James Swift

6 January 2022

Strategist’s Digest: Do people remember ephemeral ads better? 

Contagious digests the most interesting and relevant research from the world of advertising and beyond, because there’s just too much to read and too little time

Fleeting, But Not Forgotten: Ephemerality as a Means to Increase Recall of Advertising 

By Colin Campbell, Sean Sands, Emily Treen & Brent McFerran. Published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing.

Give it to me in one sentence.

People pay more attention to content, including ads, when they know that it will shortly disappear, as happens with ephemeral social media.

Give me a little more detail.

The researchers conducted five experiments to test how ephemerality influenced recall. In one experiment the researchers posted ads for a T-shirt within Instagram’s Feed and Stories formats. They found that estimated ad recall for participants exposed to the latter format (which is ephemeral) was significantly higher.

The four other studies conducted were lab experiments that exposed participants to videos (such as a recipe or NASA film) and also Snapchat ads. The researchers sometimes told participants about the ephemerality of the content they were about to watch (whether the videos and ads would be available to re-watch) and sometimes left them to work it out from context clues.

In all of the cases, the results supported the researchers hypothesis, that people remember content better when they know that it is ephemeral, and that this effect spills over into ads embedded within that content.

Why is this interesting?

There’s been little or no research into how ephemeral formats affect how people consume and remember ads, and they deserve to be understood, since they are now a mainstay of social media.

As well as confirming the effect of ephemerality on memory, the research goes some way to explaining how it works. There are two ideas about how ephemerality improves recall. The first is that people put less effort into processing or encoding information they know will always be available to them; the second is that people pay the same amount of attention upfront but don’t bother to retain the information, which is called ‘intentional forgetting’. These experiments lend weight to the first idea, because the short gap between watching and recalling left little time for forgetting. However, the experiments did not directly test the intentional forgetting mechanism, so it’s by no means conclusive.

The findings also suggest that brands may benefit from creating multiple versions of the same ad, to condition people to think they will only ever see the same ad once and prompt them to process them more deeply.

Any weaknesses?

It’s not really a weakness but the experiments only tested recall, not sales or anything like that. Also, many of the effect sizes recorded in the experiment were middling or small, which means that ephemerality might not increase recall by a huge amount.

Where can I find the whole report?

Here, but it’s not free.

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