Marketing insights that spark conversions

September 11, 2017 // 1:35 PM

Advertisers' Gold: The Element of Surprise

Written by Danielle Yannotti


It’s the 1950’s. You’re on a Hollywood set. The director says, “Action!” The camera cuts to a woman in a white dress and heels standing on a subway grate. This is the iconic moment from the classic movie, The Seven Year Itch, when Marilyn Monroe’s dress lifts with a gust of wind, but instead of seeing Marilyn’s smooth and shapely legs, the audience is suddenly staring at the veiny legs of Willem Dafoe.


What’s going on here?


“Sweetheart don’t look at me like that,” the director says to Dafoe. “It’s going to be amazing,”


The wind machine starts lifting the dress again, and Dafoe is visibly angry. “This is a disaster!” he shouts. “Who’s the genius who puts a girl in heels on a subway grate?”
A stage hand passes him a Snickers bar. “Ms. Monroe, eat a Snickers,” he says, “you get a little cranky when you’re hungry.”



This hilarious ad is part of Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign. Not only is it humorous, it evokes a feeling of surprise almost immediately.

Surprise is one of the most effective ways to capture audience attention and establish a strong brand impression. Why is this?


After combing through a ton of industry research on the topic, we identified the top reasons why surprise is such a powerful advertising strategy:


1. The brain responds much more intensely to events that are unanticipated.

Gregory Berns, a professor of Psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta explains, “What this means is that part of the brain that has always been associated with pure pleasure really cares about when you get something unexpected. So if you get a present for your birthday, that’s nice. But you’ll like it a lot more if you get a present and it’s not your birthday.” As Professor Berns insinuates, the unexpected gift is always going to evoke a more intense emotional reaction, just like an unexpected moment of surprise in a video is going to generate a more intense emotional response, thus better capturing a viewer’s attention.


2. Surprise changes behavior

In his article for the Harvard Business Review, Scott Reddick, Head of Strategy at Heat Advertising, details a number of reasons why surprise is “the most powerful marketing tool of all.” He discusses how surprise is addictive, cheap, fuels emotions, and even changes behavior. Reddick explains that “surprise introduces us to new stimuli, which we must then reconcile with shifts in our beliefs and behavior.” He describes how “unexpected events” are powerful because they “drive learning,” and advertisers should be “thinking in terms of desired consumer behavior” when creating a campaign because it can “unlock innovative strategies.” He says, “When developing an advertising campaign we are often too focused on the question of ‘What do we need to say?’ Instead, we should focus on the question of ‘What expectations do our customers and prospects hold, and how we can turn those on their head?’” When it comes to surprise, thinking outside the box is key.

3. Consumer attention span is short - very short

Research shows that advertisers have 5 to 10 seconds to grab viewers’ interest. How advertisers choose to use those 5-10 seconds is crucial to the success of the ad.

According to a 2015 Microsoft survey of Canadian media consumption, human attention span is shrinking. Instead of the average 12 second attention span in 2001, the survey found people could only focus without distraction for an average of 8 seconds. This means that when creating a video ad, you don’t have time to mess around. You need to hook the viewer in quickly or you’ll lose them. There is no better way to do this than by using surprise early on in the ad. However, you don’t want to over do it, as it’s better to vary emotions. We’ll talk about how to do this next.


4. Surprise keeps viewers engaged 

While researchers know that the use of surprise in advertising is effective in capturing viewer attention, studies have found that when surprise is used in conjunction with other emotions - like joy and fear -  viewers are more likely to remain engaged throughout the ad. Thus, many marketing experts use this technique to keep viewers watching their ads.

Let’s explore some great examples of ads that effectively use surprise in conjunction with fear and joy.

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Using Surprise and Fear

When was the last time you felt scared while watching TV? What scared you? Did you get startled when something unexpected happened?

Fear is one of the most persuasive emotions, and it’s also an excellent strategy for getting viewers to take action. Using surprise with fear is a winning advertising formula because the viewer’s attention is first “hooked” by a surprising event, and then they are motivated to take action when confronted with something fearful, disturbing, or unexpected, even if the action is to simply remember the ad or brand. Here are two different ads that successfully use fear and surprise.


1. Carrie Marketing Ad



Sometimes being in on the surprise can be just as rewarding as experiencing it firsthand. Case in point, this 2013 marketing video for the remake of Stephen King’s film Carrie, features a girl at a Manhattan coffee shop who shocks and startles customers with her “telekinetic powers”;  moving tables, hurling people through the air, and knocking books off the wall. However, viewers are clued in early on that the entire scene was staged with the help of some technical wires and a handful of actors.


Even though viewers are in on the gag, the video is still effective because the premise of the ad is unique and unexpected. Most importantly, it’s relatable because it features real people reacting to what they think is a real situation. As viewers, we can imagine ourselves as the unassuming coffee patrons in the video, and how we would react to the same “scary” situation. Let’s be honest, people like watching other people react to things, especially if it brings us humor, which this ad most certainly does. The horrified reactions of the other customers are priceless.
This ad was so effective, it generated more than 67 million views on YouTube.  


2. “The Exorcist”- Dirt Devil



Let’s look at another ad that takes a different approach. This time, viewers aren’t in on the surprise, rather this Dirt Devil ad takes them on an unsettling journey with an old priest as he investigates a seemingly paranormal situation at a dark, spooky house.

The ad is produced like a cinematic movie, and does an excellent job at building suspense as the priest slowly makes his way through the house, getting closer and closer to the disturbing screams coming from a woman in an upstairs bedroom. Just as in a scary movie, viewers stay hooked until the cause of the suspense is revealed, which in this ad - Spoiler Alert - is a seemingly demon-possessed woman flailing around on the bedroom ceiling, however - Spoiler Alert #2 - the ad quickly shows us that looks can be deceiving, for we see the woman isn’t actually possessed. Surprise! She is just being dragged against the ceiling from the power of a Dirt Devil vacuuming the floor above. To further heighten the surprise twist, the person vacuuming is an old woman dressed in her nightgown, obliviously singing along to a favorite tune. Definitely not what viewers were expecting.

What makes this clever Exorcist parody effective is that fear, surprise, and humor are used exceptionally well. Bringing surprise in at the end is a little risky because viewers may lose interest before the end, however in this case it works because the ad skillfully uses fear to build suspense before the big reveal, effectively keeping viewers engaged for the entirety of the ad. Furthermore, fear and humor are great emotions for increasing ad recall.


Using Surprise and Joy

How did you feel the last time someone surprised you with something special and unexpected? Like concert tickets, or a free meal, or your favorite ice cream? Did it make you feel special? Did you smile? Chances are you did. :)

As mentioned earlier, it’s always nice to get a present on a holiday or your birthday, but it’s even more special to get one when you’re not expecting it right? The same idea applies in advertising. People respond more intensely to happy events when they’re not expecting it, that’s why it’s so powerful to couple joy with surprise in your ads; especially because joy has one of the biggest influences on viewer engagement, video completion rate, message retention, purchase intent, and overall ad success.

Here are two excellent examples of ads that effectively use surprise and joy:


1. “Flash Fans”- Budweiser



Many brands today are trying a more recent kind of marketing strategy that creates real-life, unexpected experiences with consumers in the hopes of generating stronger, more personal bonds with audiences. This strategy has been coined “Surprise and Delight” marketing.
One of the most popular examples of Surprise and Delight marketing is a 2012 Budweiser ad where two small-town Ontario hockey teams were told they would be part of a documentary about recreation league hockey. In reality, Budweiser had much bigger plans.

The ad begins with the hockey players warming up on the ice, while the Budweiser team sets things in motion for the big surprise. When the game begins, the stands are suddenly rushed with cheering fans, the scoreboard lights up, the cameras start rolling, the announcers begin their commentary, and the hockey players’ faces light up with glee as they realize what’s going on. The game then kicks into full gear, and as the ad goes on we see game highlights, the vicious hits, the goals, and the celebration of overtime victory. The video ends with the hockey players’ enthusiastic reactions as the scoreboard reads, “Great Times Are Waiting. Why Not Grab Some Buds.”

One can’t help but smile when watching this video. Again we have an ad where viewers are in on the surprise, but it’s so effective because as stated earlier, people love watching other people react to things, and it’s even better when it’s a scenario as heartwarming as this. Additionally, like the Carrie ad, this campaign also uses real people, making it easy for viewers to relate to the story.
By emotionally connecting with viewers, Surprise and Delight ads like this are very effective at creating brand advocates and building brand loyalty.


2. Men’s Shampoo Commercial - Dove



One of the best ways to evoke joy and surprise from viewers is to use humor. Humor is also very engaging, and increases the probability that viewers will watch the entire ad. This hilarious commercial for Dove’s men shampoo is a great example of an ad that expertly uses the unexpected to create a funny and engaging storyline.

The ad features an average guy with a typical office job, but there’s something about him that’s different: the man has long, silky seductive hair, which the ad calls, “the women’s shampoo commercial effect.” Every time the man moves his head, his lush hair bounces and waves around in slow motion while dramatic music plays - just like in shampoo commercials for women we’ve seen a hundred times. This is the element of surprise that makes the commercial work. It takes the expected and turns it into the unexpected, which in this case creates a very humorous scenario.  

Midway through the commercial, the man realizes his hair is that way because he is using shampoo for women, so he rushes out of the office to go to the store and buy Dove’s shampoo for men. After he washes his hair with it at home, he stares in the mirror, making sure his hair is back to “normal.” Then the narrator says, “Womens’ shampoo isn’t made for you.”

The ad is effective because it surprises the viewer immediately with humor, and then keeps the joke going throughout its duration. Using humor effectively helps form positive brand impressions with consumers. Making people laugh will significantly increase the chances of them remembering your ad, brand, and product.

Surprise Your Audience!

Surprise is one of the most powerful emotions you can leverage in advertising. It will grab viewers’ attention immediately and keep them engaged. When used in conjunction with other emotions like fear and joy, surprise can boost viewers’ interest, motivate them to take action, and establish strong brand impressions - all of which impact your bottom line.

Be bold. Don’t be afraid to try the unexpected in your ads!


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Topics: Emotions in Ads, surprise