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Surprise! The Data Supports Creativity: Data and Creativity in Advertising, Pt. 2

*Note: This article is Part 2 of a series on data and creativity in advertising. You can read Part 1 for an introductory overview here.

There is a biological reason people enjoy surprises.

Researchers at Baylor and Emory observed subjects’ brains during an experiment in which researchers intermittently squirted juice or water into participants’ mouths. One test group received alternating flavors at regular 10 second intervals. The other group received the liquids at varying intervals, with no pattern to when they received which flavor.

“Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the reward pathways in the brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable sequence of squirts.”[i] Unexpected (non-traumatic) experiences trigger the pleasure centers of our brains to release the feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine.[ii] We like that feeling, so we crave new ways to experience the unexpected.

Novelty and Learning in Advertising
In addition to producing pleasure, the anatomy of surprise also drives learning. According to Dr. Wael Asaad, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Brown University, “Learning happens when you encounter something surprising or unexpected.”[iii]

Scientific American explains the neurology of the surprise (or novelty) feedback loop this way:

“Novel stimuli tend to activate the hippocampus more than familiar stimuli do, which is why the hippocampus serves as the brain’s ‘novelty detector.’ The hippocampus compares incoming sensory information with stored knowledge. If these differ, the hippocampus sends a pulse of the messenger substance dopamine… This feedback loop is why we remember things better in the context of novelty.”[iv]

If surprising or unexpected events fuel learning, advertising efforts shouldn’t settle for the status quo.

Advertisers should capitalize on these discoveries by creating and presenting ads that surprise consumers with something unexpected. Imagine the benefits of your brand being connected to a feeling of pleasure! With premium brands in particular, the concept of novelty carries with it an element of status and prestige that leads to their own feelings of pleasure.

Creativity’s Role in Pleasure and Novelty
Statistics, numbers, and surveys only take us so far. Data points to predictability and the expected. Creativity has a greater likelihood of eliciting the surprise and novel neurological responses. When done well, creativity triggers the pleasure centers of consumers’ brains and makes a brand, service, or product more desirable and memorable. Instead of asking ourselves what consumers want to hear based on the data, maybe we should be asking what they expect and how can we flip those expectations.[v] Arguments can be made for both. The best argument includes both.

Consider the unexpected nature of the following memorable ads:

Why People Notice When Things Are Out of the Ordinary
For the entirety of human history, homo sapiens have been attuned to change. It was essential for survival. An approaching storm, the presence of a predator or enemy, or an upcoming season change signaled the need for people to adapt. Routine and homeostasis didn’t require adaptation, so the level of attention paid to the “usual” was, by nature, less than that given to something out of the ordinary.

Pleasure and survival continue to be strong motivators that compel people to enjoy surprise and seek novelty. Advertisers need to respond to this information by creating ads that elicit surprise, novelty, and wow.

How Brands Evoke Surprise
In a sea of ads, how does a brand evoke surprise?

In 2017, Forbes reported that digital marketing experts estimated the average American saw between 4,000 and 10,000 ads each day.[vi] That’s a lot of noise for the average consumer to filter through. Ads quickly become expected and predictable. We no longer notice the trees because we’re standing in the forest.

How does a brand become memorable in such an environment?

By surprising customers with a different kind of tree.

The goal of an ad should be to inspire a “What in the world…?” response. Statistics say that advertisers only have five to seven seconds to grab consumers’ attention. Ads that appear at the beginning of a YouTube video play for five seconds before viewers have the option to skip the rest of the ad. If it’s a predictable, typical ad, viewers will countdown until they can skip the ad.

R.I.P. video ad. Whomp whomp.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember the PSA by Partnership for a Drug-Free America in the late 80s. The scene begins with butter sizzling in a skillet and a narrator saying, “Okay. Last time…” That’s the first four seconds of the spot. The sizzling sound, the urgent narration, and the striking visuals are unusual enough to surprise first time viewers and hold their attention through the rest of the ad.

That’s the idea.

Anyone who has flown commercially hears (and eventually ignores) the safety talk at the beginning of the flight. It’s become so routine many can quote the spiel by heart. However, every once in a while, a clever flight attendant will mix things up and capture the passengers’ attention using a common tool for surprise: humor.

Notice how well this flight attendant holds the attention of everyone on the plane. The same information, in a familiar environment, presented differently creates an element of surprise and pleasure. The reward for the flight attendant’s creativity is attention, a limited commodity people tend to hoard with miserly stinginess, unless convinced otherwise.

How Brands Present Novelty
Whereas the goal of surprise is to evoke a “What in the world…?” reaction, the goal of novelty is to make a consumer pause long enough to think, “Hmm… That’s new.”

The first goal of any email marketing campaign is to get recipients to open the email. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter what’s inside the body of the email.

You have the length of a subject line to grab a reader’s attention. Novelty is an appropriate tool for such a task.

When looking at the statistics for opened emails within a marketing campaign, Phrasee found that including the following words in an email subject line led to higher than average open rates:

  • Introducing
  • Brand new
  • Latest
  • Special

There were plenty of other words on the list, but these all point to the importance of something new and different in the quest to grab readers’ attention.

Apple has capitalized on the concept of novelty by making an event out of presenting new products. In fact, being one of the first people to own a new Apple product has become somewhat of a status symbol itself.

Kickstarter created an entire platform based on novelty and the opportunity to be part of something new.

Other examples of novelty aren’t dependent on “newness”. For example, social media displays many ads with color, so a black and white ad stands out. Additionally, a profile image on social media that emphasizes a less common color, like yellow, also stands out. For the audio play, think about the value of presenting a silent ad within a series of loud messages during a commercial break. If nothing else, people will check to see if their device is working and notice the ad.

On the flip side, the quickest way to destroy novelty is to make it ubiquitous. It’s counterintuitive, but it happens.

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts began in North Carolina in the 1930s and remained a product of the southeastern United States through the 60s and beyond, making their donuts a novelty to the vast majority of the nation.

After the corporation went public in 2000, it expanded quickly, too quickly according to analysts. Markets had too many stores in close proximity. Add the placement of boxes of donuts on shelves at convenience stores and supermarkets, and the novelty quickly vanished. You could get a Krispy Kreme anywhere, at any time. The saturation of the expansion became detrimental to the company.

Four years after going public, the company reported its first loss.[vii] The novelty had worn off. Customers no longer had to wait in long lines at a store to get a hot and fresh donut. They could go to a gas station on the corner and buy a box of donuts without waiting in line. However, sales numbers indicate that consumers may have appreciated novelty more than they did convenience.

Humans are drawn to things that are out of the ordinary.

How Brands Deliver the Wow
“Wow!” is the holy land of ad responses. Whether the response is the result of shock, awe, or delight, it’s so unique that it becomes a topic at the water cooler the next day. “Oh my gosh, have you SEEN this?!”

Delivering that kind of wow takes many forms. We’ll look at four: controversy, shock, hyperbole, and disbelief.

Gillette responded to the #metoo movement and outcries of toxic masculinity with a commercial that encouraged men to think about what boys see in their behavior and challenges them to be the best they can be. Some men were offended by the implications, thus creating the controversy, and the wow.

You’ve heard of rags to riches stories, but what about a dirtbag to hero story? This ad promoting organ donation has a little bit of everything (gestures, language, harassment, emotion, and wow) in one inspiring storyline. It’s certainly not forgettable.

Doritos used an ultrasound to show the irresistible flavor of their product in hyperbolic fashion. It’s cute, painful, funny, and definitely delivers the wow.

“I can’t believe they did that!” Despite the way boundaries have been stretched in recent years, some things are still considered publicly faux pas. Addressing such issues head-on makes for a memorable ad. Wait for it.

Creating surprise, novel, and “wow” moments for consumers demands seeing things from a different perspective in order to overcome familiarity and predictability. Data alone does not produce these types of memorable experiences.

When a singular brand within a singular industry takes the science of creativity seriously, they distinguish themselves in a crowd of competitors, elicit pleasure for consumers, and make their brand, product, or service more memorable. It’s a trifecta of effectiveness. Trifective, if you will.

Premium brands, in particular, benefit from using creativity to secure their position within an industry by emphasizing differentiators in memorable ways.

Not every industry or marketing team lands in a field of creativity. That’s why advertising agencies exist. At Warren Douglas, our creative team works closely with data analysts to implement campaigns that deliver “wow” and drive your business. See examples of some of our work here. For more information about how your premium brand might work with us, email now or schedule a call for later. You’ll be glad you did.









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