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Super Bowl Psychology: UT Professor Examines Link Between Memory and Advertising

Published: January 31, 2008

It was one of many 30-second TV spots that advertisers spent millions to produce and have broadcast during Super Bowl XL. In the ad, a group of men is astounded by the mysterious “magic fridge” stocked with bottles of beer that suddenly appears in their living room.

A funny ad. But was it worth the effort for the advertisers to spend millions in the hope that viewers would remember the brand of beer it was marketing?

In this case, it was well worth it, according to Dr. Stephen Blessing, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Tampa.

One year after the 2006 Super Bowl, Blessing conducted a study using 84 UT undergraduate students to determine which Super Bowl commercials were most memorable to viewers. In the study, 46 percent of students remembered the “magic fridge” ad and were able to correctly identify the brand of beer it was marketing.

This was in contrast to the mere 33 percent of respondents who were able to remember the two teams that played in the actual Super Bowl game that year.

“The things we’ve learned about cognitive psychology over the last 50 years can be applied to the making of commercials,” Blessing said. “Watching commercials is what cognitive psychology is: remembering and processing information.”

Other Super Bowl commercials did not fare nearly as well as the Bud Light “magic fridge” ad when it came to brand memorability. One such ad portrayed a fashion show in which a supermodel captures the attention of spectators as she struts down the catwalk. Behind her, an SUV slowly emerges from a pool of water as flashbulbs flicker and the spectators watch in awe.

The glitzy production likely cost a fortune to produce; yet none of the respondents in the study remembered the ad or the brand it was selling.
So what makes for an effective ad?

“Advertisers need to link their product into the viewer’s existing memory structures, as well as promote new links, if viewers are going to be influenced toward purchasing the marketed product,” Blessing said.

According to Blessing, there are three main cognitive psychological components that factor into how well viewers remember a given ad: sensory processing, working (short-term) memory and long-term memory.

Using these components as a base, Blessing worked with Dr. Lisa Haverty of the Boston-based consulting firm Brain on Brand, to develop a system known as CogScore, which is capable of scientifically predicting how well viewers will remember certain advertisements. Each of the 25 commercials examined in the study was assigned a rating based on the CogScore formula to indicate how memorable the ad would be.

“We wanted to evaluate the model and see if we could accurately predict which ads people would remember,” Blessing said.

Of the commercials used in the study, very few were rated highly with CogScore.

The research showed that few of the commercials were well remembered one year later. The study also found that even when viewers did acknowledge remembering a given commercial, they frequently misidentified the brand as that of a competing brand. A commercial for FedEx shipping, for example, was repeatedly misidentified as a commercial for UPS.

A future study of Super Bowl commercials is in the works, Blessing said, with further research examining how well the ads are remembered over different periods of time.