Schema Incongruent Advertising

Quick Read: A dollop of ‘schema incongruence’, strategically thrown into an ad, could sometimes serve as a powerful stimuli.

Did you know that Reddit put together its recent Super Bowl ad in less than a week?

The ad is remarkable.

Quoting the NYTimes article..

The Reddit ad started out like a clichéd car commercial, with two S.U.V.s racing across the desert. Then the signal seemed to fry, and Reddit’s orange-and-white alien-head logo commandeered the screen, followed by a lengthy printed statement that left viewers scrambling to grab a photo or screenshot...

The Kellogg School Super Bowl Advertising Review, an annual ranking from Northwestern University’s business school, reported shortly after the game on Sunday that Reddit’s commercial was among the most effective commercials of the broadcast. The Kellogg School’s list measures the execution of the commercial, the quality of the attention it generates, its memorability and other factors...

When one analyses this ad from Reddit and attempts to theorise the ‘how and why it worked the way it did’ one is sure to run into the concept of ‘schema incongruence in brand messaging’.

Schema incongruent advertising

When incoming information can be well organized into one’s existing knowledge structures, it can be called as schema-congruent information. When the information does not easily fit into the existing knowledge structures, the information is schema-incongruent.

In a seminal paper in 1982, George Mandler from the University of California, San Diego proposed his Theory on Schema Incongruity. His thesis centered on the notion that although people generally like things that match their expectations, moderate incongruity can be arousing and thus intriguing. Furthermore, because moderate incongruity can be resolved with minimal effort, it tends to result in favourable evaluations. (source)

Over the years, several researchers have validated the impact of schema incongruence on brand messaging. For example, in an oft quoted research paper by Halkias, G., and Kokkinaki, F. (2012) titled ‘Cognitive and affective responses to schema-incongruent brand messages‘, the authors empirically investigate and validate that incongruent stimuli may attract more of the recipients’ attention, increase their cognitive arousal, and may finally elicit more positive judgements.  

And in another research paper by Hye Jin Yoon (2015) titled ‘Understanding schema incongruity as a process in advertising‘, the author states that strategies evoking schema incongruity have often been used in advertising because information incongruent to schema has the potential to increase interest, memorability, and persuasiveness in consumers.

And to help elucidate this further, she proposes a four-stage process model (see below) and discusses each stage in detail with a focus on the impact factors that need to be addressed for using a successful incongruity strategy in advertising.

A process model of incongruity in advertising, Hye Jin Yoon (2012), Source

So the next time you see an ad that seems irreverent, fun and provocative (the tropes most often employed by ‘impulse brands’ like candies, chewing gum etc) you know the method to the madness behind their creative work – a dollop of ‘schema incongruence’ strategically thrown in to serve as powerful stimuli.

And yeah, by the way, just in case it didn’t come to your notice, Robinhood (this is a quick follow up to the previous post, remember?) also aired an ad during this Super Bowl. And let’s just say that it did get some attention.

Rationalising The Emotional

Quick Read: At one end we have ads with heavy emotional messaging and at the other we have those with hardcore rational, persuasive messaging. And then there are those that make interesting attempts at occupying the space in between.  

My contention is that truly great advertising does something far more important than deliver a rational message, and far more important than entertain: what it does is to establish associations. (Heath, 2002)

Seducing the Subconscious is an acclaimed book by Robert Heath on how advertising works. A key argument that he makes in this book is that the best advertising actually works through emotive as opposed to persuasive messaging, and emotional content is processed most efficiently at low levels of attention, not high.

Read this great post by Steve Genco for a more detailed commentary on Heath’s theory. He says..

..a substantial body of research has shown that emotional associations established at low levels of attention lead to longer-lasting influences on attitudes and behavior than rational arguments (i.e., traditional persuasion).

This is because they facilitate the memory activation mechanism of recognition rather than recall.  Recall requires effort, fades relatively quickly, and has to be reinforced regularly.  But recognition is triggered effortlessly and lasts indefinitely.  So recognition, unlike recall, is more likely to result from low attention processing.

(So the thumb rule?) Combine a brand with an emotionally engaging ad, repeat the association under low attention conditions like TV watching, and you will get both recognition and a favorable default attitude toward your brand.

That’s probably why the new John Lewis ad works. And that’s probably why we have attempts at advertising like this one for Obsession by CK.

While this ad and its iconic print campaign by Robert R. Taylor are said to be some of the most memorable advertisements of all time, it is also billed by many as “the ultimate in abstract and meaningless advertising”. (source)

Arguably it does take a strategic leap of faith for a marketer to ride on just emotion and disband the century old model of ‘rational’ or ‘persuasive’ messaging that much of marketing communication still cleaves to. So it’s not uncommon to see many ads that – while narrating an emotional story – also ensure they rationalise it and close the spot with a persuasive messaging for the viewer.

Interestingly, almost as if to exemplify the above point, Pfister‘s new ad on its touch free range of faucets called REACT takes a dig at ‘Obsession’-isque narratives by attempting to unwrap the enveloped message for us.

Talk about rationalising the emotional.

(H/T this nytimes report)

(Featured Image: React Faucet by Pfister)