Why is one ad so much more memorable than another?

During the big holiday selling season of 2013, one television commercial stood out among the sea of thousands of ads as a heart-warming yet powerfully effective demonstration spot for this product.

It started out as we follow this apparently angst-ridden teenager who was dragged to Grandma’s house for Christmas. The narrative predictably shows that this boy is seemingly so bored that he can’t get his eyes out of his phone. But then the plot twists as the family gathers around the TV and the boy shows the results of his preoccupation with his smartphone: he was in fact producing a moving video of the best of family and their mutual love, bringing tears to both those on screen and the rest of America watching.

The logo appears…iPhone.

Sure Apple out Hallmarked Hallmark in the heart-strings department, but that commercial is smart and instructive on multiple levels. On a basic product level, it powerfully demonstrated usage; this is what an iPhone can do. That teen had most viewers thinking, “If he can do that then I can make movies like that!”

What’s even more instructive to me as a marketer however is the turn of the narrative. Apple told a surprising story: distant, angst-filled teen is actually loving, giving contributor of talent striving to better his family. My guess is that Apple’s commercial agency knows a bit about Surprising Broca.

In Roy H. Williams’ 1999 book “Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads,” Williams talks about neuroscience and how

the objective of advertising is to influence the prefrontal cortex—the seat of emotion, planning, and judgment.

Williams submits that the fastest way you can get to that part of the brain is through Broca’s Area. He calls Broca “the theater critic of the imagination, the part of the human mind that anticipates and ignores the predictable.”

Now to go a little deeper about Broca’s Area, understand that that part of the brain has much to do with auditory function and word syntax. It’s close to the left ear, which explains how a well-crafted, action word based radio commercial can be highly effective for your brand, by using an unpredictable turn-of-phrase, or storytelling with a surprising outcome. Broca puts the words together as a kind of mental stage, and really lights up when something unexpected crosses its path.

Unfortunately, much of what constitutes advertising is often predictable, doesn’t tell a story, and not very surprising for our brains and emotions. We know a great spot when we see or hear it, and most likely it has these powerful elements of action, surprise and story, because Broca’s listening.

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