Sunday, July 10, 2011


We have all seen TV advertisements that make us go "huh"? The end result of an ad is to get you to buy something and in order to do that, they (the advertisers) are supposed to get us (the audience) to notice the commercials. In the past few years more and more commercials have been getting absurd. Perhaps you have noticed?

It might also serve to explain why these commercials have been so successful for Old Spice:

Of course there is a reason for this, and that is humans pay attention to things that are odd and do not match up with our framework of what it normal or expected. This develops when children learn object permanence - that is that awareness that objects continue to exists when not perceived.. At the age of eight months, infants are able to utilize this skill. This is something that is usually covered in early psychology classes.

Kicking ass at cognitive tasks!
In the study an infant is placed in front of an object, perhaps a couch. A small toy then disappears behind the couch. A child who does not have object permanence will not look for it. This can also be done with a screen. A child who has object permanence will stare at an object or toy that disappears behind a screen, children without this ability will not. You can get the same result by changing the number of toys or objects as well. The fact the the children stare mean that they are paying attention and thinking. It is the same effect as when people are shown a magic trick for example.

What does this mean about advertising? I would suggest that advertisers are trying to get us to look at their ads, holding our attention by altering permanence of objects, and breaking the rules and schemas we have developed about the world around us by showing us pigs in cars with pinwheels and things turning suddenly into diamonds.

Now you're playing with power!
(image from UGR)
One way to study this would be through an ERP (event related potential) experiment. Basically you cap somebody with a bunch of little electrodes. Then you present the subject with some stimuli, in this case perhaps one of the commercials from above. A computer hooked up to your ERP machine then measures electrical signals being set off by the subject's brain due to neurons firing. If you're lucky you will get some sort of significant waveform.

There have already been other waveforms linked with attention and there are many others. It would be a cool study to try out, if it has not already been done. I personally, would guess that people are going to look at these ads longer. The only problem is that you would need some sort of appropriate control stimuli. Maybe the control could be averaged waveforms of "unabsurd" commercials which would be matched against the averaged waveforms of the "absurd" commercials.

Nonetheless the point I am getting at is that advertisers want you to go "what the hell was that all about?" when you watch their commercials. By doing so they make you pay attention to their ad, and therefore more likely to get you to start thinking and talking about their products.


  1. This is a really strange point you bring up, but I agree with it

  2. Biopsych guy here, just thought I would point out that when conducting an ERP experiment an EEG is usually used. The issue with conducting an experiment like this is that you will have brain activity firing everywhere and determining what portion of that is due to the absurdism would be a very difficult task. I think an easier route to take would be an eye tracking task/recollection task in which you could track eye movements between the two and see what was being concentrated on. With the follow up recollection task you could see how well the advertisements delivered their key points.

  3. @braden I thought just this! The stimuli between two different commercials would be too variable. With an eye-tracking machine one would be able to see what the participant is looking at and when. Nevertheless we would only be looking for waveforms when "absurd" things happened. Perhaps different instances of these things happening could be averaged together?

  4. Second one is very funny :) thanks for good reading.

  5. haha i love the old spice advert so much

  6. The old spice advert has got to be one of my favourite adverts ever, so funny. This is a great post, you make a really good point. I'm studying media at university and this is the kind of thing we learn about. It's quite amazing to realise that these adverts work!

  7. Nice post! I laugh with the old spice commercial!

  8. The Geico piggy commercial operates on getting your attention by making a loud/obnoxious noise. The new law that has stopped commercials from being louder than the programs has sent advertisers into other ways of making noise to get you to look.

    There is an ad for Universal Studios' King Kong ride that is literally someone screaming for thirty seconds: