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Hit or miss? The brain's view of 2016's Olympic ads

30 Aug 2016  |  Heather Andrew 
Hit or miss? The brain's view of 2016's Olympic ads

Using the latest techniques in neuroscience, Heather Andrew, UK CEO of Neuro-Insight, evaluates some of the biggest Olympic ads

Like the Olympics themselves, this year's Olympics ads draw on both the gritty determination of the athletes, and the uplifting comradery of sport. However, as the Rio organising committee announces reaching its target of $1.3bn in sponsorship rights, big name sponsors will be looking to get their advertising approach right, to ensure a return on their investments.

Marketers are increasingly turning to neuroscience to assess the effectiveness of their advertising, due to correlations between memory encoding in the brain and future purchase decisions. To gauge the successes of the Olympics ads, Neuro-Insight analysed four popular spots from the Games: from Gillette, Visa, the National Lottery and Coca-Cola.

In the research, a panel of viewers were fitted with headsets designed to track their brain responses to each piece of creative on a second-by-second basis. We assessed their engagement, emotional response and, crucially, what was encoded into memory - the key indicator of future decision making.

After our analysis, we gave the ads a 'hit' or 'miss' rating to reflect the degree of brain response to the creative itself and whether or not the all-important brand or product messages would have been encoded to memory.

Here's how they got on:


Gillette's gritty offering, focusing on the pain and struggles of Olympic hopefuls, does a good job of linking its storyline to the product itself.

The ad employs a problem-solution construct effectively to demonstrate the pros of using Gillette. From the brain's perspective, this is achieved by showing what the athletes' faces go through in the course of their training, and how these problems can be solved by using Gillette.

This translates into a positive emotional response when we see the product being used, when the branding appears on screen, and also leads to a rise in memory encoding at the end branding moment - when the Gillette logo appears on-screen. Together, this means that the brand is likely to be remembered alongside a positive emotional response.

Verdict: HIT


Visa's Olympic offering is an abstract and intriguing storyline, in which the beating heart of an athlete training for the Olympics is a metaphor for Visa's role as the beating heart of payments.

Although the parallel isn't immediately clear, the brain does follow the narrative throughout, shown to us by peaks in memory encoding as the story progresses. Visa's use of slow-motion is also effective; the brain experiences a surge in emotional intensity when the athlete jumps into the air in slow-mo, which is another driver of memory encoding.

However, where this ad falls short is the lack of strong memory response at the end branding moment. As the brand is represented by a metaphor, viewers might not as readily relate the brand to the main narrative; response suggest the brain fails to store this moment into long term memory.

Verdict: Compelling storyline, but branding MISS

National Lottery

In the National Lottery ad, ordinary Britons are transformed into Olympians as the familiar lottery tickets fly past them.

The key message - that the National Lottery is instrumental in creating future Olympians - neatly ties those visuals to the product, which in turn successfully drives memory encoding response to it.

The relationship between the National Lottery and the Olympics is understood by the viewers, which we can tell by readings which show conceptual closure - a specific pattern of brain response we see when the brain is processing a sequence of events - at the transformation of each athlete.

Moreover, each transformation is met with increasing levels of approach, which means people are being positively drawn to these elements of the ad.

Our brains like simplicity, and this ad uses that to its advantage; a clear narrative means that end branding is easily linked to the storyline, shown by increasing levels of memory encoding.

Verdict: HIT


It's undeniable that Coca-Cola is an iconic product, and from the brain's perspective, this ad only reinforces that. Unfortunately, the strong peaks of memory encoding that the brain experiences throughout are not triggered by the references to the Olympics themselves.

Instead, the peaks are shown every time the product appears on screen - which is a great win for Coke, but doesn't necessarily drive the association with the Olympics that, as a sponsor, they may have hoped for.

This may have been a missed opportunity for the brand, as viewers do display increasing levels of approach when the athletes appear (indicating likeability) - they just don't make the connection between them and the Coca-Cola brand.

Verdict: HIT, but not quite Olympic gold

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