groups of subjects. From all this, the researchers found three things that make viewers see ads more positively:
A nail-biterWhen they watched suspenseful games--that is, games where the score was close throughout--viewers reported having a more powerful emotional response to an ad. They also reported feeling more positive about the ad and the brand itself.
But wait, there's more! This effect was only found when there was also...
A conclusionThe ads that drew the best response from viewers were the ones shown immediately after the end of a suspenseful game. Not in the middle of the game; not a couple ad slots after the game ended; but right after the clock ticked down.
This fits with the theory that residual excitement about an event can spill over into the next event. It's interesting, though, that excitement during the middle of a game doesn't have the same effect. Maybe anxiety over the outcome takes away from people's positive feelings about the ads they're seeing.
Finally, the researchers found that it was necessary to have...
Added suspenseThe ad itself must also be suspenseful for the effect to appear. No matter how exciting a sporting event is, that bladder control golf game is just not going to get anyone revved up. But suspenseful ads (like the Nike spot with the demonic soccer players) can get a boost by appearing at the very end of an exciting game.
Since subjects were watching their home basketball team compete, the researchers expected the outcome of the game to be important too. But in this case, they were surprised. Win or lose, the results were the same. Suspenseful ads immediately following a suspenseful game got the best response from viewers, whether or not their team won.
The outcomes of these basketball games, though, had been decided long before viewers saw the footage. Subjects might have felt more suspense--and been more swayed by a win or loss--if the games were taking place in real time. Additionally, the authors point out that pausing after every commercial to rank your emotional responses isn't exactly the normal way of watching TV. Viewers who aren't being forced to stop and reflect on their feelings might not have the same perception of ads as these subjects did.
This study doesn't address how someone's positive feelings about an advertisement might translate into recognizing a brand in the future, or buying that brand's products. That's, of course, the bottom line for advertisers. But it stands to reason that your positive feelings about a TV ad could become positive feelings the next time you see that brand--maybe on a store shelf.
The Super Bowl, too, is a special case. Some people look forward to the ads more than the game itself, and advertisers are pulling out all the stops. But if today's game is a close one--and if it's immediately followed by an exciting ad--we'll see whether critics are swayed to put that ad on their top-10 lists Monday morning.
Colleen C. Bee, & Robert Madrigal (2012). It's not whether you win or lose, it's how the game is played: The influence of suspenseful sports programming on advertising Journal of Advertising, 41 (1)
Image: Screenshot from Bud Light "Replay" commercial, my favorite.