Pharma ads on the brain: DTC on lifestyle sites triggers a bigger emotional punch

Conde Nast and Neuro-Insight tested consumers, who wore brain-connected headgear, for neural reactions to digital pharma ads in recent research.

This is your brain on pharma ads. For a new neuroscience study from Condé Nast and Neuro-Insight, researchers actually hooked people’s brains up to sensors to measure neural activity and reactions to digital pharma ads.

Condé Nast went into the study with an open-ended mission. They knew from previous studies that context makes a difference in advertising, and they wanted to identify those differences for pharma ads specifically, said Stephanie Fried, the executive vice president of research, analytics and audience development at Condé Nast who ran the study.

The researchers monitored 100 participants for three measurements: engagement, emotional intensity and memory encoding, also called ad impact, she said. They divided the group into two parts—one focused on people with diabetes and high cholesterol, and the other on participants with allergies and asthma.

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Both groups wore caps with brain sensors attached to their heads. Researchers guided them through online experiences on both medical and lifestyle websites, all of which included pharma ads. Condé Nast used ads from all four conditions and from several different brands in each area, Fried said.

The study found that ads viewed within lifestyle content elicited emotional responses 47% more intense than the pharma ads seen on medical websites. Ads in both types of content scored similarly in global recall, showing that the big ideas in ads—like overall themes and storyline—stuck with participants equally well, Fried said.

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Detailed memories, such as side effects or coupon offers, registered better with patients when seen out of context, that is when the ad is unrelated to their condition, across both medical and lifestyle sites, albeit with a stronger advantage in lifestyle.

"What we saw was that engagement and storytelling in the lifestyle environment led to higher emotional intensity and higher engagement with the advertising in that environment," she said. "I think the reason for that is the storytelling. When you go to a medical site, you’re browsing and picking up pieces of information, using it like a resource. Whereas in lifestyle, you’re reading a narrative and a story and you’re more engaged in that."

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Condé Nast did a companion study at the same time, asking participants to describe how they felt when viewing ads placed alongside lifestyle content and coupled with medical content.

The lifestyle environment elicited words such as "comforted," "motivated," "included" and "the company understands me." On the medical sites, participants used words such as "informed," "curious," "intrigued" and "I'm not alone."

Because context makes such a difference, Fried said it would be ideal to create customized units for each environment. That's both cost- and time-prohibitive, however. So, what Condé Nast plans to do with the information is advise clients on the effectiveness of certain types of creative in differing placements.

"We can use these learnings to help inform advertising creative and advertising placement to help advertisers maximize impact when they do place media with us,” she said. “Normally they have more than one type of creative and we can be smarter about where we put that creative messaging for the maximum impact.”

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