Total recall

Recall is advertising's holy grail. But for every 'water in Majorca', there are thousands of campaigns that fail to stick in the public consciousness. Alex Benady asks what an ad needs to do to never be forgotten.

If you've watched any television at all over the past couple of months, you'll have seen an ad set in a hypnotherapist's consulting room. A man lies on a couch while his therapist encourages him to delve deep into his subconscious mind.

But instead of a litany of personal revelations and experiences, the client's most pressing recollections turn out to be a stream of famous catchlines from long-dead advertising campaigns.

He sings the Wall's Cornetto jingle, he quotes verbatim the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, he yells "nuts whole hazelnuts", croons choruses from old Fairy Liquid ads and the R White's "secret lemonade drinker" commercial, riffs on JR Hartley's Yellow Pages campaign and Budweiser's "whassup", before he climaxes with a rousing rendition of "whoaaah, Bodyform, Bodyform for you".

The strange thing is that even if you were five years old when you last saw those ads, you can almost certainly still recall them - just from those brief descriptions. "Whether or not you believe that recall is an important measure, the fact that some TV advertising can be recalled after many years indicates that it is embedded pretty deeply in the brain. That suggests it has powerful effects," David Hackworthy, the planning director of The Red Brick Road, which made the ad, comments. Sure enough, the ad ends with the line: "It's funny how 30 seconds can last a lifetime."

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: "It's funny if 30 seconds last a lifetime." Because, yes, your campaign has hit the memorability jackpot and you'll be laughing all the way to the bank. But the truth is that for every Cornetto, there are scores of Vienettas and for every "whassup", there are dozens of Worthingtons campaigns that were consigned to semi-oblivion the second they aired.

Thinkbox suggests that recall is the be-all and end-all of advertising. But is that true? And if it is, how do you achieve it? How do you get your campaign to lodge in people's minds like those in the Thinkbox ad?

There is a school of thought that suggests recall may be the enemy of effectiveness. The advertising academic Robert Heath found in a research project that some campaigns worked better when people did not recall them.

The hypnotherapist Al Mayfield, who appears in the Thinkbox commercial, says that all campaigns are already lodged in people's minds, the problem is how to retrieve those memories. "Although the mind retains a perfect copy of everything it sees, it only recalls what is important. The truth is that most ads aren't important to people's lives so the issue isn't really memorability but recall," he says.

This is not accepted wisdom, but one problem is that there isn't even agreement over what recall means. For instance, you might think unprompted recall is important. But it's never needed. You only ever encounter brands in a context - a supermarket aisle, a cupboard or a filing cabinet - so unprompted recall is a relatively unimportant measure. In any case, levels of unprompted recall are always shockingly low - rarely rising above 5 per cent for even the heaviest, most topical campaigns. One per cent may be closer to the norm.

But if awareness is prompted, then the nature of the prompt invariably frames the response. "What ads can you remember seeing recently?" is a very different question from "What ads do you recall seeing in your lifetime?" or "What ads for financial products have you seen in the past month?" That's why you rarely see charts of most memorable ads.

However, talking to our experts in advertising memorability, two key themes recur. First, the most memorable ads seem to combine some elements of familiarity with elements of novelty or the unexpected. So Paul Weiland's "water in Majorca" commercial for Heineken combines a familiar elocution lesson that could be straight out of Dr Dolittle, with an original twist - the teacher is instructing his posh student in how to speak in the demotic.

Second, the ads have to make some sort of emotional connection. But that is also a can of worms, because it's hard to pin down what makes an emotional connection as these connections come from the entirety of an ad. It is what Paul Feldwick calls "metacommunication". The colours, looks, asides, pacing, production values, special effects and, especially, music affect emotional meaning as much as, if not more than, words and action. And this is often introduced after script development has been completed.

It's a complex area and even with advances in neuroscience, there seem to be no right answers, no one way of doing things.

PROFESSOR GEMMA CALVERT - chair of applied neuroimaging, WMG, University of Warwick

Memory is a multifaceted process. Different groups of brain areas are involved in encoding, storage and recall of the advertisements to which we are exposed. In addition, there are two routes to long-term storage - the explicit route which we are conscious of (which is aided by rehearsal, attention and elaboration) and the implicit route which we are not conscious of (aided by priming or prior exposure of the material even in the absence of awareness and emotional salience).

Anecdotal evidence and studies of immediate recall suggest that ads are better remembered when shown on TV than when aired on radio. The simple explanation is that two senses in most cases are better than one. But the truth is not so black and white. While immediate recall for ads is greater for TV than radio - the reverse is true after a delay of two hours. So is there something unique about listening in the absence of vision?

In a landmark study of 40,000 people, the psychologist Richard Wiseman showed that audiences are better able to discern lies from truth using verbal and vocal rather than visual clues. So some facets of our emotional processing may be better tuned in when we listen than when we can also see the speaker. It turns out that two factors that help involuntary encoding of information into long-term memory are attention to, and elaboration of, information (eg. building up a picture in the mind's eye of the information you're listening to).

So although audiovisual material is more intuitively memorable, without the additional visual information, radio audiences have to concentrate harder on the material to understand what's being said. Psychologists have long-known that the harder you work to process information, the deeper the encoding into long-term memory.

ROBIN WIGHT - president, Engine

The human mind has two systems. There's the biological ancient mind, mind system one, which developed about 400,000 years ago to address our evolutionary needs. It's unconscious, has very fast response and deals with implicit not explicit issues.

Mind system two is more recent and is what makes us human. It is conscious, slower and deals with explicit things. The doorway to this mind is the working memory and there are various mechanisms you can use to get ideas into the working memory.

Repetition is one, but jingles, rhymes, music and assonance are also good routes in. Those little phrases and jingles such as "the future's bright, the future's Orange" or "the water in Majorca" you recall decades later are called "mindworms" because they start off in mind system two but end up in mind system one, where you can probably never get rid of them.

That is the sweet spot for brands and brand communications - to enter a place in the brain where it becomes the default setting for soup or jeans or cars. We call it brand loyalty, although it is slightly less noble than that because loyalty is in fact a lazy brain's strategy to save energy.

The brain needs huge amounts of energy just to function. It takes twice as much brain energy to perform new tasks such as learning a new slogan or using a new brand. The truth is it has better things to do than remember ads and it doesn't want to have to make expensive conscious choices. To economise on energy the brain is naturally conservative and tends to seek more of the same.

But more than just recall, you want recognition. The best ads achieve that by connecting conscious learning with unconscious feeling, they help us learn feelings, not facts.

If marketing people really understood just how much old stuff is hanging around in our brains, they would act very differently. Often we don't need constant new campaigns, we need to refresh the familiar, we need differentiated continuity, to build on the brand memories we already have.

PAUL FELDWICK - advertising consultant

Memorability, or what researchers refer to as recall, may be something of a red herring. It's true that lots of effective campaigns are also widely remembered, sometimes for surprisingly long periods - if you're old enough you can probably think of ads from the 50s or 60s. But it doesn't follow that any particular recall measure (and there are many different ones) is necessary or predictive of ad effectiveness. Some well-recalled ads don't work, while other campaigns are very effective with very low apparent recall.

Message recall is based on an even bigger misunderstanding. It assumes the most important thing in the ad is a verbal message. This is rarely, if ever, true. Ads probably work much more by creating associations between the brand and certain images or feelings. These associations may be acquired in non-conscious ways, through non-verbal communication, and may remain largely unconscious or unarticulated.

In fact, conscious recall of advertising may sometimes be at odds with effectiveness. As my colleague Robert Heath put it: "The reason for this is that being actively conscious of emotional arguments allows us to evaluate and arm ourselves against their influence." If you know someone is trying to schmooze you, you can resist them.

Tests for advertising effectiveness therefore need to focus on the outcomes for the brand relationship, and ultimately patterns of brand choice behaviour, rather than what is consciously remembered or recalled.

Clients: and agencies must take on board the oft-denied truth that advertising can be effective without "message", "proposition" or "benefits" - the fabric of conventional recall, and recognise that attempts to impose these may reduce, rather than increase, effectiveness.

SIMON DAVIES - outgoing marketing director, Molson Coors Brewing Company

Our company spends around £15 million a year on advertising, and memorability is our over-riding priority. It's the gearing that affects how effective our budget is. You could say the value of our campaign is ratings multiplied by memorability. It's that important.

Memorability is driven by the tension between two opposing forces: familiarity and novelty. Just like the best observational comedy, memorable advertising has to be rooted in familiarity and relevance. We remember things that are relevant to us so the ad has to have a place in your life. The key to that is having a genuine insight at the heart of it.

But the insight also has to be dramatised in an unexpected way. There has to be something new or different or arresting. The key question for anyone commissioning advertising is how to identify in advance what is going to be memorable. Pre-testing isn't terribly useful, so clients have to exercise judgment. That consists of a combination of logic and intuition. But it also has to be informed by trust in your agency. If you don't trust them, why are you working with them? If you do trust them, give them room to do their best.

There's no doubt that ads these days aren't as memorable as they used to be. A lot of memorability comes from the network effects of people seeing an ad and talking about it. Fragmentation of media means that is declining. Many ads seem too ashamed to declare their commercial agenda and budgets are also declining so opportunities to see are fewer. At the same time, clients have become more knowledgeable, more accountable and more conservative. Avoidance of failure has become the driver, which means it has become harder for clients to take leaps of faith.

I fear we are in danger of forgetting just how important memorability is.

PAUL WEILAND - film director

Memorability seems to be the whole point of advertising, but it's really hard to achieve. I've shot around 800 commercials and, of those, perhaps 20 are still memorable 20 years on.

The keys are clarity of thought, economy of expression and originality. Permanent impressions rarely arise from films that are crowded and muddled or indistinct. People remember simple fresh ideas best. If you can make someone feel an emotion - laughter, sadness or anger - in an unexpected or new way, you have a better chance of being remembered.

On the other hand, many ads just try too hard and cram too much in. Often there is a tension between the client's desire to include as many commercial points as possible and the obvious need to keep things very simple for the sake of memorability.

So successful, well-recalled commercials strike a balance between all sorts of conflicting needs. There's the balance between simplicity and sales messages, between engagement or entertainment and the brand, between giving up all its meaning at first viewing and having sufficient complexity to keep people interested after they've seen it eight times.

Ideally, the memorability grows throughout the development process of the film. A great idea is embodied in a memorable script which is then adorned with memorable touches by the director and polished with memorable additions in post-production.

But often it's an unplanned look or a line or a gesture that sticks in people's minds. For instance, when we shot the Heineken elocution commercial, the Sloaney girl was supposed to say "the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain". But there were copyright problems with that line, so we had to rewrite it.

Instead, we came up with "the water in Majorca don't taste like what it oughta". Exactly the same sentiment, but because it was so unexpected, it was infinitely more memorable. Everybody remembers that line and the brand it advertises.