Sneak Plays Win More than Just Football Games
Super Bowl LII was one of the most exciting in recent memory, so you might have been focused on the football. But the USA’s other gridiron game—advertising—was also strong.
Like the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles, our nation’s annual battle of the marketing departments had a clear winner: Tide. From our position as armchair quarterback, the Tide team used surprise plays built on established neuroscience strategies, and that’s what got your attention.
Traditional Corporate Muscle
In this age of growthhacking, ad-free television, and “going viral,” major corporations have lost many traditional advertising advantages. Not at the Super Bowl. With a $5 million price tag for every 30-second spot, only the biggest brands can afford to play on this field.
Your whole startup probably doesn’t employ as many people as Tide’s Super Bowl social media response unit.
Tide used a traditional Super Bowl strategy: big money, a strong team, and plenty of practice. And their social media strategies were honed to perfection during the regular season by a PR nightmare called the Tide POD Challenge.
You’ve probably heard about the consumers who were egged on by memes and online trolls to eat deadly poisonous Tide Pods. Because humans are so suggestible, we’ll risk sickness and death for “likes” on social media, but that’s a topic for another blog. Anyway, after months of dealing with that mess, Tide was totally geared up for social media maintenance. AdWeek reported from Tide’s war room:
High above the New York skyline, on the 36th floor of the World Trade Center, a team of roughly 40 brand marketers, agency executives, public relations folks and lawyers huddled around one big-screen television to watch their work get beamed to 100 million people. A second monitor showed TweetDeck, with tweets going by in real time like a torrent of water gushing from a broken pipe…. Analytics firm 4C measured Tide’s social engagement five minutes after the detergent’s first ad aired and found it went up 74 times.
Tide spent $15 million on multiple ad spots, another $167,000 on promoted tweets, and who knows how much for production costs and talent. One of the first laws of neuroscience is that repetition makes something memorable. Tide had the resources to hammer their message home and they did, relentlessly.
The Power of Story
If you’ve taken our training courses, you already understand why stories stick. Unlike data points, stories create neural pathways that mirror those of the storyteller. As a narrative becomes more ingrained—think about fairy tales, religious parables, and great works of children’s literature—we use those pathways to build cognitive shortcuts that help us navigate the world.
“By forming predictive patterns, the energy load on our grey matter is reduced, and our sense of control is increased,” says Gert Scholtz. “Stories invoke the mind to fill in gaps and to anticipate future outcomes, and as such it provides a safe simulation of reality.”
Some of the great stories upon which we’ve built our modern pop culture, for better or worse, are advertising tropes. For example, the link between diamonds and romance is part of a story that we’ve made part of our memories, marriages, and families. This story is not traditional at all, however. The association began as part of a marketing campaign for De Beers in the late 1940s.
We’ve been told this story about love and diamonds since childhood. When we see an engagement ring commercial featuring some besotted suitor and his beautiful mate, our mirror neurons automatically ping that that familiar neural pathway from the first date to matrimony, secreting oxytocin in anticipation of the “yes” that signals the story’s climax.
How does this relate to the Tide ad?
Your love story is now, also, a Tide Ad
Advertisement Interrupted: The Neuroscience of Humor
The physical structure of our brains has, quite literally, been shaped by advertising. Your familiarity with stories that have been beamed into your living room since childhood has created a predictable marketing universe in your brain. When you flip on network TV, you expect some variation on the same oft-told tales.
So, when you were just about to cruise down that comfortable, well-worn neural pathway equating a new car with freedom, desirability, and status, the revelation that it was a Tide ad was hilarious.
More to the point (from a marketing perspective), neuroscience has repeatedly shown that funny is memorable.
Most of the time, the story of detergent is of a pretty, if somewhat disheveled, young housewife keeping her family clean and happy with minimal effort. Right? The polar opposite of everything a high-end sports car promises. In one take, Tide hijacked, conflated, and reconfigured your lifelong memories of two distinct stories, in the hopes that those established neural pathways would make the surprise memorable even after the game resumed.
One enduring mystery of neuroscience is what makes something funny. No one knows. Everyone from Plato to Heinlein has a hypothesis, but no scientist has yet been able to describe laughter as an equation.
Cognitive scientist Matthew Hurley, author of Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, believes that humor is an adaptation to the cognitive pain of realizing that a long-held assumption is wrong.
“The brain constantly generates presumptions about what will happen next,” writes Sharon Begley. “It calculates where a pedestrian will go, what a speaker will say, how a banana you’re peeling will look under the skin… and also fills in details about ambiguous situations in the present.”
Because so much of what we “know” is extrapolated from partial observations and familiar (often fictional) narratives, a fair amount of that information is wrong.
Despite this, your brain has already invested a lot of time and energy creating the cognitive shortcuts we think of as “common sense” or “conventional wisdom.” When these beliefs—which are recorded by physical structures in your brain—are disproven, it even registers as physical pain.
Hurley hypothesizes that humor is the spoonful of sugar that helps harsh reality go down. The more quickly that we realize that we are wrong, and can make changes to our life, the more likely we will survive to replicate our DNA. Humor seems to be key to that all-important adaption, which means that we are, at some level, hardwired to laugh at our mistakes. Tide successfully used that evolutionary adaptation as a brain hack, and you at least cracked a smile.
“I think that’s hilarious, just the fact that you have this character who’s sort of this Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone of advertising,” laughs actor David Harbour, star of those Tide commercials, as well as hit Netflix series Stranger Things. “He pops up in all of these different ads to kind of reveal to you that what you think you’re watching is not actually what you’re watching.”
Zeigarnik Effect: Is this a Tide Ad?
Now we have to binge-watch Stranger Things
One of the most reliable and predictable ways to make your message more memorable is to leave it unfinished. This called the Zeigarnik Effect and it means that you can recall details of interrupted, incomplete tasks around 90% better than those that you already consider done.
This is why we often recommend that our clients introduce a new task or idea before breaking for lunch. Your audience will subconsciously want to finish the job, and (hopefully) return to the conference room on time and ready to work.
After hijacking your long-term memory and making you laugh—almost ensuring that you would remember the campaign anyway—Tide masterfully incorporated the Zeigarnick Effect for their very own “Philly Special.”
The campaign forced viewers to question every commercial shown during the Super Bowl. Is that really an advertisement for diamonds? Is that really a commercial for cars? Whether it was or not, the possibility that it could be a Tide commercial hung over every single spot, which meant they really were all Tide ads. An assumption that your brain couldn’t classify as complete until the game was over, if then.
Your company might not have an advertising budget like Tide, but you can still incorporate neuroscience into almost any marketing strategy. If you can make us laugh, we won’t even resent you for it.