Latest brain research shows (screen) size matters when it comes to video ads

Screen size can dramatically affect the impact of video ads on consumers’ brains, Canadian researchers have found.

The findings provide more detailed (and scientific) answers to a question on which many businesses today base multi-million dollar marketing decisions: are video ads more effective on traditional TV – or do they pack a more powerful punch when viewed online via smaller mobile devices?

It depends, according to Toronto-based Brainsights.

The market research firm is using the latest brain science to shed new light on the age old art of branding. Six months ago, it embarked on a study with Bell Media to literally tap into the minds of video viewing consumers with some high-tech neuroscience, including electroencephalography (EEG) to measure electrical activity in the brain. On its website, Brainsights states it can gather more than 500 EEG data points every second.

This Skittles ad featuring a candy version of Steven Tyler’s face features a strong, clear visual element and a sharp sound cue of falling Skittle pieces to keep mobile viewers engaged, according to Brainsights.

The company presented highlights from its research at a Toronto event held Tuesday by the Canadian Marketing Association. Here’s a breakdown of the data, and how advertisers can use it to hack their way into the heads – and wallets – of consumers.

TVs vs. digital screens

Our brains inherently associate different sized screens with different types of viewing experiences, said Dan Iwasa-Madge, co-founder and head of product and analysis at Brainsights.

We mentally link a TV screen with leisure mode, which instinctively causes us to sit back, relax, get ready to socialize and invest a longer amount of time in viewing content on that larger screen.

Since “people are looking to sit down there for a while,” TV is ideal for ads that are emotional, brand oriented and story-based, said Iwasa-Madge. He added that advertisers can use more complex visuals in TV commercials because the larger screen simply makes them easier to focus on.

On the other hand, a medium sized laptop screen is usually associated with work and leisure, he said. That means a user could engage in activities like Web browsing and writing while watching video-based content at the same time.

Similarly, a smaller smartphone screen also triggers our thirst for convenience and quick hits of multitasking, including online searches, reading news headlines or checking social media accounts.

As a result, video ads only garner “incidental exposure” on laptops and smartphones compared with the engagement levels they capture on TV, said Iwasa-Madge.

His research showed TV ads generate 11 per cent more attention and 43 per cent more connection among viewers than digital ads. (In the study, attention was defined as whether participants were simply watching and listening to the video; connection measured whether they were thinking about the content they saw and heard.)

Brainsight’s testing suggests mobile devices lead to “polarized engagement” where people’s engagement level with video content rises and falls drastically depending on whether they’re multitasking online while watching digital videos, he explained.

Adidas is pulling all its TV ads to focus on digital. One online Adidas spot featuring a female kickboxer in a hijab has over 31 million YouTube views.

As a result, Iwasa-Madge said it’s crucial for ads aimed at laptops and smartphones to have a very strong opening “to establish relevancy really, really quickly to hook (viewers)” who may be multitasking.

Since it’s harder to see things on smaller screens, Iwasa-Madge said ads targeted to phones and laptops “need clear and simple visuals to work best on digital screens.” That means featuring one character on screen at a time instead of large groups, and avoiding shots with busy, cluttered backgrounds.

Sound may be just as important as visuals for digital ads. Online video spots should use lots of strong audio cues and sound-ups to pull a viewer’s attention back to the ad while they’re multi-tasking, he said.

In short, “if something’s on the wrong screen, you’re not really helping people appreciate it,” said Iwasa-Madge. “You can construct your production decisions … to be more successful on different screens.”

Tone and pacing

Brainsight’s research indicates the tone and pacing of a video ad should match the tone and pacing of the show it’s paired with … in most situations.

Brainsight’s Don Iwasa-Madge.

So, funny ads engage viewers more if they run during comedies; people watching a drama don’t like the way a funny ad “disrupts” the emotional intensity of their viewing experience; quick paced ads resonate better during action packed sports broadcasts like the Superbowl, according to Iwasa-Madge.

One notable exception cropped up in the findings, however. Brainsights found that ads for investment services performed well during clip-based comedy shows like Tosh.0. Iwasa-Madge theorized that the confident tone of the financial management commercial matched the “swagger and bravado” of the TV show and its host.

Second screens

What about the whole second screen trend of people using their smartphones while they’re also watching TV?

Brainsights advises advertisers to tailor ads to these multi-screen situations the same way they craft ads for mobile devices: use simple visuals, a clear call to action, an attention grabbing opener and strong audio cues to draw a multitasking viewer’s attention back to your ad, whether it’s on TV or online.

What’s an ideal multi-screen situation or event? Iwasa-Madge cited examples like the Superbowl or the MTV Movie Awards, which typically feature fast paced action that people watch on TV while simultaneously checking their mobile devices for related social media activity.

Digital trumps TV in ad spend

Fellow speaker Laura Baehr, VP of marketing at ThinkTV, noted that Canadians still watch 130 million hours of TV every day. Other figures compiled by her Toronto firm show the amount of time Canadian adults aged 18-plus spend watching TV every week is eight-fold the amount they spend weekly on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat combined.

Numbers like that aren’t enough to sway advertisers like Adidas. Its CEO recently told CNBC the company is pulling all its TV advertising to focus on digital marketing.

That trend is spreading industry wide. Magna Global researchers reported that digital ad sales surpassed traditional TV ad revenues for the first time ever in the U.S. during 2016. While Magna expects U.S. digital ad sales to jump by 14 per cent in 2017, it forecasts a three per cent dip in offline ad revenue this year.

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Christine Wong
Christine Wong
Christine Wong has been an on-air reporter for a national daily show on Rogers TV and at High Tech TV, a weekly news magazine on CTV's Ottawa affiliate. She was also an associate producer at Report On Business Television (now called BNN) and CBC's The Hour With George Stroumboulopoulos. As an associate producer at Slice TV, she helped launch two national daily talk shows, The Mom Show and Three Takes. Recently, she was a Staff Writer at and is now a freelance contributor.

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