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Article: Thursday, 11 January 2024

There’s science behind making an advert successful from beginning to end. Brain signal measurements reveal that people begin to form a preference for an advert within the first few seconds of watching, and their response is driven by emotions and storytelling. New research from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) used information from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch brain signals and explain the psychological mechanisms at work when watching adverts. What the researchers found gives a new approach for making more effective adverts. 

The researchers are Dr Hang-Yee Chan of Kings College London, Dr Vinod Venkatraman from Fox School of Business, Dr Roeland Dietvorst who is Vice President at Goldman Sachs AWM’s Sustainable Investing & Innovation Platform, Dr Christin Scholz of the University of Amsterdam, Dr Khoi Vo who is Senior Behavioral Scientist at DIRT, Dr Emily Falk of Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr Maarten Boksem and Prof. Ale Smidts of RSM.

Their paper, Neural Signals of Video Advertisement Liking: Insights into Psychological Processes and Their Temporal Dynamics was published in July 2023 in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Dr Hang-Yee Chan explained: “We are bombarded daily by video ads online and offline, yet little is known of what makes consumers like them, and how early consumers form a preference for what they’re watching. We looked directly at brain responses in consumers and tried to explain the roles of psychological processes that lead to someone liking an advert.”


First and last seconds count

Using fMRI, the researchers captured brain responses of more than 100 participants from the US and the Netherlands as they watched video adverts. They used an open-source machine learning decoder called Neurosynth to convert these brain responses to measurements of different psychological functions, for example perception, memory, and emotion. “We looked for the moment when the psychological markers for ‘liking’ happened during the time that someone was watching the advert. We also looked at whether these brain signals predicted the effectiveness of adverts in the market.”

The researchers found that as early as in the first few seconds of the ad, the psychological processes – such as emotion and memory – begin to predict ‘liking’. They also observed that perceptions towards the end of the advert also shape someone’s preference, so effects like zooming in or using slow motion might make viewers like the advert more.

Our findings not only have clear implications for advertisers and marketers but also hint at how information spreads in society.

Thoughts, feelings and intentions

 “Above all, a process called ‘mentalizing’ – the ability to decipher the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others – emerges as a strong indicator throughout the duration of the advert, suggesting the critical role of storytelling. Compared to using consumer ratings alone, brain signals offer additional information on how effective adverts are.”

Tips for content creators 

The researchers think that businesses can use this information to make more effective adverts. They gave three recommendations for content creators:

1. Focus on narrative and storytelling

 Even in adverts that are as short as 15 seconds.

2. sensory enchancement

End the video with some kind of sensory enhancement, like zooming in or slow motion, to boost likeability.

3. Market research

In your market research, when you ask consumers if they like your advert, ask them also to reflect on their mental processes. That might give you a better prediction of how effective it is.

How does this contribute to society?

“Our findings not only have clear implications for advertisers and marketers but also hint at how information spreads in society. Communicators are advised to package their messages in compelling tales, as our love for narratives seems hardwired in the brain.

dr. M.A.S. (Maarten) Boksem
Associate Professor of Marketing Management
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Maarten Boksem A. (Ale) Smidts
Professor of Marketing Research
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Ale Smidts
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