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How to Create “Sticky” Messaging for Viewers - a Boncom case study

By Brendan Murray

How to Create “Sticky” Messaging for Viewers - a Boncom case study

Boncom, a division of Bonneville International, is a creative agency that specializes in elevating individuals’ beliefs and shaping behaviors that are aimed at creating good in the world. One of Boncom’s many practice areas is creating public service messaging (PSAs), with a sharp focus on effecting true behavior change. As part of a broader program of research designed to promote safe driving practices, Boncom partnered with iMotions to utilize neuroscience measures to understand messaging effectiveness within a series of PSAs. Specifically, Boncom were interested in understanding how messaging tone - serious and focused on the consequences of road rage or mobile device texting while driving a car, versus more humor-based - would impact message receptivity for viewers. Boncom’s goal was to better understand ways to create “sticky” messaging for viewers, to try and effect real-world behavioral change amongst young adults (ages 19-35)


Boncom’s team were familiar with the wealth of existing research suggesting that more negative, or consequence-based, messaging typically leads target audiences to withdraw from the message. For example, it has been shown that anti-smoking PSAs that focus on the health consequences of smoking may lead viewers to 1) ignore the messaging, likely as part of a selfpreservation response, and 2) increase their tobacco intake within a short period after exposure, because the PSAs may actually prime cravings for smokers. In light of this, Boncom hypothesized that the “traditional” approach of focusing on negative behavioral outcomes, as a deterrent, would be less effective at promoting safer driving than more light-hearted messaging.

Boncom chose to incorporate a suite of neuroscientific tools - including galvanic skin response (GSR), electroencephalography (EEG), facial expression analysis (FEA), and eye-tracking (ET) - to complement their traditional survey-based methods to evaluate eight distracted driving PSAs. Of the eight pieces of creative tested, three were categorized as “serious” or “shock-based”, three were humorous, and two were “informational” (i.e., suggesting strategies for reminding oneself not to text and drive). The multi-sensor approach was intended to understand which creative category elicited the strongest emotional relevance response (via GSR), cognitive-behavioral “approach” motivation (EEG), expressed facial emotion (FEA), and best drove attention to key creative elements.

Boncom hypothesized that, within a sample of young adults (aged 19-35), humor-based PSAs would be the most effective at driving an emotional connection with viewers, and eliciting cognitivebehavioral “approach” motivation. Similarly, Boncom hypothesized that shock-based PSAs would elicit relatively low “approach” motivation, and would potentially be perceived as “aversive” by viewers.


Consistent with Boncom’s previous research, survey data showed that viewers said they believed that shock-based PSAs were the most likely to cause them to change their behavior. However, Boncom’s previous behavioral research had shown that this style of PSA was not actually effective at influencing behavioral change. Indeed, the neuroscience data told a different story from the surveys.

Of the three categories of PSA - shock, humor, and informational - humor-based PSAs made the strongest emotional connection with viewers (measured through GSR), and on balance elicited the highest cognitivebehavioral “approach” motivation (measured through EEG). The shock-based PSAs did a good job of grabbing viewers’ attention very early, but tended to lose viewers shortly thereafter: The moment-to-moment emotional relevance responses (GSR) revealed that viewers began disengaging from shock-based creative within the first ~15 seconds. Humor-based PSAs, on the other hand, tended to maintain an emotional connection with viewers throughout the entire creative.

However, the style of humor also mattered; this was not just a case of including a few jokes and guaranteeing an emotional connection. The humor needed to make sense with the creative, and importantly, not be repetitive: The least-effective of the three humor-based PSAs utilized the same joke premise throughout, and struggled to maintain an emotional connection. The other humor-based PSAs, which told more of a story and utilized a few humorous “twists”, fared much better.

Ultimately, Boncom determined that 1) humor-based PSAs are likely the most effective at driving realworld behavioral change, 2) making an emotional connection early and often (via GSR) is critical to success, and 3) self-reported motivation to act (via survey) could be married with cognitive-behavioral motivation (via EEG), by interpreting EEG as a good indicator of likelihood to change one’s own behavior, and self-report as a good indicator of likelihood to advocate safe-driving practices to others.


For PSAs around safe driving, it appears that creatives should aim to utilize humor that is fresh, nonrepetitive, and has a sensible story around it. Shockbased PSAs may be effective at driving advocacy, but not necessarily change in driving behavior in and of itself. Traditionally, humor-based creative also lends itself to shorter executions, with longer spots having a greater tendency to lose viewers; this effect was seen in the current research, as well, with shorter creatives outperforming longer ones. Ultimately, Boncom was able to utilize this multi-modal approach to validate their hypothesis that “scary doesn’t work”, and inform their future creative development.

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today