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'Repetition-break' plot structure makes effective TV ads, research shows

Jeffrey Loewenstein
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Advertisements that use a “repetition-break” plot structure generate more favorable brand attitudes and greater purchase intentions from consumers, as well as more plaudits from industry peers, says Jeffrey Loewenstein, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.

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2/29/2012 | Phil Ciciora, Business & Law Editor | 217-333-2177; pciciora@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Beautiful people, scenic locations, cool music and … the right plot structure? It turns out that a plot structure found in folktales is potent in television advertisements, according to published research by Jeffrey Loewenstein, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.

Advertisements that use a “repetition-break” plot structure – that is, a pattern of similar events that’s broken by a final event, which ultimately creates new meaning for the viewer – generate more favorable brand attitudes and greater purchase intentions from consumers, as well as more plaudits from industry peers, Loewenstein says.

“Advertisements using the repetition-break plot structure only account for
4 percent of television advertisements, but they are more likely than other ads, even ads from the same campaign, to be singled out by industry judges, to be posted and viewed on YouTube, and to engage consumers and improve their opinion of a brand,” he said.

Loewenstein, a co-author of the research with Chip Heath, of Stanford University, and Rajagopal Raghunathan, of the University of Texas at Austin, says the secret ingredient of “repetition-break” ads is the narrative structure.

“You’re using repetition to teach people an expectation and then you’re violating that expectation to generate surprise,” he said. “We see it in all kinds of
narratives – jokes, folktales, political cartoons. It also happens to be a very effective narrative structure for advertisements.”

In an age when marketers need to get their message across to as many different audiences and demographics as possible, Loewenstein says the repetition-break structure allows a latter-day Don Draper to craft a message readily understandable to the masses.

“Because repetition-break ads teach the expectations they later break, they tell you everything you need to know, so anyone can understand it,” he said.

According to Loewenstein, the most popular example of the form is the MasterCard “Priceless” ad, which first ran during the 1997 World Series and has since spawned similar campaigns in more than 90 countries.

“Before the ‘Priceless’ campaign, MasterCard was perennially behind Visa,” he said. “After the campaign, MasterCard was actually able to match and even exceed Visa’s growth.”

According to Loewenstein, the reason the campaign resonated is that it connected with a new consumer focus.

“MasterCard recognized that people now wanted experiences,” he said. “That’s why they needed to do something a little different to surprise and grab people.”

The repetition-break structure is one that’s ready-made for social media and viral marketing campaigns, not just traditional marketing efforts, Loewenstein says.

“The goal of this plot structure is to surprise the viewer, which makes the message more likely to be interesting and memorable,” he said. “Stories that surprise people, stories that evoke emotion – those are the kinds of stories that people want to share with friends and family. That’s why we saw higher numbers of Google hits, and more views and multiple postings on YouTube for ads with the repetition-break structure.”

The repetition-break ad can be used by small or major brands, but it’s probably most useful if the company is generating a new branding strategy, Loewenstein says.

“It can help someone who doesn’t have a budget because it is more likely than other ads, all else being equal, to be passed along. It does not require having a huge megaphone,” he said.

While there’s a lot of freedom to the form, the main challenge in crafting an advertisement with a repetition-break structure may well be getting the creative people to think “inside the box,” Loewenstein said.

“People who are creative tend not to want to work within pre-existing structures,” he said. “So the challenge for someone at an advertising firm is exploring what you can do with the structure instead of re-creating the wheel, and focusing on how to adapt the structure to convey your core message.

“Surprising and emotional stories are powerful, and the repetition-break plot structure provides a way of generating them.”

The paper was published last fall in the Journal of Marketing.

Editor's note: To contact Jeffrey Loewenstein, call 217-333-2471; email jloew@illinois.edu.

The paper, “The Repetition-Break Plot Structure Makes Effective Television Advertisements,” is available online.

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