When watching TV or video content, how do viewers respond to recognizable tones, sounds and visuals?

Viacom recently partnered with neuroscientists to take a closer look at the internal effects of fandom. Fans and non-fans of Comedy Central’s South Park were placed inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine to view an episode of the show. As they watched, the fMRI machine monitored blood flow throughout their brains. Significant increases or decreases in blood flow signaled more or less activity in the corresponding region of the brain.

The study that resulted from this experiment, Fan Theory: Inside the Brain of a Fan, found that when participants watched South Park’s iconic title sequence, the show’s fans experienced a significant increase in activation in a region of the brain that’s related to reward processing. This suggests that fans have a learned response to associate the South Park intro with reward.

Our conversations with viewers confirm this idea. As we heard from a UK viewer, “Bold and simple iconography is what works.” Others make clear that these cues are an effective shorthand communication. “Black Mirror has done this so well – the cracked screen is all you need to see,” a teenager in Singapore told us. And a young adult in the UK mentioned the Big Brother eye, saying “they don’t need to show anything else.”

In practical terms, what does this mean? Short, sharp and well-designed idents, soundtracks and logos aren’t just pretty and memorable. They’re a crucial part of brand identity and a useful marketing tool for channels and shows. They let viewers know what they’re watching and where, grabbing their attention when they’re not even looking at the screen. Over time, these audio-visual cues elicit a positive response in fans’ minds.

Interested in learning more about the Fan Theory: Inside the Brain of a Fan project? Check out its website here.