Context makes people remember TV ads

Picture of Max Willey
Max Willey


Not just a bit – a lot.

Twice as much, in fact.

This was the headline finding from our multi-award winning research for Channel 4 around Contextual Moments – Channel 4’s new AI driven TV advertising technology that enables the broadcaster to place a brand’s ads next to relevant scenes in a linear TV show.

It could be a potential game changer at a time when the estimated number of ad messages people are subjected to daily ranges from 500 to 5,000. What’s more, it seems most people remember relatively few of them (explicitly, at least). How many ads that you saw yesterday can you name? See what I mean?

When we designed the research – which involved force-exposing 1,800 respondents to one of three 30 minute C4/E4 programmes and testing nine adverts contextually and non-contextually against control groups – Channel 4 and BVA BDRC instinctively knew that relevant context would be beneficial to advertisers, but we didn’t know in what way or by how much.

Specifically what we found was 62.4% of those exposed to the TV spot recalled the ad (when prompted with screenshots) if it had been previously been shown to them alongside an adjacent contextual moment, whilst only 31.1% recalled it if they’d seen the ad next to programming that was not contextual.

For example, 57% remembered an ad for Samsung tablets if it was shown in a break close to when Sheldon brandished a tablet at Leonard in The Big Bang Theory (his notorious ‘roommate agreement’ which you’ll know if you’re a viewer); but this drops to a mere 30% amongst those exposed to the same ad during Catastrophe (a UK Comedy) or Tried and Tasted (a food programme) where no tablets were shown.

A whopping 67% remembered an ad for NHS Smokefree during Catastrophe shown near a scene where characters discussed quitting smoking, but dropped to a mere 34% amongst those who saw it during The Big Bang Theory or Tried and Tasted where quitting smoking was not mentioned…

The significantly higher recall for the ‘contextual ad’ held true for all nine ads tested.

But why does context have such a dramatic effect? Durham University helped us make sense of the findings, and hypothesised that it relates to semantic priming, which works by making recently accepted content more accessible; activated neural networks effectively just need reactivating – a lesser chore for our brains – which makes memory encoding significantly easier.

We also developed an innovative Erroneous Recollection research technique based on an experiment into schematic processing conducted by psychologists W.F. Brewer and J.C. Treyens whose test found that a significant number of subjects ‘recalled’ seeing books in a room that they had been told was a professor’s study, even though there were actually no books.

Our hypothesis was that the placement of an advert near a strong enough Contextual Moment could trigger incorrect ‘recall’ of the advertised brand appearing in the programme.

Those exposed to a Contextual Moments spot ad were indeed – on average – significantly more likely to erroneously ‘recall’ seeing the brand in the programme, so we were able to accept our hypothesis.

OK, so it works – but does recall actually matter?

It’s rare that ad recall in and of itself is a core campaign objective, and there will doubtless be behavioural economists who will say explicit recall of an ad doesn’t necessarily relate to its success.

However just looking at campaign normative data we hold it’s clear that there is a correlation between ad recall and impact:  when recall is above average, we see 46% greater positivity towards the advertiser amongst the exposed sample than when it’s below. Similarly consideration is 97% higher amongst those with above average recall and top-of-mind brand awareness is a whopping 214% higher.

This was also evident in our study. We found that adverts placed with a corresponding Contextual Moment also proved more effective on branding measures, with Contextual ads enjoying:

  • significantly greater impact than a regular spot for top-of-mind brand awareness (+34% contextual exposure vs. +23% for regular exposure on average)
  • greater impact on positive perceptions (average 8-10 scores) of the brand (+12% contextual exposure vs. +5% regular exposure on average)
  • greater impact on purchase intent (“my first choice”) (+13% contextual exposure vs. +7% regular exposure on average)

The painter Kenneth Noland once said, “For me context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything.” We like to think he’d have approved of our work.

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