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:

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.

I’ve always loved adverts so evaluating the performance of adverts is something of a dream job for me. Having undertaken hundreds of campaign evaluations over the last two decades, I thought I’d share a few things I have learned over the years that consistently make advertising effective.

When I was a kid getting sent to bed after my TV programme finished, it was a running joke in my household that I would beg to watch the ad break before I went. Today I get a real sense of nostalgia looking at ads in magazines I read as a child. When there’s a scene in a UK film from the 80s, I am constantly peering at poster ads in the background, seeing if I recognise any of them.

I brought the products too – at least the ones I was allowed to at the time (and a few I wasn’t).

To this day, I know which toilet roll is soft, strong and very long. I know what beanz meanz. I know which lager refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach. And, I remember the cough I used to get whilst exploring whether happiness was indeed a cigar.

But what makes advertising work – or work harder?

1. The impact of a multi-media campaign can be greater than the sum of its parts

I suspect most of us have those moments where you see a poster ad, and before you know it, you’re humming a jingle in your head from another ad for the same product.

A print ad for an insurance brand featuring a meerkat becomes significantly more effective once you have been exposed to the long-running TV campaign with a meerkat saying “simples” a lot.

This is the beauty of ad media working together.

When we’ve quantified the impact of including multiple media touchpoints in our research, we often see a truly dramatic incremental impact that far exceeds that of any single ad media in isolation.

One such example comes from a study where we evaluated a number of campaigns for Newsworks. Some respondents were only exposed to the print ads, some only to the digital ads (mobile, tablet and/or PC), and a third group were exposed to both.

The results were incredible:

Clearly, something fundamental happens to our perceptions of a brand when we recognise a message we have already seen repeated in a new way or a new context.

2. A face can launch a thousand brand perceptions

We’ve seen George Clooney drinking coffee, Gary Lineker stealing crisps and Nicole Scherzinger getting yoghurt on her nose. A well-known face can be familiar, aspirational and trusted. For advertisers, the power of a celebrity endorsement is nothing new.

When there is an obvious link between the advocate and the product, the effect can be particularly powerful.

I remember a product placement campaign we evaluated where Jamie Oliver had used Uncle Ben’s microwaveable rice in one of his Fifteen Minute Meals.

At the pre-stage, Jamie’s viewers had distinct reservations about microwaveable rice – after all, this audience tended to enjoy cooking and “that’s just microwaving stuff”.

After Jamie used it, though, we saw significant uplifts – not just on the brand KPIs but on perceptions of the whole microwavable rice category. There were significant increases in the view that it always comes out right, it tastes as good as home-cooked rice, and it’s good quality.

If it’s good enough for Jamie, it seems it’s good enough for his viewers too.

3. Targeting is enormously powerful…

We were fortunate enough to start evaluating addressable TV ad campaigns when Sky’s AdSmart product launched.

This proved an interesting and challenging format to evaluate because we wanted to measure both the effectiveness of the ad itself and AdSmart’s ability to target extremely precisely (it can target viewers by postcode, amongst other things).

The solution was to use two control groups – one matched on the same targeted criteria (but not exposed) and one deliberately unmatched.

Measures would typically go up in increments: targeted respondents tended to score higher than untargeted ones on advertiser metrics, despite not being exposed to any advertising, simply because the brand was more relevant to them and they were more likely to be in-market. Exposed respondents scored higher still because they benefitted from the same targeted advantages and were exposed to the advertising on top of that.

Ultimately, we found that, on average, we could attribute 56% of overall campaign impact to targeting vs 44% to actual exposure to the campaign itself.

4. So is context

Channel 4 felt so strongly that context was beneficial to TV advertising they developed a product called Contextual Moments. It uses artificial intelligence techniques to automatically identify a specific moment in a TV programme as being contextually ‘valuable’ for advertisers, who can then place their ad in an adjacent break to ‘match’ this moment.

We undertook a large force exposed study to test whether the product worked as well as expected.

The results proved fascinating, and in some cases, surprising. Compared to the same ad being placed in a non-contextual setting, a spot ad placed in context achieved

To further explore why context works, we developed ‘Erroneous Recollection’, a technique based on an experiment into schematic processing conducted by psychologists W.F. Brewer and J.C. Treyens. Their original experiment 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. This demonstrated that the expectation of the presence of an object was sometimes sufficient to trigger its erroneous recollection.

Our test found that those exposed to a Contextual Moments spot ad were indeed – on average – significantly more likely to erroneously “recall” having seen the brand in the programme. Consequently, they attributed the brand with similar positive perceptions they held for the programme.

When it comes to advertising, context is indeed king.

5. Experience drives impact

We have evaluated well over 50 experiential campaigns over the years – these have included branded bars at music festivals, installations at shopping centres and train stations and even an exhibition at the Science Museum.

These are challenging to evaluate because the events are usually so immersive it would be faintly ridiculous to ask brand KPIs at the time of exposure. Instead, we collect respondent’s contact details at the event and do a telephone survey with them two weeks later.

The results to date from these types of campaigns have been truly remarkable.

One such campaign was for Nivea, which undertook a roadshow in shopping centres across the country. Individual skincare consultations were given to determine which products within the Nivea Visage range would be most suitable for the customer and complimentary gift bags were given out.

Two weeks after the event, attendees were 92% more likely to purchase Nivea Visage in future and 47% less likely to purchase Olay – the nearest competitor.

We saw similarly spectacular results with other interactive ad formats, such as TV ads where viewers could interact by pressing the red button (remember those?) and campaigns that encourage dual screening (for example, playing along with the Million Pound Drop on a mobile device and being served an ad).

There is something about interacting with a brand that deeply affects a person, driving consistently strong shifts across the whole purchase funnel.

I’d love to tell you more – such as our findings around how overt a brand should be when undertaking branded content, how takeover ad breaks are not just great fun but also highly effective and how in-game advertising is a great way to engage younger, hard to reach consumers, but I’m limited both by time and confidentiality. If you do have any campaigns that need evaluating, though, feel free to get in touch.

The National Trust has received much of the attention on the subject of historic links to slavery, however a number of our other clients in the attractions sector have also sought to re-evaluate how they talk about it.

A key concern from our clients is the impact any reinterpretation will have on attraction visitor numbers.

Some worry that by drawing attention to the negative side of a place’s history, there is a danger that the ‘idealistic traditionalist’ may decide not to visit.

But others argue that the public’s understanding of how historic sites relate to slavery has shifted.  There is an expectation that interpretation conveys the full history of a venue (warts an’ all).  By doing nothing, they will be providing a sanitised version of what happened, which will lead to a less fulfilling visitor experience.  This will also mean people will decide not to visit.

As individuals, our team has fairly developed opinions on the subject – the excellent Story of our Times podcast on Penrhyn Castle will give you a clue as to mine.

But as consultants who work in the sector, we seek to understand the objective truth, so we put the question to the general public.

We asked a nationally representative sample of the U.K. public (sample size of 1,750) the following question:

In the last couple of years, organisations such as The National Trust have started to examine the links their properties have with colonialism and historic slavery. In cases where slavery has played a large role in the site’s history, how much do you agree or disagree these organisations should include information about their links to slavery as part of their on-site interpretation?

Our findings

The key finding was that the majority of the population (55%) supported information about links to slavery being included in the interpretation.  Perhaps more importantly, only a small minority of 15% opposed it.  30% had no firm opinion either way.

Notably, although support for this sort of interpretation falls as people get older, it remains significantly higher than opposition for every single age group.  Arguments that there is a huge cultural divide by age are largely unfounded.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is majority support across all ethnic groups, with agreement increasing to 7 in 10 UK residents of black ethnicity.  For sites that champion an inclusive agenda (which is every historic attraction we work with), this figure may be enough motivation to update interpretation in itself.

We tried in vain to find an audience that is more likely to oppose, but such was the support for the suggestion, we were unsuccessful.  The closest we came was amongst ‘anti-vaxxers’.  But even amongst this ‘counter-cultural’ audience, support was higher than opposition – 39% to 27%.

A few words about the minority

This is a complex subject with many layers and nuances, and we don’t expect this one question to provide meaningful recommendations.  But we hope it demonstrates that – despite what some tabloids may say – opposition to including links to slavery is only held amongst a minority of the general public.

However, we mustn’t forget this minority either.  Although 15% is relatively small, no venue would want to lose this amount of visitors.   With any additional interpretation on slavery,  this minority will want to be reassured that their ‘traditional visit’ is protected and that extra interpretation adds depth rather than takes anything away.

Our wider research on brand purpose suggests that one possible objection from these detractors is that places are responding to a ‘woke’ political agenda.  So it’s important that interpretation is clearly supported by robust source material too.