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Facebook Video Ads and the True Psychology of Ad Recall

So Facebook is adding video ads to peoples’ Facebook feeds, further increasing daily exposure to advertising messages (about 60 banner ads50 TV ads, and countless (well between 500 – 3000) other commercial messages)). These rich media will ads have the potential to influence perceptions and future behaviour, beyond direct response and in a similar way to TV advertising.   As such TV advertising metrics will be relevant to assessing the effectiveness of these online video ads…

One key TV advertising metric is ‘Ad Recall’ – the ability for people to recall the video ads to which they have been exposed.  This metric, a central component of TV ad tracking is a proxy for whether people have stored the ad to memory – a prerequisite for influencing perceptions and future behaviour. It’s far from perfect, but it’s important – and worth knowing the key drivers of ad recall levels.

Moving swiftly past a lot of industry nonsense, the psychology of ad recall is simple and brilliantly articulated on Quora by Paul King, a Computational Neuroscientist, and visiting scholar at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at UC Berkeley. King discusses how our brains decide what to store as memories in general, but the principles apply directly to ad recall.

In a nutshell, the human mind uses a number of automatic mechanisms to determine whether an ad is worth remembering; the overriding principle is future utility, but since future utility cannot be predicted our minds evolved a number of heuristics (automatic mental shortcuts) to predict future utility and save to memory

  • Repetition – We recall ads when we are repeatedly exposed to them (repetition is a marker of potential importance – unless consigned to background noise)


  • Primacy and Recency – We tend to recall the first time we see an ad, and the most recent ad we’ve seen – the others we tend to forget (things that happened first are often more important because they predict what comes later. And things that happened most recently are often the most relevant because they are closest to the present).


  • Surprise – We tend to recall ads that are unusual and stand out, things that are unexpected and unpredicted that happen (or don’t happen)


  • Emotional Impact – We recall ads that trigger emotional responses – emotions are one of the ways the brain prioritises perception and action.


  • Leads to Positive or Negative outcome – We recall ads that lead to personal or observed rewards; the systems in the brain that learn behaviors and habits are especially tuned to the eventual outcome of an action or perception


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.