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Emotional Spillover Effects in TV-Commercials

By Bernd Weber & Christian Holst

An important and costly issue for marketers is the placement of TV ads. Longer commercials might have a stronger impact on consumers but are also more costly. Methods that might help to decide whether a shorter version creates the same impact would be very helpful. In this study, we investigated how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can be applied to the analysis of TV commercials in addition to eye-tracking.


Our study was performed on a 1.5 Tesla MRI (Siemens Avanto). The commercial was presented to the subjects via video goggles and soundproof headphones. Response Grips were used to record the behavior of the subjects. In order to gain a more complete picture of the performance and impact of the commercial, we used eye-tracking in addition to the fMRI measurement. The subject of the investigation was a commercial for Deutsche Post - DHL. It ran nationwide to advertise the launch of the E-Postbrief. The E-Postbrief is a service of sending and receiving emails with high safety standards. Users can also have their e-mail delivered by a classic, postal mail service. 

The examined commercial was aired in two different versions which differed in length. The short version corresponded exactly to the last 30 seconds of the long one, which had a length of 50 seconds. Since we wanted to investigate how the perception of the two versions differed, we divided the total of 38 subjects randomly into two equal groups: Group long vs. Group short. Both groups only watched one of the two versions.

In the first 20 seconds of the long version, a suggestive atmosphere was used to illustrate the dangers of the internet. In accordance with this intention, the atmosphere of this part can be characterized as dark, sleazy, cluttered, loud, hectic, confusing, dubious and futuristic. 

First part (20 sec): atmosphere: negative, threatening, dubious, dark, cluttered, noise, confusing, unfamiliar, hectic, dodgy, etc.

In the subsequent 30 seconds the commercial showed how the E-Postbrief can help customers to address these problems. In contrast to the first part the atmosphere here was bright, idyllic, clear, calm, tranquil, friendly and familiar. 

Second part (30 sec.): Atmosphere: positive, cheerful, quaint, bright, plain, quiet, clear, familiar, tranquil, pleasant, etc.


Subjective Ratings
During the presentation of the commercial, subjects were asked about different attitudes towards the ad. 18.75 % of Group long subjects described the commercial as “threatening”, whereas in Group short no one agreed with this statement, as intended by the creators of this commercial.

Using an eye-tracker, we investigated the perception of the two versions. We defined areas of interest (AOI) and compared the average dwell times between the two groups.

We found that subjects of Group long looked (significantly) longer at all marketing-related AOIs (e.g.: slogan, logo, product features, etc.) than subjects of the other group. Subsequent analyses showed that the longer dwell time had no positive effect on the impact though, i.e. neither on recall of the information nor on the rating of the commercial.

In order to compare the two groups with each other, we focused on the last 30 seconds of the long version. As already stated, those exactly match the short version. The only difference between the two groups, therefore, was that subjects of Group long had additionally seen the threatening atmosphere in the first part of the commercial. 

Contrasting the activation patterns of both groups revealed stronger activity in the insula for subjects of Group long as compared with Group short. This brain region, among others, is associated with aversive emotional arousal. As this part of the commercial was completely identical for both groups only the first part of the commercial could be responsible for this activity.


The threatening atmosphere in the first part of the commercial seems to affect the neural processing and perception of the second part, i.e. there seems to be a hangover effect of the threatening atmosphere, which cannot be completely resolved by the positive atmosphere of the second part. Subjects of Group long were still dealing with the negative emotions that had been triggered by the first part while watching the second. Without the use of fMRI these effects would have remained hidden from us. According to the available data the idea to arouse potential customers in the first part and then offer a solution in the second does not seem suitable to present the product in the desired manner. The positive atmosphere of the second part - which should rather be linked to the product and the brand - is instead dominated by the negative emotions evoked in the first part. 

In many commercials companies attempt to fan fear in order to motivate potential customers to purchase certain products and services. This strategy still enjoys great popularity among banks and insurance companies. Many marketers disregard the fact that our brain gives more weight to negative information than to positive. The reason for this difference in treatment is evolutionarily grounded and an important part of the human survival strategy. How the aversive emotions affect the perception of the product and brand on the long run was not the subject of this study and requires further investigation. 

Joined work between “Life&Brain” and “Siegfried Voegele Institute – International company for dialog marketing”
Professor Dr. Bernd Weber /  Dr. Chrisian Holst

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today