LONDON: The use of celebrity athletes in brand advertising is less important than the story being told, according to new research which calls into question the value of spending money on high-profile sponsorships.

A change in the rules surrounding marketing at the Olympic Games opened the door for athletes to promote the brands sponsoring them even if those brands weren't event sponsors, a step which resulted in more advertising around the recent Games featuring athletes than ever before.

But when neuroscience research business Neuro-Insight analysed responses to four popular ads created for the Games from both sponsors and non-sponsors – Gillette, Visa, Coca-Cola and the National Lottery – it found that the mere presence of a high-profile athlete added little to the effectiveness of the ad.

In The Drum, Heather Andrew, CEO of Neuro-Insight, outlined the methodology, fitting a panel of viewers with headsets to monitor brain responses to each piece of creative and to assess a range of factors, including engagement, emotional response and what was encoded into memory – the latter being a key indicator of future purchase intent.

"Athletes don't have to be famous in order to elicit high levels of memory encoding," she reported. "In fact, they don't even have to be real."

More important, she suggested, was having an interesting story that naturally linked the athletes and the product – visually and through narrative development.

That approach, she said, "is far more likely to convey key messages and deliver memorable advertising than an ad that simply showcases a trophy athlete".

So, for example, Coca-Cola's "Feelings" saw the strongest peaks of memory encoding occurring when the product itself appeared on screen.

That is "a great win for Coke, but doesn't necessarily drive the association with the Olympics that, as a sponsor, they may have hoped for," Andrew observed.

While the ad worked well for the brand, there was, she said, "the suspicion that it might have worked just as well without the expense of the sponsored athletes surrounding it".

No such people appeared in the National Lottery's animated "I Am Team GB" campaign, where ordinary members of the public were transformed into Olympians as lottery tickets flew past them.

"The narrative is clear, helping the brain to easily encode the message of the ad and we see a strong peak of memory encoding at the end, when the logo appears," said Andrew.

"It goes to show that you do not necessarily need expensive sporting stars to strongly link your brand to the sporting action."

Data sourced from Marketing Week, MediaTel; additional content by Warc staff