By: Dr. James McFarland, PhD, People Scientist

From a neurological perspective, the memory of an event personally experienced in real-time, such as a game, concert, or award show, is “formatted” differently than one’s general knowledge of the event itself. To put this another way, learning information is not the same as experiencing information, and each process uses different neural pathways and structures to encode, store, and retrieve information within the human brain.

Episodic Memory

Specific life experiences that contain high levels of emotion, personal investment, and/or social significance, tend to form “episodic” memories. In these situations, the brain encodes, stores, and recalls information that is singularly unique to that individual’s lived experience during that specific moment in time (e.g., “Remembering the imagery, feelings, and situational context of crashing your bike and breaking your arm.”). In this context, information is processed with higher levels of emotion (amygdala), spatial awareness (parietal cortex), and perceptual focus (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) which results in memories that are both enhanced and distorted by the changes in one’s cognitive load.

Semantic Memory

On the other hand, experiences that take place within the parameters of normal everyday life tend to form “semantic” memories. In these situations, the brain encodes, stores, and recalls information that is largely transferable within one’s general store of knowledge about the world (e.g., “On Tuesday at 5:30pm, I crashed my bike while traveling at a speed of 15 mph and I suffered a fracture of my left ulna.”). While semantic memories can contain a large amount of complex and detailed information, they are abstract in the sense that they do not contain personal details like mental images and personal impressions of the event in question (e.g., I know the time, day, and year I was born (semantic memory), but I don’t remember the experience of being born (episodic memory)).

The differences between episodic and semantic memory can help us understand the significant impact that environmental context often has on memory formation and later recall. Watching or experiencing live or high-profile events will likely result in the formation of episodic memories, while semantic memories are more likely to be formed when watching regularly scheduled (or routine) programming. The context not only affects the processing of “targeted” information (e.g., details of event/game/movie), but also impacts the encoding, storage, and retrieval of “ambient” environmental stimuli (e.g., advertisements and commercials) as well.

Level of Viewer Engagement During High-Profile Events

The experience of attending high-profile events (e.g., watching a sporting event) tends to result in more emotional and spatial processing (episodic engagement), which in turn reduces the saliency of non-targeted items of interest (e.g., advertisements and commercials). Past studies confirm that this is often the case. In a replication study, Pham (1992) found that viewers of high-profile events tend to have surprisingly low recognition rates for advertisements shown during those events.1 In this study, Pham found that only 39% of respondents were able to identify an advertisement that had been visible to them for nearly two minutes. This is similar to the phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness,” where participants can miss seeing something as obvious as a gorilla walking through a crowd if their attention is directed at a more salient subset of information.2 This means that the elevated level of emotions and increased cognitive load present during high-profile events tends to reduce the perception and recognition of peripheral information such as the advertisements shown during these events. This is supported by a study by Newell et al. (2001), where the strong emotional reactions of participants during high-profile sporting events were found to be negatively correlated with later recall of advertisements and brands.3 Overall, research in this area suggests that viewers may be less consciously engaged with commercials shown during a sporting event than they are with advertisements seen during regularly scheduled programming such as TV shows and movies. However, again it is worth noting that there are entirely different processes at play when encoding information in these two contexts. It is important to look at research that goes beyond simple recognition, and when we do, a more complicated picture begins to emerge.

The Moderated Value of High-Profile Events

Is there additional “value” in the viewer’s mind in seeing a brand’s commercial in a high-profile event (like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, or NCAA March Madness, etc..) versus watching the commercial during a seasonal episode of regular TV (on ABC, CBS, etc.)? Research suggests that the answer is both yes and no. For example, a longitudinal study conducted by O’Reilly et al. (2008)4 found that the intention to purchase and the willingness to pay more for products advertised during the annual NFL Super Bowl was low to moderate (approximately 2.3 on a 1-5 Likert scale). These mid to low-level intentions remained fairly stable over the course of eight years (1998-2006) and five different Super Bowls. Based on the self-report of viewers, this study suggests that consumers tend not to see themselves as being highly influenced by ads shown during high-profile events. However, at the same time, these data also show that at some level viewers do perceive these ads to be unique (theoretically due to their context), and by extension inherently more valuable to them than ads seen during the more routine moments of life.

One area this perception of value is demonstrated is in the stock market. A number of studies have looked at the stock performance of brands that advertise during high-profile events (e.g., the Super Bowl) and found that there is a significant increase in stock market performance in the time period surrounding the event.5 This elevated performance within the stock market is partly driven by the perception of investors6 who anticipate gains following the high-profile exposure,7 as well as by increases in sales and services by the consumers who were exposed to the ads. For example, Lee and Ko (2021)8 examined nearly ten years of data and found that advertising during the Super Bowl significantly increased the brands’ market growth. Further exploration of the study’s data revealed that this effect is strongest for advertisements that engaged the viewer’s emotions and/or automatic reactions rather than their higher-order cognitions. Specifically, hedonic products and services that required very little cognitive effort to process (e.g., food, wine, perfume, etc.) tended to have the highest market returns following their exposure during high-profile events. In fact, across the board, Lee and Ko found that these “low-involvement” ads were consistently the primary beneficiary of being presented at high-profile events. Results from a study by Li and Watanabe (2022) may lend support to this low-involvement hypothesis.9 Li and Watanabe found that high-profile event advertisements significantly increased the amount of search engine traffic seeking additional information about the products. While this study did not directly control for the level of engagement at the time of viewing the ad, it would be reasonable to assume that it was emotionally salient enough to prompt the viewers to find out more at a later time when they had more cognitive resources available.

In conclusion, the research suggests that the cognitive load required during episodic engagements tends to reduce our conscious awareness of the surrounding stimuli (i.e., commercials and advertisements). However, at the same time, the heightened levels of emotion and spatial awareness produced within this context appear to enhance our perception of low-involvement commercials and advertisements. The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion10 suggests that encountering ambiguous information (ads) while in a heightened state of arousal (high-profile events) tends to result in an exaggerated appraisal of that information. This highlights the need to be somewhat cautious when implementing a high-profile ad as there is a real possibility the ad could also leave consumers with a more negative view of the product than if they had viewed it in a more routine context. Focusing on salient emotions and spatial awareness (not only where they are in space but also in time) allows the message to more effectively resonate with individuals who are episodically engaged in a high-profile event, thereby increasing the likelihood those low-involvement messages will be remembered when the individual’s environmental context triggers similar feelings in the future.

1Pham, Michel. (1992). Effects of Involvement, Arousal, and Pleasure on the Recognition of Sponsorship Stimuli. Advances in Consumer Research. 19. 85-93.

2Rensink, Ronald. (2009). Attention : Change Blindness and Inattentional Blindness. 10.1016/B978-012373873-8.00006-2. (link to article)

3Newell, Stephen & Henderson, Kenneth & Wu, Bob. (2001). The Effects of Pleasure and Arousal on Recall of Ads During the Super Bowl. Psychology and Marketing. 18. 1135 – 1153. 10.1002/mar.1047. (link to study)

4O’Reilly, Norm & Lyberger, Mark & McCarthy, Larry & Seguin, Benoit & Nadeau, John. (2008). Mega-Special-Event Promotions and Intent To Purchase: A Longitudinal Analysis of the Super Bowl. Journal of Sport Management. 22. 392-409. 10.1123/jsm.22.4.392. (link to study)

5Eastman, J. K., Iyer, R., & Wiggenhorn, J. M. (2010). The Short-Term Impact Of Super Bowl Advertising On Stock Prices: An Exploratory Event Study. Journal of Applied Business Research (JABR), 26(6).

6Kim, Jin-Woo & Freling, Traci & Eastman, Jacqueline. (2013). Do Advertising Efficiency and Brand Value Matter?: Evidence from Super Bowl Advertising. Marketing Management Journal. 23. 90-101. (link to study)

7Tomkovick, C., Yelkur, R., Rozumalski, D., Hofer, A., & Coulombe, C.J. (2011). Super Bowl Ads Linked to Firm Value Enhancement. (link to study)

8Lee J-G, Ko K-A. The Market Responses to Super Bowl Advertising: The Role of Product Type and Multiple Executions. Sustainability. 2021; 13(13):7127. 

9Li, Dan & Watanabe, Nicholas. (2022). Effects of Super Bowl advertising on online brand search: ten years of insights from 2011 to 2020. International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship. 23. 841-854. 10.1108/IJSMS-07-2021-0151. (link to study)10Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5), 379–399.

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