Why are TV ads so compelling?

19 August 2014 | Blog

eyeWe talk a lot about the power of TV as an advertising medium. TV is a remarkably effective vehicle, and TV ads tend to have a dramatic impact both on direct response and branding efforts. One of the biggest reasons is reach—more people view TV than any other medium. It can take months to rack up the views in digital that you can achieve on TV in days. But the effectiveness of TV goes beyond simple numbers. Video advertising is fundamentally appealing to our human nature.

Humans are, by nature, storytellers. Some evolutionary psychologists speculate that the ability to tell a story—and so infer motivations, make predictions, and build a model of a future that we can work towards—is one of the things that first made us human. Good advertising plays into this. A well-structured ad is a tiny story, about a need and how a product fulfills that need. But not all context is equal. When we encounter stories out of context—on the side of a highway or bus, on the banner at the top of a website, stuffed between bills in our mail—it takes a mental shift of gears to appreciate the message. When we’re watching TV, our minds are already primed to tune in to a storyline. The micro-story of the ad presents less friction as we change from one story to the next, leaving us more open to engaging with the message of the ad.

It’s not just the story, though. The medium itself lends to our engagement. Humans are fundamentally visual creatures. Until we develop real VR, video is the most immersive of our media, the closest to our normal way of experiencing the world, only better. There is no boring filler, no bad views. A well-made video experience engages with a cortex primed by a billion years of evolution to study moving visual imagery carefully, and then construct a narrative to explain what we see. We can’t help but be sucked in. The combination of moving images and sound is addictively engaging. How can a static ad compete with the liveliness of the TV ad?

TV is the perfect blend of stimulus and story to get us to pay attention. While digital video offers some similar advantages, the lean-forward environment too easily invites us to click away, to flit, to ignore. And we’re still struggling to find the best placement and uses for digital video. TV has a proven model that’s worked for decades. With this kind of engagement, it’s likely to keep working for years to come.