The ASA's worst offenders: disgraceful or great advertising?

'Offensive' ads, such as Moneysupermarket.com's, demonstrate that being memorable can trump positive emotions, says Neuro-Insight's CEO

Last week the ASA released figures showing Moneysupermarket’s twerking businessman, Dave, once again at the top of the list of most-complained about campaigns – a position it has held for the past three years.

Although on the surface the ad might seem pretty harmless, it has managed to repeatedly offend large numbers of viewers. Unperturbed by this reaction, Moneysupermarket’s latest campaign has brought Dave back to our TV screens; this time engaged in a gang dance-off with "builder Colin" and other men, dressed in similar outfits.

Offending viewers might seem like a risky strategy to take when designing an ad campaign, and the negative reactions to it might seem to be an indication of the campaign’s failure. However, Moneysupermarket’s continued use of the ad suggests it works well for it, and, sometimes, conscious responses and reactions don’t tell the whole story.

Long time in the memory

We used neuroscience research to review "Dancing businessman Dave" to understand how the brain was responding to it at a subconscious level. We discovered that the campaign seems to be working pretty effectively.

One of the main indications of communication effectiveness is the extent to which an ad is stored away in the viewer’s long-term memory – something known to neuroscientists as "memory encoding". High levels of memory encoding have been shown to correlate strongly with future decision-making and behaviour, and the Moneysupermarket ads are highly effective at leveraging two key drivers of memory encoding – powerful narrative and emotional intensity.

So, how does the campaign work in the brain? In terms of narrative, "dancing businessman Dave" is very easy to follow. It uses intrigue effectively to engage viewers from the beginning. It is a technique that acts as a strong driver of memory encoding. As we watch, we’re teased with bystander reactions, before we’re introduced to Dave’s full (and rather unexpected) attire.

The brain loves a puzzle and will follow the action to look for clues about the story and a resolution to what is being seen. The visuals are accompanied by a catchy soundtrack, which is aligned with what we see on screen, making it more likely to be encoded into memory and therefore stick in people’s minds after the ad has ended. The compelling nature of the soundtrack is further enhanced by the familiar celebrity face and voice of Sharon Osborne.

Strong impact

The unexpected behaviour and attire of Dave as a seductive dancer is, of course, what gives the ad its shock factor. From the brain’s perspective, although the emotional response may not be a positive one, a strong emotional impact of any kind is a further driver of memory encoding and makes the ad more likely to be remembered. People may not love the ad, but they are likely to remember it. And in a category where saliency is vital, being remembered is the most important thing.

For brands in many categories, a strong memory response needs to be associated with positive emotions. But where saliency is the most crucial factor, memory trumps positive associations every time. Consumers are unlikely to recall something that hasn’t affected them in some way, and are often unimpressed by campaigns that they find boring and uninteresting.

Given the volume of content advertisers are up against, particularly in this sector, playing it safe isn’t always a sensible strategy. So, despite the widespread complaints, the Moneysupermarket ads are intriguing, emotionally compelling and likely to ensure that the brand is remembered.

Wanting to stand out can sometimes mean trying your hand at a bit of harmless controversy, and "Dancing businessman Dave" demonstrates this well. Although the ads have been called many things from "offensive" to "homophobic", it’s likely to be the way the creative pushes the boundaries of societal norms that has attracted such a conscious angry response.

Heather Andrew is the CEO of Neuro-Insight 

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