To Win Over Viewers, TV Ads Should Be Structured Like Jokes



  • TV ad plots that employ a series of repetitions followed by a surprising "break" tend to be more successful with audiences.

To win over viewers, a television advertisement should be set up like a joke, according to University of Texas at Austin Professor Raj Raghunathan.

In his research, Raghunathan — along with Jeffrey Lowenstein of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chip Heath of Stanford — found that the plot structures of television ads help determine how successful they are with audiences. The researchers looked at ads that use a series of repetitions, followed by a “break” that introduces an element of surprise, which they refer to as “rep-break” plot structure. Just as a joke with an unexpected punch line causes laughter, “rep-break” ads also tend to win over viewers. “It turns out that the rep-break plot structure is generally thought to be more engaging, more involving, and the brand is better liked than similar kinds of ad executions that do not use the rep-break plot structure,” Raghunathan says.

“To us, this seems like very convincing evidence that people do indeed like the rep-break plot structure and to us, it’s not very surprising that they do because it is clearly more enjoyable and engaging, and it takes advantage of something that is very basic to all of humor. Humor is very engaging, of course. People love jokes,” Raghunathan says.

Just in time for the Super Bowl and its onslaught of high-priced ads, Raghunathan looked at a pair of ads (one recent, one classic) that went over well with television audiences, as well as an ad that took the top spot in the Consumerist website’s “Worst Ad in America 2011” online poll. How well did these loved — and loathed — ads use the rep-break plot structure? Raghunathan explains.

The Force: Volkswagen Commercial



Raghunathan: Here, the number of repetitions [of the kid trying to use the Force] is actually more than sufficient: there’s a dog and then there’s the baby, and then there’s the dog again and then with the food. He finally does it with the car and, as a viewer, you’re expecting nothing is really going to happen.

They did a nice thing by not showing to us that [the car] was activated by the remote initially. We are taken aback that it actually worked when the kid tried to do his magic on the car. It puzzles us: How did it happen this time? Then, of course, we are shown something that all of us recognize. It’s just a remote. Most cars have remotes and it’s not a new technology to have a remote that starts a car from far away. Just portraying it in this kind of a way makes us pay attention to the ad, and then the cleverness of the ad is somehow attributed to the brand. We think “Yes, this is a nice brand. I like this brand.”

You could think of the ad as having a basic foundation of the rep-break plot structure on which it has layered a cultural understanding of who this character is and what this character likes to do, [he] can magically influence other people in evil ways. On top of that is this idea that kids are lovable, and combining an evil character with a kid doesn’t dilute the liking for the kid. Especially in a culture like the U.S. where it’s not uncommon to see kids dressed up in a Darth Vader costume for Halloween, for example. All this cultural understanding is taken advantage of, but it all would really come to nothing if it didn’t have the rep-break plot structure.

Over time, it sets up the expectation in no uncertain terms. It’s very unambiguous that this guy really can’t do magic. The boredom levels are pretty high or the interest levels come down to a pretty low amount, when suddenly you get a spike in interest. Suddenly, it works now; it’s a break, right?

I think it’s a very, very clever ad. I’m not surprised that it was such a big hit.

Mean Joe Greene Superbowl Ad: Coca-Cola Commercial



Raghunathan: I’m not from the U.S. and this is an ad made in the 1980s about this character called Joe Greene.

It is not a plot structure that we would think of as the prototypical rep-break. It doesn’t have any of the repetitions as we think of them normally, but in an abstract way, you can think of it as taking advantage of the rep-break plot structure as follows: People know that he is mean, and so in their minds there’s a cultural understanding of one repetition having happened. The repetition has to do with the fact that Joe Greene behaves in a mean fashion.

You can see him here not explicitly being mean but not really being that positively disposed, let’s say, towards a kid. He just thinks of the kid as a bit of a nuisance perhaps and a distraction. He’s obviously hurt and he’s walking back into his locker room, and here’s this kid who’s asking him questions and pestering him a little bit. He’s not overtly mean but he’s in a subtle way dissing the kid. They’re just walking on and [he’s] not really encouraging a conversation with the kid.

Finally, he gives in and he takes the Coke from the kid, and then there’s a kind of a break in his meanness and he actually throws [his jersey] to the kid, which the kid now takes as a souvenir. The kid is obviously enamored of this guy and is a big fan of this guy. So we are left with a warm glowing feeling in our hearts that this mean guy ended up behaving nicely towards the kid. We’re probably feeling a little more positively disposed towards this Mean Joe Greene, as well. Where did all this happen? It would be partly attributed to the brand, which is Coke in this instance.

Of course, this is not the kind of the plot structure that we would have in mind as the typical rep-break plot structure. For that to happen, I think that you would have to have a few instances of this man being somewhat mean in an explicit fashion within the ad so that you don’t need to depend on a cultural understanding of this guy being mean, and then break that meanness to this kind act. That would be the more prototypical rep-break plot structure.

Poop There It Is: Luvs Diaper Commercial



Raghunathan: Most parents have experienced diaper leakages and it’s uncomfortable, somewhat disgusting, and most people have gone through that experience.

I think the reason why this ad may not have succeeded that much is partly because there’s a disgust factor associated with human excrement. Even if it comes from babies, people don’t instinctively feel that positive or good about these kinds of topics. [In this ad]there wasn’t necessarily a clear break, so there’s poop quantity A, poop quantity twice as A, and then poop quantity humongous times A. There wasn’t any violation of expectation as such. All the diapers held their poop.

Clearly, the ad could’ve shown a violation of the expectation. They could’ve shown a kid pooping so much that the first diaper couldn’t hold it. The second diaper couldn’t hold it. Then the same baby poops in the Luv’s diaper [which] all of a sudden can hold it. I don’t know that they [would] necessarily [have] been that successful just because even though it has more of the repetition-break plot structure, it also evokes stronger disgust, maybe because it actually shows the poop.

The rep-break plot structure can be used across many different kinds of context, in many brands, in many products, but I don’t know if it’s conducive for use for this kind of a storyline for diapers because of the disgust involved. As long as the initial repetitions don’t evoke a strong sense of disgust, I think the repetition-break plot structure can be used.


While Luvs Diapers may not be able to employ the “rep-break” plot structure, Raghunathan says more ads should make use of that setup. “What is surprising to us is how few ads — as a proportionate like 5 percent or whatever — actually take advantage of the rep-break plot structure. Why isn’t it more prevalent? I think the answer partly lies in the fact that it’s difficult to come up with nice rep-break plot structures. It involves a lot of creativity and resources to come up with that plot structure.”

“The second reason could be a more simple one, which is that people are not aware that there’s this big difference in how engaging an ad can be if it had this plot structure,” he says. “Our message goes out to a lot of the ad execs and TV execs and we strongly encourage them to think of taking advantage of this” rep-break TV ad plot structure, Raghunathan says.


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