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Why MasterCard Ads Are Priceless

You remember the MasterCard "Priceless" ad campaign, don't you? It first ran during the 1997 World Series.

"Two tickets: $28. Two hot dogs, two popcorns, two sodas: $18. One autographed baseball: $45. Real conversation with 11 year old son: Priceless."

It was an ad campaign that was so successful that it helped MasterCard move from a distant second to near parity with Visa. The question is, why? What was it about that ad that was so powerful, asked researchers Jeffrey LoewensteinRaj Raghunathan and Chip Heath  (who is incidentally a co-author of the best seller Made to Stick). What they found holds lessons for companies looking to create successful ads.

The structure of the MasterCard ad stays true to a form long known in folktales around the world and is called the repetition-break plot structure. It uses a repetitious series of similar events to establish a pattern that is then extended or broken by a final event to generate new meaning (as you can tell from the structure of the MasterCard ads). What is particularly ingenious about this structure is that, in a sense, it is culture-proof (i.e.) the expectation that is to be broken is built within the ad. It does not depend on some generally accepted knowledge prevalent in a particular community. Which may be why it has been used in a variety of product categories in many different countries.

But how does this ad structure work? By analyzing a lot of different ads in a variety of ways and comparing them to similar and different ads, the authors are able to show that these ads work by increasing engagement with the narrative in the advertisement. For example, the baseball MasterCard ad cited above is not as effective when the transition goes straight from "Two tickets: $28" to the punch line. By building in the repetition the ad increases brand engagement and ultimately increases purchase intention. In the case of Pure Blonde beer, sales rose 137% after using an ad campaign with this structure.     

The authors find that repetition-break ads win a disproportionate number of awards (Clio and Effie awards) and are also forwarded or viewed more often than other types of ads (on YouTube) suggesting high levels of popularity. Yet, only about 3% of prime time TV ads employ this structure implying a huge opportunity for creating better advertising. But the authors caution that this ad structure is not a silver bullet. It is best for persuading and enhancing brand attitudes. When trying to build brand awareness alternative structures may work as well or better. They may also not work as well when conveying multiple pieces of information rather than one focused claim. Still it seems like there are plenty of situations where advertisers would be well advised to consider this proven method to generate successful ads.   

Tagged in: Advertising

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