Cannes Lions 2016: A neuroscientific take on the winning ads

Heather Andrew
Making off with the goods: Adam&EveDDB won the Grand Prix for its Shoplifters ad for Harvey Nichols (Source: YouTube)

While the UK’s reputation may be taking a bashing on the global stage, when it comes to creativity in advertising, we still cut a dash – if the verdict of the Cannes Lions judges is anything to go by.

At Saturday’s glamorous ceremony, ads by UK agencies scooped 13 awards including the prestigious Grand Prix, which went to Adam&EveDDB’s Shoplifters ad for Harvey Nichols. Adam&Eve also picked up gold for its Tiny Dancer ad for John Lewis. AMVBBDO collected two golds, for Never Alone for drinks manufacturer Diageo, and for Blood for feminine hygiene brand SCA.

Consumers’ subconscious reactions to ads are becoming an increasing priority for advertisers. These four ads are very different, but each does three things extremely effectively in terms of driving brain response.

They elicit a strong emotional reaction

All four involve a powerful and potentially discomforting context.

In Never Alone, the dark, shadowed tone of the film reflects the fears of Gareth Thomas about coming out as a gay man in the highly macho world of rugby. In Blood, we see graphic images of female athletes experiencing injuries and pain in order to participate in their favourite sports. Shoplifters shows real CCTV footage of furtive thieves being chased and arrested.

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Tiny Dancer is less dark, but still shows the potential damage which could be wreaked inside the home caused by a small child’s energetic dancing.

Having set up an emotionally powerful and challenging context, the ads deploy a basic problem-solution construct.

In each case, the negative associations are resolved. Gareth Thomas is accepted; the athletes persevere and succeed; a happier, legal way to get Harvey Nicks’ freebies is unveiled; and home insurance offers protection against freak dance accidents.

Happy endings help to drive positive emotional responses in the brain, and if they happen close to branding moments, as they do in these ads, consumers are likely to make a positive emotional link with the brand being advertised.

The ads create a compelling story to embed messages into memory

However strong the emotional context, an advertising message can only impact our future behaviour if it’s stored into memory.

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Our memories are very selective: we only store away information that we need for a reason – usually in order to make sense of the world in some way.

All four ads are highly likely to make a strong impact on consumers’ brains in terms of memory response because they involve a powerful element of intrigue. In each, it is difficult to see at first where the ad is leading, and so the brain remains engaged as it tries to make sense of the story.

When branding is introduced, such as when the Harvey Nichols rewards app is revealed as an alternative to shoplifting, it acts as a resolution to the story. This helps our brains to make sense of the ad by providing an explanation for what we have just seen, and ensures the brand is stored into memory as the final and crucial piece of the jigsaw.

They avoid overt selling

Our brains have defence mechanisms against hard selling. If we sense strong attempts to make us do something, metaphorical barriers surface in our brains which make it difficult for messages to get through.

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None of the winning ads is selling in any conventional way. Rather, they depict very human stories which are ultimately tied to a truth about the brand. By avoiding triggering barriers in the brain, the way is cleared for messages to drive our emotions and get stored into memory.

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