How memory works in television advertising

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

5 October 2010

How to make sure your brand is remembered

Studying human behavior, as we do at Stealing Share, results in a whole host of things that relate to branding and advertising, even on a tactical level. For example, most marketers don’t understand how memory works. For humans to remember something, the thing has to be associated with a meaning. That misunderstanding – and the order that meaning must follow – leads to one of the most common mistakes television advertising makes: Showcasing the meaning before the “thing,” or in this case, the brand.

Any message works best the other way around. Tactically, television advertising, which is linear, works best when you know the brand right from the beginning of the spot.

This alone, of course, does not make television advertising successful. There are so many other factors involved, including whether it has a message that resonates or the brand itself is important. But so many ads anymore are basically skits with a logo tagged at the end. Once the ad is over, audiences have forgotten completely about whom it was for.

“Meaning is what excites memory. Therefore, the order is: 1) the thing to remember, then 2) what it means.”

A few examples:

The bad – There so many, but the most famous is the “herding cats” commercial broadcast during the Super Bowl a few years ago that has been voted one of the best (and funniest) Super Bowl commercials ever. However, because no one could remember it was for EDS (which only presented its brand at the very end), EDS had to pull it from circulation. It hasn’t been seen since.

Even today, you can see most automobile commercials doing something similar. It’s a scene of a car driving down a scenic road with a voiceover and the brand makes its appearance at the end. Forgettable.

Better – Beer advertising is among the worst, as you could easily confuse Miller Lite’s recent “Man Up” campaign with Budweiser. The Miller logo does show up at the start, but extremely briefly and it is not connected to anything in a meaningful way. Repetition does not exist. As we’ve said before, if you copy the market leader, the market leader will win. In it, the meaning – “man up” – comes before the Miller Lite brand makes the connection in any important way. Forgettable.

television advertising

Not all the beer brands follow this formula. Coors is getting better as, for example, its Coors Lite/NFL spots immediately tell you what brand of beer is being sold right from the beginning and run it through the entire spot. When the messages follow that, then audiences make the association. There are other reasons why I don’t think those spots work, but at least you associate the brand with the messages.


Memory works when humans are given information that has meaning. Meaning is what excites memory. Therefore, the order is: 1) the thing to remember, then 2) what it means.

When the order is reversed, the brain does not compute.

Just remember that.

See more posts in the following related categories: Beer advertising Budweiser Coors EDS Miller Television advertising


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