There is a war being waged between two big superhero franchises.

We asked: which brand’s marketing tactics give them the advantage? Marvel (that’s Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) or DC (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman)?

We armed ourselves with facial coding measurement platform, Affectiva, as well as our own Zappi Creative Test to find out which brand’s trailers are the most impactful among their target audience. Here, we’ll reveal how different levels of emotional engagement can dramatically alter brand recall as well as behavior change.

Which of our tools did we use – and why?


Affectiva facial recognition software

The Zappi Creative Test is a tried and tested research solution that asks survey respondents to measure their second-by-second emotional responses to video content. This is great for understanding which ad variants perform the strongest, which emotional associations are present, and whether audiences take away an ad’s intended messaging.

Affectiva is currently only available in conjunction with Kantar Millward Brown’s LinkNow for Digital, but for the purposes of this study, we leveraged its methodology for use with our Creative Test (because we’re tech wizards). This add-on tool records respondents’ faces as they watch content and then translates their physical reactions into an emotional response.

This combines System 1 vs. System 2 thinking  

Our process is straightforward. Using these two tools in tandem presents an opportunity to validate each mode of thinking:

  • System 1: Affectiva falls into this category – an implicit, unconscious way of measuring physical reactions to provide a clean read of respondents’ real-time emotional journeys
  • System 2: Zappi’s Creative Test – an explicit, conscious way of measuring emotional responses, requiring respondents to actively think about and articulate their own feelings.

Which movie trailers did we test?

For both brands, we chose a) a film posited as a major stand-off between two lead characters, and b) a team-oriented film.

In Marvel’s corner:

  • Guardians Of The Galaxy 2

  • Captain America: Civil War

And from DC:

  • Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

  • Justice League

We wanted to learn which film brand is better at its marketing, whether audience expectations match its critical reception, and what all of this might tell us about marketing in general.

Marvel’s character-led narratives keep fans hooked

Black Widow

Marvel’s first Avengers outing in 2012 is the highest grossing superhero movie to date. None of their later releases have been able to top this performance, but neither have they delivered anything other than box office success.

Guardian Of The Galaxy 2

Our tests ranked 2017’s Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 as the most successful trailer of the set, with 78% of respondents classed as lovers, and a high score on emotional involvement too. This seems due to the trailer’s inclusion of comedic elements; viewers’ showed real-time increased affinity towards the appearance of goof-ball characters such as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, to name but few.

Captain America: Civil War

Guardians was closely followed by 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, with 75% of respondents loving it. Emotional engagement comes out a little lower here – it’s a more tempered trailer, with a lot of talk about ‘consequence’ – but the appearance of recognizable characters still bumps its performance beyond the peaks and troughs related to periods of intense action.

These two trailers had a notably high impact on changing respondents’ behavior, as well as the degree to which they are likely to be shared. Intriguingly, men over-indexed on Marvel’s Civil War, finding its explosions, action, and CGI the most appealing aspects (their keyword responses support this interpretation). But this is true of both film brands: explosive visuals keep men engaged.

DC’s explosive melodrama adds to the excitement


Testing aside, DC’s finances speak for themselves: Batman V Superman took a critical battering but still made a hefty $330,360,194 in the box office. This may have put fans off the brand for good, as Justice League brought in a measly $221,258,600.

Justice League

DC’s trailers are altogether darker, more brooding, and overly stylised. Despite this, 2017’s Justice League trailer performs about as well as Civil War’s, with impressive action and special effects driving its performance. What’s more, the back end of the ad brings with it an increase in emotional engagement. However, overall, there is much less affinity towards the film’s main characters when compared to Marvel.

Could this be down to inconsistent characterization across film and TV? The Flash, for instance, is played by two completely different actors simultaneously.

Batman V Superman

2016’s Batman V Superman was the worst performing trailer we tested, with significantly lower scores for lovers and behavior change. It polarises opinion considerably more than the others, with a much higher number of haters.

So, explosive ‘spectacle’ does well for DC’s trailers, but it should come as a concern to the brand that appearances from their titular characters, Batman and Superman, were frequently referenced as respondent’s least favorite parts of the trailer.


Dynamic storytelling trumps big budget flare

Due to ongoing development issues, DC’s characterization is inconsistent and much of the content from Justice League’s trailer is actually absent from the final film. The positivity we recorded for DC’s trailers mostly surrounds action – with indifference towards or disinterest in its leads.

Marvel’s characterization is much more consistent. They’re also more accessible; Marvel utilizes humor to avoid polarising audiences (as DC does with its stylistic, dark tone). Interestingly, respondents actively tie Marvel’s movie titles to their cinematic brand, but they don’t seem to recall or care that DC’s titles are part of a larger cinematic universe too.

What can this epic battle teach us about advertising?

Social meda

ZappiStore research architect Ernie Collings was surprised at the results:

We were surprised to see, across all trailers tested, that the emotional response was lower than expected for set pieces and special effects, particularly in the genre we were looking at. The results indicate the way DC can reboot and change characters across trilogies or between TV to film might be having a detrimental effect on how well the public connects with those characters.

Though the art of movie trailers might seem a world away from the task of effectively advertising chewing gum or loo roll, there are some lessons we can learn from these findings:

  • Humour isn’t the enemy

Marvel movies can be cute and silly but a jovial approach doesn’t detract from serious forays into serious drama. Don’t avoid including humor for fear it may tarnish your reputation. Keep it on brand and be bold.

  • Do not sabotage clear, coherent storytelling for spectacle

Affinity is built by way of a long-lasting bond with iconography, characters, or a brand’s tone of voice. If this connection is sacrificed in favor of bells and whistles, audiences might simply forget you.

  • Be honest

DC is let down by its habitual inclusion of deleted and dramatically altered scenes in its trailers. You do not want to make the consumer feel shortchanged, so don’t bend the rules by kicking inconvenient truths under the carpet.

  • Test for two modes of thought

A combination of System 1 and 2 thinking is a surefire way to achieve certainty regarding your ad’s reception: what is a consumer’s immediate, emotive response vs. how do they consider your ad after the fact?

It may also prove effective to exercise different approaches to advertising at different times of the year.

If you’d like to find out how advertisers can learn to play off and leverage seasonal moods, click here.

A James Hodges

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A James Hodges

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