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The Power of the Dark Side in Advertising

May 16, 2023by The Signoi Team

We’ve been doing a lot of video analysis lately – primarily in the arena of commercial advertising. By sampling frames sequentially at 0.5 second intervals you can extract an AI narrative analysis of the whole video. For example, below is an automated summary of the narrative of the 2022 John Lewis Christmas advert.

(For our non-UK readers, we should explain that John Lewis is an iconic and much loved UK department store and their Christmas adverts constitute something of a national talking point. The long form advert is a simple but moving story about a foster dad who tries to learn how to skateboard so he can bond with his foster daughter. It aims to raise awareness of the challenges faced by children in care.)

You’ll notice from this that the ad has a distinct narrative flow, with highs and lows of emotion. There are distinct points where, for example, so-called “negative” emotions like fear and sadness come into play. Archetypes – the characters – also vary significantly. Although of course it finishes on an emotional high note, all round it’s a bit of a tear jerker…

So how else can we deploy this analysis? And what can we learn from it?

The Superbowl Ads: a Ready Made Dataset

In the USA the ads that are shown during the all important Superbowl final (in February) have become a huge event and no doubt a huge money spinner for the TV companies and the NFL. For some people the ads seem more important than the outcome of the game.

And of course every year there are the lists of “best and worst” superbowl ads, notably from USA Today. 

We were looking for an interesting dataset and thought OK, Brits late to the party, but this could be useful to test something on. The USA Today superbowl ad ratings were done on 51 of the superbowl ads using nearly 150,000 respondents. Although it’s not exactly clear what the respondents were asked about the ads, it had to be something around effectiveness/appeal. So we thought it would be a good test of our analytical techniques to see what aspects of the ads were correlated with the USA Today scores. Some of the results of this analysis were quite surprising!

As usual with superbowl ads, in 2023 the ads were wide ranging. From movie trailers (Indiana Jones latest outing) to Donuts and dog food. There was an ad featuring one of the most unlikely celebrity pairings, Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart and of course the ever present Budweiser horses. What was very interesting is that the top 4 ads according to the people surveyed by USD Today were for dog food, Donuts, Amazon (Saving Sawyer and one for the NFL) not Snoop Dogg or Indiana Jones.

One of the core techniques of our analytics is automated semiotic analysis, which allows us to assess images or videos according to cultural archetypes, such as the Jungian archetypes commonly used for brand analytics along with with more “universal” archetypes such as harmony and creativity. We can also measure what we call “shadow archetypes” which as the name implies have darker associations such as isolation and anxiety.

We would perhaps assume that the most highly rated ads would have the most positive connotations, but what we found was different. When we looked at the correlations between the USA Today ratings and several aspects of the Shadow archetypes such as disgust, fear, sadness and instability we found quite high correlations between their scores and the USA Today respondent ratings of the ads. And less so for purely positive ads.

We’re going to focus on three examples: the highest rated ad, the lowest rated, and one in the middle…

We like to think that we are drawn to all things positive but the most highly rated ad according to USA Today was quite a poignant story of a dog (The Farmers Dog food ad).  The top 5 ads were by no means pure positivity and it’s clear from the Shadow archetype scores that they had significant “negative” content or at least “negative associations”. The Snoop Dogg advert for Skechers did not. And right at the bottom of the ratings scale we find Temu’s “Shop Like a Billionaire” – an unrelentingly perky little number that scored by far the lowest of all the ads. Again, no emotional light and shade.

Emotional Variance is Important

Without deep diving into all of the ads, one of the more significant findings was that a good predictor of ad response seems to be emotional variance. Below we plot a measure of emotional variance within the ads (X axis) against the ratings scores (Y axis). The ads are categorised according to USA Today score – best scoring in green, worst scoring in red.

In general terms, a clear pattern emerges: ads with more richness and emotional variance do better than ads that are essentially emotionally monotone.

You can see this high emotional variability manifest itself very clearly in the emotional flow through the farmer’s dog advert.


We can also deploy Archetype metrics onto the ads. Whilst more of a descriptor than a predictor (there are no “good” or “bad” archetypes), it’s interesting to see the ads we’ve focused on display very different Archetype DNA…

The Power of Pathos…

It’s clear from our analysis that it’s not how uplifting or “happy” an ad is that drives appeal according to the respondents in the USA Today ad test, it’s something more visceral and more complex. We can look to the ancient Greeks for an explanation. The Greeks had a word – Pathos – which according to the dictionary means “the power of a performance, description, etc. to make you feel sympathy or be sad”. We want to empathize with an ad, we want to be emotionally aroused and not necessarily in a wholly good way. It seems we want to be sympathetic to the ad. Snoop Dogg’s ad about Skechers while amusing had no pathos. Temu’s shop like a billionaire was as chirpy as a Katy Perry video, but again lacking in pathos. Perhaps most of us can’t relate to being famous and traveling in a private jet, or indeed, shopping like a billionaire, especially in the teeth of a full blown cost of living crisis. Whereas the Dog food ad had plenty of emotion in it and a character that it seems we can sympathise with. 

It was Aristotle who first described Pathos as one of his three modes of persuasion, and it does seem that idea has stood the test of time, all the way to the 2023 Superbowl. And this can be measured.

Of course there are many measures of ad effectiveness beyond the USA Today likeability ratings, and we intend to explore this whole area further. If you have ad ratings data of any sort, why not drop us a line!

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PS: To illustrate the point, here are the links to the adverts.

The Farmer’s Dog:

Snoop Dogg x Skechers:

Shop like a billionaire:


We’ll be writing more on this and other AI related subjects shortly, meanwhile please do get in touch if you found this interesting…

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