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Neuroscience reveals what makes an Oscar-worthy ad

22 Feb 2019  |  Heather Andrew 
Neuroscience reveals what makes an Oscar-worthy ad

Heather Andrew explains the brain-tingling appeal of Oscar-nominated film trailers - and how other advertisers can learn from the tactics deployed

The film industry is a competitive beast, so when it comes to selling tickets, having a well-crafted trailer is paramount.

However, with a window as short as 30 seconds, capturing the heart of a film – and the heart of a viewer – in a way that compels them to pay for the complete feature, can be extremely challenging.

Aside from attracting industry-wide acclaim, many of this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees were also hugely successful at the box office. But what was it about the films’ trailers that attracted audiences, and is there something advertisers can learn from the way they used narrative, emotion, and sound in their trailers to engage the masses?

According to neuroscience, there is. Our research at Neuro-Insight has found that the appeal of these trailers lies in their ability to stimulate the brain in powerful ways, using tactics that are also available to advertisers.

When creating a brilliant trailer – or advert, for that matter – triggering strong brain responses is vital, particularly when it comes to Long-Term Memory Encoding (LTME) which has been shown to correlate strongly with decision-making and future behaviour.

Selling the story

It might seem obvious to suggest that a good trailer should be underpinned by a clear narrative structure, but by looking at brain response, particularly memory encoding, we can see how this plays out at a subconscious level.

A good example of where narrative works well is the trailer for Oscar Best Picture nominee, A Star is Born. Here, the narrative unfolds in a structured with the character scenes sandwiched between blocks of on-screen text.  The result is a clearly evolving narrative structure that keeps the brain engaged throughout, resulting in highly effective memory encoding, and a strong likelihood that people will think about the film when they next plan a trip to the cinema.

In contrast, the trailer for another Best Picture nominee, The Favourite, fails to effectively harness narrative development in a way that drives memory response.  Memory encoding peaks right at the start, when the three main characters are introduced, but subsequent shots of them aren’t linked by a clear narrative thread, and their story doesn’t develop clearly.  The brain doesn’t need to carry on working hard to understand what is going on – it already knows these three characters are the protagonists, and so in the absence of further, new information about them, memory response remains low.

Engaging with the viewer emotionally

Although narrative structure is important, other features also play a role in eliciting strong responses from the brain, with emotion being key amongst them.

In Black Panther, for instance, it’s the action sequences taking place on screen that dominate memory encoding, because they evoke high levels of emotional intensity.  Like narrative, emotional intensity is another key driver of memory – in this case representing an evolutionary mechanism whereby powerful emotions tell the brain that something potentially important is happening, which it might be important to remember for the future.

The same emotional driver can be seen in the case of the BlacKkKlansman trailer. There isn’t a particularly obvious narrative pattern here, but this is compensated for by evocative subject matter that is brought to life on screen.  The topical race-related script, like the action sequences in Black Panther, evokes high-levels of emotional intensity and a correspondingly powerful memory response.

Exciting all the senses

Sound is another key creative factor that can be leveraged in films both in terms of what happens when it is present, and also what happens when it disappears.

This is clearly evident in the case of A Star is Born. Music is obviously central to this story arc, so has a powerful presence in the trailer and many of the peaks of memory response correspond to moments in the film when sound and visuals work together.  The volume and intensity of the sound build throughout the trailer and rise to a climax towards the end.

But in fact the very biggest peak of memory response happens after this musical climax, when the sound suddenly stops for a beat as the film name appears on screen.  The moment when the sound fades tells the brain that something new is happening and therefore harnesses another powerful force – disruption.  Because this happens at the moment when the film name appears, the resulting peak of memory response happens at the key moment that the makers of the trailer need us to remember.

The end-game

The Oscars might be considered the most important event on the film-making calendar. But the real judges are those buying tickets at the cinema – which means first impressions count.

When it comes to advertising, the story is no different. If we want people to engage with a brand, or buy a product or service, the advertising campaign is the chance to tell that story in the most compelling way possible.

With so much competition in the advertising space, brands who think like film-makers, and push the limits around creativity and narrative, will soon see a return on their efforts – even if it doesn’t come in the shape of an Academy Award.


Heather Andrew is CEO, Neuro-Insight UK

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