Does Highly Stimulating Content Inhibit Immersion?

When your content plays matters as much as the quality of your content

The Problem

Can other ads distract from your ad? A commercial, or any other type of content, is rarely viewed in isolation from other media.  In a natural viewing environment, blocks ads are placed within the context of a show or movie the viewer has elected to watch. Televised commercials typically run in three-minute blocks that might show as many as 10 ads. 

To better understand neurologic responses during ad blocks, we tested if the last commercial one watched would affect immersion in the next commercial. These neurologic “holdover” effects could significantly impact ad success. If this is the case, advertisers should know about it.  We ran a set of studies so we could advise our clients on ad placement.

Study 1

Do you remember Paris Hilton?  In 2005 she was at the height of her fame, having starred in the quasi-reality TV show The Simple Life with Nicole Richie, sold branded jewelry, purses, perfume, and even released a mock autobiography.  During this time she filmed a sexy television commercial for Carl’s Jr., in which she uses a soapy sponge to wash a perfectly clean Rolls Royce in a low-cut swim suit and then inexplicably begins to sponge herself.  Taking a break from scrubbing, she bites into an enormous burger. The commercial attracted an unbelievable 350 million views but also generated a backlash from family-oriented and feminist groups.  Let’s just agree it is a very sexy commercial.

We used the Paris Hilton ad to test if highly stimulating commercials would affect immersion in the next ad a viewer watched. Highly stimulated states (high arousal, high emotional intensity) temporarily exhaust the brain; thus, it is possible that after Paris, there would be a dip in immersion. Our control commercial was a low arousal ad for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese called “Officer Dan” which aired in 2015.  It depicts a boy in a classroom asking the visiting police officer about what happens when people repeatedly steal.  The kid’s father is then shown taking Mac & Cheese from the boy’s plate after which the house is surrounded by police cars and the boy smiles.  It is a sweet ad, but not very exciting, and certainly not as arousing as a barely-clothed sex symbol covered in suds while eating a hamburger.

After watching either the Paris Hilton or Mac & Cheese commercials, we immediately showed participants a Stella Artois commercial that ran during the 2018 Super Bowl, starring Matt Damon. Damon explains that the purchase of a Stella Artois “chalice” will provide clean water for five years for a person in developing country. Matt Damon is trying to make viewers feel good about helping the world; however, he looks stoic and muscular, as if he just finished filming a Jason Bourne movie, and his delivery is flat.  We had previously tested this commercial in another study of nearly 200 people; from that assessment we knew it did not resonate well with viewers. It’s Immersion Quotient was 3.41, scoring more than 11% below the advertising benchmark.  


We asked men and women to watch both pairs of commercials.  There was a break between viewing each pair of ads to ensure that participants’ brains returned to baseline. As we expected, the Immersion QuotientTM for the Paris Hilton commercial was more than 15% greater than immersion for the Mac & Cheese video. Immersion in Paris’ Carl’s Jr. ad was also 24.4% higher than the advertising benchmark, while the Mac & Cheese ad was 1.3% above benchmark. While both commercials were good, the immersion data tells us why 350 million people watched the Carl’s Jr. ad.  

Comparing the Immersion Quotient for the Stella Artois ad when it followed the Paris Hilton commercial showed neural exhaustion.  Paris Hilton absorbed the brain’s energy so that immersion in the Stella ad was a near-benchmark value of 3.90.  When the Stella ad followed the less arousing Mac & Cheese commercial, immersion was 4.49, or 15.2% higher than when it followed the Carl’s Jr ad.  Interestingly, the Immersion score for the Stella ad was higher following both commercials than when watched in isolation, so a moderate immersion lead-in before the ad appears to increase its effectiveness.  This finding motivated us to test whether this holdover effect was a more general phenomenon.

Study 2

We collected immersion data for a TV channel that broadcasts mostly unscripted programs.  The channel wanted us to improve the impact of in-program messages (IPMs) played during shows.  These messages are presented in the corner of the screen or scroll at the bottom and try to influence viewers to watch the next show on the channel.  This can be a tough sell in an entertainment market with nearly infinite options, most of which can be watched On Demand rather than live.

We evaluated 15 IPMs while 192 women in their target demographic watched programs on this channel.  

All the shows were highly emotional, causing neural fatigue and low immersion in the IPMs.  Confirming this analysis, we found that commercials played at the end of shows were more immersive than were IPMs.  We recommended that this channel put in a low arousal ad before promoting their next show so viewers’ brains would have the capacity to be immersed in the next commercial or IPM.  

Study 3

In a third assessment of mental fatigue and immersion, we measured immersion for 39 men and women watching ads for a large bank.  Participants also viewed ads for consumer products, including two types of beer and two car brands. We measured immersion when ads were viewed back to back, as compared to providing a 10-second break between ads.  

Putting in a 10-second break increased immersion from 0% to 2%, with the average increase being about 0.5%.  While this effect is small, our academic research has demonstrated that immersion drives purchases; therefore, even small increases in immersion can result in more sales.  

Key Take-Aways:

Taken together, recommendations based on these studies inlcude:

  1. Advertisers should avoid placing their commercials after intense or highly emotional content. This is importantn as many shows now contain very stimulating content. Although more people views these shows, the nuance of your content may be lost.
  2. The context for adds is importnant in general. Ad testing should not happen in a vacuum. Testing commercials should reflect the natural ad viewing environment.
  3. When testing content be careful about the order of presentation. One option is for market researchers to put a 30 second break between adds to let the brain return to baseline.

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