A quick pint in the Rovers can do wonders for our memory

How 79 students, four episodes of Coronation Street and one professor of psychology discovered the best time to broadcast a TV advertisement

It is sometimes said that the youth of today lack application, they are pampered and soft, unable to endure hardship and are rebellious and petulant to boot. I am able to refute these calumnies.

I have evidence that not only are young people prepared to submit uncomplaining and without rancour to treatment which, were they dumb animals, would arouse the swift action of the League Against Cruel Sports, they are also willing to do so in the interest of others who by any standard must be counted as undeserving, namely the advertising profession.

In the recent past, 79 students at University College London were subjected, as part of an experiment and without anaesthetic, to four episodes of Coronation Street. Imagine. They had arrived at university, their minds alive to the wealth of learning to be spread before them. Theirs was the delight to explore the fruits of two and a half millennia of Western civilisation, the art, culture and literature of Ancient Greece, the achievements of Rome, the Age of Reason, the wonders of science. All this accumulated beauty, wisdom and knowledge, the product of great minds and the legacy to which all students are heir was theirs to be relished. And what did they get? A close-up view of Corrie, one of the more unsightly pimples on the underbelly of civilisation.

For reasons that will become clear, the experimenters chose episodes featuring actors dressed up as northerners and either ordering or drinking beer in the Rovers Return. Four advertisements were edited into the break of each episode. They were for One-2-One mobile phones, Lemsip anti-bacterial throat lozenges, Fiat Punto cars and, most importantly, John Smiths beer.

Participants were told they were taking part in a study of young people’s attitudes to television programmes. They were seated around a TV screen, within 5m of the screen, so that each participant had a clear view. The volume was adjusted to ensure everyone could hear the television clearly. They were asked to relax and watch the programme as they normally would. No mention was made of the advertisements.

The purpose of the exercise was to discover the effect, if any, of programme content on the recall of ads shown during the break. Did the fact that the actors were shown drinking beer affect the impact made by the John Smiths ads?

It is now time to introduce the man behind the experiment, Adrian Furnham. Who knows when we set off on life’s journey where it will lead? Most of us, by chance, misjudgment or curiosity find ourselves paddling up a tributary, getting ever further away from the broad current. Furnham’s journey took him to psychology, a strange land where, once he had alighted, he discovered the natives speaking a language tantalisingly similar yet somehow quite different from our own.

He mastered the tongue and today is professor of psychology at University College London, in which capacity he devised the experiment. Now I know you are eager to learn the results of his inquiries. And so here they are, in the professor’s own words (or some of them, at any rate).

‘The analyses of covariance and of multiple regression revealed a significant effect of programme content on overall brand recognition. When the advertisement was in first position within the centre break, the brand was recognised more frequently when there was programme drinking featured after the break or both before and after the break than when it was featured only before the centre break. The fact that brand recognition was poorer when drinking was featured directly before the advertisement offered some support for the cognitive interference hypothesis. In this case, interference only occurred proactively when the drinking was shown in the programme directly before the beer commercial. However, the fact the condition with drinking shown before and after the break resulted in better brand recognition than when there was drinking only before the break indicated that there was a positive effect of showing drinking after the advertisement, that aided in the rehearsal and retention of brand information and that was greater than any effect of proactive interference.’

So there you have it in a nutshell. The difficulty, of course, is in cracking the nut. It would seem that ads shown during programmes featuring material similar to the ads are better remembered if the relevant material appears after the ad break rather than before it. Euclid would have seen it straight away.

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