That’s Advertainment!

In the wake of Super Bowl Sunday, TV advertising’s high holy day, comes the question of what exactly it is that makes 130 million Americans sit down to watch three plus hours of TV ads punctuated by occasional bits of football?

Super Bowl commercials get much of their fan appeal from the fact that they are often new spots being shown for the first and, in some cases, only time (Ridley Scott’s “1984” ad for Macintosh computers comes to mind). However, one out of one writers polled in my office says that the appeal of these ads is that many of them are laugh-out-loud funny (although the somber tone hit by many marketers on Sunday may make this year an exception).

Most years, you get the occasional ad for financial services reminding us that retirement is serious business, but for the most part the advertisers are reaching out to millions of clusters of sport and advertising fans who are looking for a good time. And that’s just what they get.

I have long been a proponent of inserting fun into education. While the whole concept of “He’s having so much fun he doesn’t even realize he’s learning!” fills me with a certain parental dread, I agree that associating information with laughter and amusement can be beneficial. Ask any long-time business speaker about the ability to “soften up” the audience with humor.

Humor helps to bring together advertisers and their audience. One effect is that consumers become more receptive to the marketing message. Another is that humor breaks down the barrier between “us” (advertisers) and “them” (the audience) and turns us all into “we.”

Humorous ads also enjoy a second life in the recalling. For many Super Bowl viewers, the retelling of ads increases branding and sharing of the messages. It makes it almost worth the $2 million price tag (or a little less in down years like this one) for a 30-second spot.

Humor sells. People like to laugh and are more receptive to a marketing message when they have smiles on their faces. Online advertising can benefit from many of these same factors. The extra benefit that rich media ads offer is interactivity.

For years, I have watched as advertisers and agencies have worked to infuse their product marketing with entertainment value. The most common format employed has been that of a game, in which the participation provides an entertaining context while reinforcing the advertiser’s marketing message. These games have run the gamut, from trivia- and quiz-type games to driving games, from shooting games to simple puzzles. Some have been basic, while others have been extremely complicated. My experience has shown me that there is no direct correlation between the complexity of an ad’s functionality and its effectiveness, but I have definitely seen a correlation between effectiveness and the amount of time that the consumer is expected to interact with the ad.

Although the results vary depending on the ad, the majority of interactive online ads hold their users’ attention for less than 20 seconds. This is plenty of time to get a message to the user, but it limits the scope of interactivity advertisers can utilize.

Getting back to the Super Bowl ads for a moment… Since most of them only have 30 seconds to set up and deliver their payload, they do so with great efficiency. Successful interactive ads offer much of the same potential as their high-priced video brethren, but they also must be efficient. In an interactive environment, users will be willing to participate for the purpose of satisfying their curiosity or desire for amusement, but once the joke has been delivered the interest wanes quickly.

One simple and effective model is the “punch line reveal.” In this approach, the ad sets up a joke or a situation, and the consumer must interact to reveal the punch line or outcome of that situation. The strength of this model stems from the natural curiosity humans have for resolution and from the fact that interactive ads provide an easy way to supply resolution. An example of this might be a simple joke that asks: “How do you stop a rhino from charging? Slide the Bank X credit card to the right to reveal the answer.”

Another variation is the “let’s make a deal” design, which hides something, such as in a box, behind a curtain, or under the bed, requiring the user to do something to reveal what that something is. An example could be: “Want to know what will keep them around the house this holiday? Click on the cookie jar for free irresistible holiday recipes.”

In most cases, interactivity needs to be rewarded with a payoff. Whether it is a simple mouseover effect, an audio sound effect, or an information reveal, consumers expect something in exchange for their efforts. When that reveal provides the user with something of value — a moment of release or a good chuckle — then it can be an effective marketing tool.

Another approach that has been effective is a game structure that offers the user “reinforcement.” Games that keep score are an example. In some situations, users may play a game numerous times to better their high scores. Again, the overall effectiveness of this approach is dependant on the appeal of the game play in the first place. One thing to consider with this type of approach is the effectiveness of the message being offered to the user during game play. If the game play overshadows the marketing message, then you might want to rethink the approach.

Humor can’t sell everything, but it can help to break the ice. When a serious or professional demeanor must be applied, setting up a situation in which information can be revealed is still a strong approach. Overall, entertaining consumers as a way of gaining their attention is never a bad bet. Get these skills down, and when Yahoo finally wins the broadcast rights to the Super Bowl you’ll be ready.

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