“Priceless” MasterCard Commercial Formula is… Well.. Priceless

Three strings walk into a bar. The first goes up and orders a drink, to which the bartender replies, “I’m sorry but we don’t serve strings here.” The second follows shortly after hoping that he might have better luck, but when he asks for a beer, the bartender again replies, “I’m sorry, but as I told your friend, we don’t serve strings here.” Undaunted, the third string ties himself in a knot and rubs his head until it’s completely frayed. He then goes up to the bar and asks for a drink. “Sure,” the bartender replies before stopping himself. “Hey wait a minute. Aren’t you a string?” To which the string replies, “No, sir. I’m a frayed knot.”

Chances are that you’ve heard a joke or folk tale with this type of plot structure before. A series of repeated events establishes precedence before being broken by the final scene. The structure has a name – repetition break. And according to new research from the University of Illinois, it’s not only good for jokes and folk tales; it’s the most effective form for advertising.

MasterCard discovered this in 1997 when it ran the first of its highly successful “priceless” commercials, which follow the repetition-break model.


Jeffrey Loewenstein bases this ascertain on several studies. First, he looked at how many times different types of commercials aired during low viewing hours and primetime, and compared those rates to how many awards certain formulas for commercials won. Despite just 5% and 3% of commercials having been repetition-break style in daytime and primetime, those types of commercials accounted for 21% of Effie gold medal winners and 36% for Clio gold medal winners (both types of advertising awards). What’s more, Loewenstein notes that repetition-break commercials are much more likely to be “liked” and shared on YouTube.

Of course, these metrics aren’t enough to go on alone, so Loewenstein brought in some test subjects to give their opinions on commercials and the brands they represent. He showed them several different types of commercials for eight different brand names including Adidas, American Express, Budweiser, Honda, IKEA, Levi’s and Wal-Mart. Time and again, attitudes shifted more favorably for brands when repetition-break commercials were used and the participants consistently rated them as their favorites.

“People who are creative tend not to want to work within pre-existing structures,” Loewenstein said. “So the challenge for someone at an advertising firm is exploring what you can do with the structure instead of re-creating the wheel, and focusing on how to adapt the structure to convey your core message.

“Surprising and emotional stories are powerful, and the repetition-break plot structure provides a way of generating them.”

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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