Why did Volkswagen score at the Super Bowl? It’s complicated…

Praised for its brilliant simplicity, VW’s Star Wars-themed Super Bowl ad may have succeeded in part because of its (slightly) complex storyline

VW Super Bowl Ad

This year’s battle for the best Super Bowl ad was a no-brainer: With more than 12 million online views before the game even started, Volkswagen’s Star Wars-themed commercial featuring a lovable little Darth Vader crushed the competition.

As many fans already know, the ad follows a determined young Darth, clad in a black cape and oversized helmet, using only The Force to try to raise inanimate household items like an exercise bike, a blank-faced baby doll, even the family dog. In one final, frustrated effort, young Darth directs his superhuman powers to the VW Passat that has just pulled into the driveway, and--shock!--the thing lights up and starts. Only then do we see Dad pointing the key fob from the kitchen window as he offers a brief, mischievous grin.

Heralding the commercial’s success, one advertising executive told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s brilliant and simple. It will win the water-cooler discussion.”

But part of the reason the ad worked so well may lie not in its simplicity, but in its narrative complexity. The audience doesn’t even realize, for example, that a car is being featured until two-thirds of the way through the minute-long version of the commercial, or even what little Darth is trying to accomplish until about half-way through.

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by Vanderbilt University marketing professor Jennifer Edson Escalas, and Jesper H. Nielsen at the University of Arizona, finds that marketing narratives are more likely to trigger a positive response when deciphering the storyline requires some mental work.

That finding adds a critical twist to an earlier, well-established phenomenon that shows consumers tend to opt for an item presented with less complexity when engaged in analytical processing, such as when comparing product attributes.

“Unlike analytical processing, in which feelings of difficulty are attributed to the decision task, under conditions of narrative processing, these feelings of difficulty will lead to more positive evaluations of the advertised brand through a deeper immersion into the narrative,” Escalas and Nielsen write. “That is, consumers will evaluate the brand more positively when processing feels difficult.”

The reason for this seeming paradox has to do with the concept of narrative transportation, or getting drawn into a story. As narrative transportation increases, so too does a person’s emotional and experiential responses. The result: more transportation leads to more persuasion, the authors write.

To test their main hypothesis--that ads encouraging more narrative processing will increase product evaluation--Escalas and Nielsen presented 253 adult U.S. consumers (ages 19 to 84 years) with storyboard ads taken from a television commercial and print ads using side-by-side comparisons. Each set of ads included text that was either difficult or easy to read.

The experiment not only confirmed the earlier research that finds less persuasion in difficult-to-read analytical ads (like side-by-side comparisons), it also indicated, as predicted, that more difficulty in the narrative storyboard ads led to a higher preference rate. “When ads encourage narrative processing…meta-cognitive feelings of difficulty result in higher product evaluations,” the authors write.

Of course the findings come with important caveats: The study doesn’t measure the extent to which consumers invest cognitive and imaginative resources as a result of processing a complex narrative. It only shows that difficult narratives lead to increased transportation. And if the advertising context is too difficult to understand, consumers won’t make an effort to comprehend it at all.

Nevertheless, Escalas and Nielsen write that their research opens the door for an examination of which aspects of marketing narrative are responsible for increased processing efforts. They also see opportunities to investigate whether narrative transportation can work in other ways, such with consumer acceptance of hybrid or really new products.

Published Mar 31, 2011 in Vanderbilt Business Intelligence
Contact: vbintelligence@owen.vanderbilt.edu
Copyright 2011 Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management