Ads must work with memories not against them

by Nigel Hollis | April 03, 2017

A friend and I were sitting in a sports bar the other day and our attention was drawn to a video featuring a photographer and some awesome mountain scenery. My friend suggested the ad was for Canon. His expectation proved wrong and points to the importance of ensuring your ad works with people’s existing memories not against them.

Based on years of seeing print ads featuring photographs of spectacular scenery and wildlife, my friend immediately and intuitively associated the TV ad with Canon. In fact the ad proved to be for Chase Bank. Now, the big question is whether this revelation will prove memorable enough to displace his existing association with another brand, because if the memories do not stick the advertised brand there is no chance people’s predisposition will change as a result of that exposure. In my experience the answer is that the association is unlikely to change, or at least, not without substantial investment.

Many years ago when I first arrived in the U.S. I was assigned to work on the Energizer tracking study alongside Steve McHugh, now SVP-Centers of Research and Transformation Expertise. What has now become known as the Energizer Bunny was in the early days of the campaign’s history and there was one big problem. Far more people associated the bunny with Duracell than with Energizer. Why? Because Duracell had already screened TV ads featuring various toy animals. On seeing an ad featuring another toy animal, people intuitively associated the ad with Duracell. Obviously the brand association did change, but it took years and millions of dollars to achieve that success.


Today people still argue about how much attention people need to give an ad for it to be effective. My answer is simple: the more the better. Initial memory formation demands some degree of conscious processing, even if subsequent exposure can trigger existing non-conscious associations. But you cannot assume an ad will get that initial attention, you have to earn it by making your ad as engaging, distinctive and well-branded as possible. And, if you can do that, in all likelihood it will continue to earn attention on subsequent viewings too.

So could Chase have anticipated that their ad might be mistaken for another brand? After all, my friend’s intuitive association might be individual to him alone. One would hope that a pre-test might pick this up but perhaps a better check would be to check in-market the first time the ad airs. If searches for the brand pick up as the ad airs, then it is a good signal that the ad is both relevant and well-branded. But the absence of a positive response might simply mean the ad is not activating immediate demand. It might still be seeding ideas and associations for the future and in which case a quick survey like AdNow would give the answer.

The funny thing is that the Chase ad was followed immediately by another ad for Coors Light that featured mountain scenery and the tagline “Climb On”. Could mountains have become a more popular cultural icon? What do you think? Please share your thoughts on the power of pre-existing associations and whether they affect what ads people make as well as how people respond to ads. 


Leave a comment
  1. Ed Papazian, April 10, 2017
    Very good piece, Nigel. People in the ad business tend to think of consumers as "targets" not people whose lives and mindsets unfold and evolve as they live and age. the same is true with ad campaigns, which have lives of their own and, inevitably, wear out. Moreover, many brand positioning strategies are made in a vacuum, where only one brand and what it has to say exists. As you point out, that's fine for those making such decisions---even if supported by testing of some sort-----but consumers are far more complex than is realized and they store away all sorts of memories and impressions in their subconscious, which can be triggered with the right approach or symbolism---if a brand understands how to exploit this aspect and not just pound away trying to tell its self-serving story.
  2. Dominic, April 03, 2017

    As an old fart, my first thought was of the Lucozade Daley Thompson ad. It went completely against existing memories; but worked.

    Your key point here is about potential misattribution; and that an be a Double Whammy. See

    Leave a comment