Welcome to a huge guide on advertising psychology.
Whether you’re creating a print ad for a magazine or a banner ad on Facebook, you’ll learn 27 psychological tricks to make it more effective.
All of these tactics are based on academic research. For each tactic, you’ll learn (a) why it’s effective, and (b) how you can apply that principle to your ad.
An advertisement usually contains three elements: images, words, and a brand/logo.
What types of images should you use? The ideal characteristics will usually vary, depending on your product. But this section will describe tactics that should work for any advertisement, regardless of your product.
When creating your ad, you need to consider the spatial positioning of images and text. Those elements should coincide with the anatomy of your visual pathway:
When you perceive stimuli toward one side of your field of vision, the opposing hemisphere processes that information:
“…a stimulus presented in the left visual field (LVF) is initially received and processed by the right hemisphere (RH), and a stimulus presented in the right visual field (RVF) is initially projected to and processed by the left hemisphere (LH)…” (Bourne, 2006, pp. 374)
Due to that neuroanatomical structure, your right hemisphere processes information presented toward the left of an advertisement:
And those opposing hemispheres are the key…
“Because the right hemisphere is better suited to process pictorial information and the left one is more logical and verbal, placing the image on the left hand side of the text enhances the processing of the whole message…” (Grobelny & Michalski, 2015, pp. 87)
When you place images and graphics toward the left side of your ad, you increase processing fluency. People will digest your ad more quickly, generating a more favorable evaluation (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009).
If you only read one tactic in this article…read this one. This tactic is (a) very powerful (b) easy-to-implement, and (c) virtually unused by most businesses.
When businesses create product images, they often depict the product without much thought. Starting now, always depict your product so that you achieve an underlying goal: to encourage mental interaction.
Here’s an example. Elder and Krishna (2012) showed participants an ad for a coffee mug. Turns out, participants were more likely to purchase the mug when the handle was facing the right (toward the dominant hand of most people).
The researchers attributed that finding to heightened simulation. When the handles were facing the right, participants mentally interacted with the product to a greater degree. In other experiments, that effect disappeared when participants were holding something:
“…when participants have their dominant hand available, the corresponding visual product depiction leads to higher purchase intentions; however, when the dominant hand is occupied, the effects are reversed.” (Elder & Krishna, 2012, pg. 9)
That’s great, Nick. But my product doesn’t have a handle.
Don’t have a handle? No worries. The researchers conducted other experiments and found support for other types of simulations. Here are some ideas:
You could use those images anywhere (e.g., advertisements, eBay, eCommerce site). In most cases, those images will make your product more appealing because they’ll increase the amount of mental interaction.
As humans, we experience an inborn tendency to follow people’s gazes. That trait helped our ancestors discover threats more easily. And, thanks to evolution, that trait is still ingrained in our amygdala (Emery, 2000).
You can apply that tendency in your ads. If your ad contains pictures of people, orient them toward your CTA. You’ll attract more attention toward that area:
You should usually avoid orienting models toward the viewer. Those front-facing images will attract attention toward the model, instead of the important parts of your ad:
Some nonprofits or charities might benefit from those front-facing images (I explain why in my article on stock photos). However, you should usually orient model’s gazes toward your CTA.
Do attractive people really enhance the persuasiveness of an ad?
Unfortunately, yes. You’ll usually trigger a more favorable evaluation of your product when you show attractive people (Trampe, Stapel, Siero & Mulder, 2010).
However, that’s not always the case. You might want to avoid this tactic if your product is irrelevant to attractiveness:
“…when examining the results for the attractive model condition, there appears to be one condition in which an attractive model is not the best choice: when elaboration likelihood (or involvement) is high, and the target product is not very relevant for attractiveness.” (Trampe et al., 2010, pp. 1117)
Which products are relevant to attractiveness? Here are some examples.
It also depends on your positioning. For example, some brands might use an artistic positioning for their home décor products. In that case, an attractive model might fit naturally within their ad. For most brands, however, an attractive model would seem irrelevant.
Trampe et al. (2010) didn’t explain why you need relevance. But here’s my guess: irrelevant products reveal your underlying motive.
If you use an attractive model to sell a toaster, people will know that you’re merely trying to persuade them. So they’ll experience psychological reactance and fight your persuasion attempt (Brehm, 1966).
The main takeaway? Attractive models usually enhance persuasion, but you need a relevant product to disguise your persuasive motive.
Wording is also crucial. In my copywriting article, I explain a list of tactics to make your writing more persuasive. In this current article, you’ll learn some new tactics that are specifically geared toward advertising.
Images trigger emotion in accordance with their size. The larger the image, the stronger the emotion (De Cesarei & Codispoti, 2006).
And that finding makes sense. In terms of evolution, our ancestors judged a potential threat based on its perceived size:
“…in real life, the distance from an object influences its biological relevance for the organism…Aggressors, for example, appear to be more dangerous the closer they get to the individual.” (Bayer, Sommer, & Shacht, 2012, pp. 5)
Words are different. They’re symbolic in nature. People need to decipher the meaning of a word in order to experience an emotional reaction to it.
Given that symbolic nature, can wording size play a role in emotional impact? Turns out, it can. By increasing the surface size of your text —especially emotional words — you’ll enhance the emotional impact of those words (Bayer, Sommer, & Shacht, 2012).
You’ll also gain another benefit. Pieters & Wedel (2004) analyzed 1,363 advertisements and found that words capture attention in direct accordance with their surface size:
“…an increase in text surface size raises attention to this element much more than it simultaneously reduces attention to the brand and pictorial elements…[so] advertisers aiming to maximize attention to the entire advertisement should seriously consider devoting more space to text.” (Pieters & Wedel, 2004, pp. 48)
Thus, not only will your enlarged words produce a stronger impact, but they’ll also capture attention more easily.
People generally prefer products with many features:
“As long as the features of a many-feature product add value to the product, consumers will be more likely to favor a many-featured product over a few-featured product.” (Goodman & Irmak, 2013, pp. 45)
Similarly, people perceive long lists of features to be more persuasive than short lists (Petty & Cacioppo, 1984).
There’s a caveat, however. People often overestimate their usage of features. Most people prefer paying flat fees (versus paying per use) because they overestimate the amount that they’ll use a product (Nunes, 2000).
In fact, a long list of features can backfire if consumers consider their usage. When consumers think about their usage, they shift their preference toward products with fewer features (Goodman & Irmak, 2013).
In your ad, you could highlight multiple features about your product. But you need to avoid framing those features in terms of usage:
“…the results suggest that marketers avoid any focus or priming of feature usage frequency, which can decrease preference for multifunctional products; instead, focusing the consumer on having a feature will be more likely to drive purchases…” (Goodman & Irmak, 2013, pp. 52)
Avoid describing the usefulness or practicality of features. Instead, mention that your product has the capability.
In my copywriting article, I describe the danger of assertive language. If readers feel like you’re trying to persuade them, they might experience psychological reactance (and they’ll fight your persuasion attempt).
But there’s an exception. Assertive language can improve advertisements for hedonic products (Kronrod, Grinstein, & Wathieu, 2012).
The reason involves a connection between positive moods and assertiveness:
“…hedonic consumption contexts are more likely to generate a positive mood, which in turn prompts consumers to expect assertive language and then to comply with requests using such language.” (Kronrod et al., 2012, pg. 8)
When people feel happy, they talk more assertively (and expect people to speak more assertively). And those expectations are the key.
Because consumers will expect assertiveness, your assertive language will increase processing fluency. They’ll be able to process your ad more easily — which will produce a pleasant sensation. That pleasant sensation will then be misattributed to your product (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009).
The previous tactic showed that assertive language can increase processing fluency for hedonic products. The same effect also occurs with rhyming. But that effect occurs for any product.
In fact, a simple rhyme may have dictated the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial: If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.
In one study, McGlone and Tofighbakhsh (2000) presented students with two alcohol-related frames:
Both statements are essentially the same. But students found the rhyming statement to be more accurate and truthful. Why? Because it increased fluency. When evaluating that statement, students experienced a pleasant sensation, which they misattributed to the underlying information.
Given the power of rhyming, consider adjusting your call-to-action:
Those rhymes will subtly create a pleasant sensation. People will then misattribute that pleasantness to your call-to-action, and they’ll experience a stronger desire to complete it.
Your logo or brand is another integral part of an advertisement. In this section, you’ll learn how to enhance the perception of it.
In the first tactic of this article, you learned why you should position images toward the left of your ad. With that position, your brain’s right hemisphere can process the image more easily.
Here’s a related tactic. If your imagery consumes a large portion of your ad, then you should position your brand to the right.
That suggestion is due to the matching activation hypothesis (Janiszewski, 1990). If your image is large, then people will be processing the ad primarily with their right hemisphere. Their left hemisphere will be less activated.
According to the matching activation hypothesis, less activated hemispheres are still active. They subconsciously elaborate on the information at hand. And that nonconscious elaboration produces a favorable response toward the information.
When people view your image-filled ad, their left hemisphere will be subconsciously processing the content toward the right (and they will develop a favorable response toward that information). That’s why you should place your brand in that spot:
“…placing a brand name to the right of attended pictorial information should send it to the less activated left hemisphere, where it will receive a greater degree of subconscious processing than if sent to the right hemisphere…increasing the amount of subconscious processing should increase affect toward the brand name..” (Janiszewski, 1990, pp. 54 – 55)
I realize that explanation might sound complex. So here’s a separate — yet simpler — reason to put your brand on the right. Other research has found that information on the right generates higher aesthetic scores (Grobelny & Michalski, 2005). So people should perceive your brand to be more aesthetically pleasing.
Some advertisers recommend decreasing the size of your brand. The visual appearance of a brand can make your content look promotional, reducing the persuasiveness of your ad.
And it makes sense. Before doing this research, I probably would have agreed with that claim. However, I finished scouring the research. And that claim is inaccurate.
Pieters and Wedel (2004) measured the surface size of brands in 1,363 advertisements. They found that the surface size didn’t reduce the amount of attention:
“…increases in the surface size of the brand element do not have a net negative effect on attention to the entire advertisement. This finding should relieve advertisers and agencies that fear that a prominent brand would trigger consumers to turn the page faster.” (Pieters & Wedel, 2004, pp. 48)
And the effect isn’t just neutral. Other research has found a positive effect from increasing the surface size of a brand.
Wedel and Pieters (2000) showed participants various advertisements while analyzing their eye fixations. What did they find? The brand attracted the most amount of attention:
“…the brand element receives by far the most eye fixations per unit of its surface, followed by the text element and the pictorial… [even when] consumers freely page through magazines, and in which they dwell only for a short moment on each ad (less than 3 seconds), the brand element draws a disproportionately large amount of attention.” (Wedel & Pieters, 2000, pp. 308 – 309)
Bottom line: don’t be afraid to increase the size of your brand or logo.
The previous section explained the best content to use in your ad. But how should that content appear? Which fonts and colors should you use? This section will tackle that question.
Never overlook your fonts. Visual characteristics in fonts can trigger certain emotions in viewers (Henderson, Giese, & Cote, 2004). So fonts play a powerful role.
How can you determine the best font to use? You’ll need to consider three main characteristics:
There are other factors too. But those are the big three.
Ideally, those visual characteristics should match the conceptual characteristics that you want to convey in your product. In other words, the optimal font will be semantically congruent with the product that you’re advertising (Childers & Jass, 2002).
Sound like mumbo jumbo? Don’t worry. By the end of this section, you’ll know how to choose the optimal characteristics (i.e., line, weight, and orientation) for your font. Once you understand the examples, you’ll be able to apply the same principles to any product that you’re advertising.
Researchers have confirmed that long thin fonts appear more beautiful:
“Typefaces that are lighter in weight (in width and stroke thickness) are seen as delicate, gentle, and feminine, while heavier typefaces are strong, aggressive, and masculine…” (Brumberger, 2003, pp. 208)
But why is that? And how could any font possess personality? Well, the answer can be found in your brain’s associative network (Anderson, 1983).
Everyone has a preconceived notion of beauty — what it is and what it looks like. In most countries (especially the US), beautiful people are tall and slender. That’s the “standard” for beauty. Even if you don’t believe in that standard, you still associate those qualities because of the cultural stigma.
And those associations are key. Due to your associative network, your node for beauty is connected to those characteristics (among many others):
More importantly, when you encounter stimuli that possess the characteristics of beauty (e.g., tall, thin), it triggers spreading activation (Collins & Loftus, 1975). Activation spreads from those characteristics toward your node for beauty:
That activation gives you a new temporary lens. With your concept of beauty more prevalent, you perceive stimuli in the immediate environment to be more beautiful. And that’s the answer.
If you want to choose a beautiful font, then incorporate visual characteristics that are associated with the concept of beauty. In other words, choose fonts that appear tall and thin.
Those perceptual characteristics will trigger spreading activation toward the recipient’s node for beauty. That heightened activation, in turn, will make your font (and surrounding stimuli) seem more beautiful.
In addition, that semantic congruence will increase fluency for your font (Doyle & Bottomley, 2004). People will be able to process your font more easily, thus generating a more favorable evaluation of it.
Suppose that you’re advertising a diet plan. If you want to convey that your solution will make people feel beautiful, then use long thin fonts.
This tactic used beauty as an example. But you could use the underlying principle to choose any font. Here are a few more tactics to help you apply that principle.
Suppose that your product is unique, distinguished, or luxurious. Or perhaps the marketplace is crowded. And you want to stand out from competitors. Your font should match the perceptual characteristics of being unique.
For example, Pocheptsova, Labroo and Dhar (2010) showed participants an ad for gourmet cheese. Those participants were more likely to buy the cheese when the font was difficult to read:
“In the context of everyday products, increased fluency is a positive cue that the product is familiar and safe which leads to higher evaluation of products…However, in the context of special occasion high-end products, higher fluency serves as a negative cue that indicates abundance and familiarity of products that translates into lower value… Thus, difficulty (and not ease) of processing of such products will make them feel more special…” (Pocheptsova, Labroo, & Dhar, 2010, pg. 9)
Because participants had trouble processing the font, they attributed that difficulty to the uniqueness of the product (thus enhancing the perceived value of the gourmet cheese).
If you want to position your product as unique or high-end, then decrease the fluency of your advertisements. Use an obscure — yet still legible — font so that people experience some difficulty processing the ad.
In addition, when people exert greater effort to process your ad, they’ll encode the memory in greater detail (Alter et al., 2007). So not only will obscure fonts enhance the perceived uniqueness of your product, but they’ll also create a stronger memory for your brand.
Suppose that you want to convey the speed of your support team. Well, how do things appear when they’re fast and quick? Oftentimes, they seem slanted and blurry:
So choose a font with a slanted orientation. Although you could choose a font with a tilted design, it’s not necessary. Italicizing your font should do the trick.
Color is a touchy subject. Even though researchers have found some interesting (and practical) insights, most people are only familiar with the pseudoscientific claims — not the accurate science.
Unfortunately, though, color is a huge topic (too big for this article). I’ll explain a full list of applications in a future article. This section will simply focus on a few key tactics.
Similar to fonts, colors also contain semantic qualities. Over time, we begin to attribute certain qualities to certain colors:
“Color theorists believe that color influences cognition and behavior through learned associations…When people repeatedly encounter situations where different colors are accompanied by particular experiences and/or concepts, they form specific associations to colors.” (Mehta & Zhu, 2010, pp. 1)
For example, we usually associate red with danger, threats, and mistakes:
Because of those associations, red activates an avoidance mindset. With that mindset activated, people identify problems more quickly and easily.
So if your ad is negatively framed (i.e., you describe a problem that your product resolves), a red color scheme will trigger a stronger desire for your product (Mehta & Zhu, 2010).
What if your ad describes tangible benefits of your product? In that case, use a blue color scheme.
Compared to red, blue is associated with an “approach” mindset:
“…because blue is usually associated with openness, peace, and tranquility, it is likely to activate an approach motivation, because these associations signal a benign environment…” (Mehta & Zhu, 2010, pp. 1)
Mehta and Zhu (2010) examined red and blue color schemes. They showed participants two different frames for a toothpaste advertisement:
The results were consistent with the learned associations. Red colors performed better with the prevention frame, whereas blue colors performed better with the gain frame.
Some advertisers argue that color always outperforms black-and-white. But that’s not the case.
When your ad contains substantial text content and vivid colors, viewers feel overwhelmed with stimuli. As a result, they feel less motivated to process the contents of your ad.
If your ad requires a lot of mental processing, then black-and-white ads perform better:
“When the substantial resources devoted to ad processing are inadequate for thorough ad scrutiny, black-and-white ads or those that color highlight aspects highly relevant to ad claims are more persuasive.” (Meyers-Levy & Peracchio, 1995, pp. 121)
If your ad contains a lot of text, lower the brightness or saturation of your colors. By reducing the color levels, you’ll motivate more people to evaluate your ad.
And the text will usually be easier to read as well.
So far, we’ve examined the content and visuals of your advertisement. Now let’s look at the context and environment. Specifically, you’ll learn the ideal framing, variations, and medium.
Framing always sparks a heated debate. Should you use a rational argument or an emotional appeal? Should you use negative or positive framing? Those questions haunt advertisers.
Unfortunately, a clear answer doesn’t exist. The best solution will always depend on various factors. But this section will shed some light on those factors (and when particular frames are more effective).
If your product is new or innovative, consider using a rational appeal in your advertisement.
“…when consumers have little information about a product, they are more motivated to attend to and process arguments in the ads. Then, if ads are to be persuasive, they need to provide compelling arguments that reduce purchase risks and differentiate the product from competitors.” (Chandy, Tellis, MacInnis, & Thaivanich, 2001, pp. 401)
If consumers aren’t familiar with your product, they’ll process your ad in greater detail. Because they’ll be devoting more attention and cognitive resources to your ad, emotional appeals are less effective. They need a rational reason to consider your product.
The opposite effect occurs in old markets. When consumers are familiar with your product or brand, they devote less attention to the ad. That’s why emotional appeals can be more effective:
“In older markets, consumers may have gained knowledge, reducing their motivation to engage in extensive ad processing. As such, factors that increase their personal involvement in the ad—like the use of emotion-focused appeals and positively framed messages—may be particularly likely to create a behavioral response.” (Chandy, Tellis, MacInnis, & Thaivanich, 2001, pp. 411)
With familiar products, an emotional appeal will create a fresh perspective. That new outlook, in turn, will be more likely to trigger a behavioral response.
Negative frames describe a problem. What issue does your product resolve? How will your product relieve the customer’s pain?
Biologically, humans are built to avoid pain. Because of that tendency, we’re more apt to notice negative stimuli (Zajonc, 1984).
And that insight holds true in advertising. In advertisements, words with negative valences attract a higher number of eye fixations (Ferreira et al., 2011).
In addition, Bolls, Lang, and Potter (2001) used EMG to analyze physiological responses to radio ads. They found that participants devoted more attention to negative ads:
“As predicted, heart rate was slower during exposure to negative messages compared with positive messages. Because past research shows that decelerations in heart rate indicate an increase in allocation of cognitive resources to message processing, we suggest that the current results indicate that participants allocated more attention to the negative advertisements…” (pp. 646 – 647)
Because people devote more processing resources to negatively framed ads, those ads can also spark behavior, such as impulse purchases (Shiv, Edell, & Payne, 1997).
If your main advertising goal is some type of immediate action (e.g., clicking on your banner ad), then consider using a negative frame. You’ll attract attention more easily, and you’ll be more likely to trigger an immediate behavior.
Positive frames describe the benefits that your product provides. What will customers gain from buying your product?
In the previous EMG study, negatively framed ads grabbed attention. However, positively framed ads generated a stronger impact on long-term memory:
“Even though the negative advertisements received more resource allocation, data show that the positive advertisements were more memorable. We suggest that this seeming contradiction can be explained not by the amount of attention allocated to the advertisements but rather by the levels of arousal experienced by participants during exposure.” (Bolls, Lang, & Potter, 2001, pp. 647)
When participants were exposed to the positively framed ads, they experienced a higher level of arousal, which strengthened the encoding of the memory.
Thus, if you want people to remember your brand (e.g., next time they’re choosing a product at the store), then use positively framed ads. Your ads will generate a stronger impact on long-term memory, and people will be more likely to remember your brand.
But what about rational vs. emotional appeals? Where do they fit in? Seems like a lot to remember, right?
To help you pinpoint the best framing for your ad, I organized the previous tactics into the chart below. Whenever you’re creating an ad, you can reference this chart to know which frame you should use (based on your market and advertising goal).
Ideally, you should expose people to slight variations of your ad. With repeated exposures, people begin to process your ads more easily, generating a stronger affinity toward your brand (Zajonc, 1968).
In addition, subsequent exposures prime people to retrieve the original ad from memory. And that mere act of retrieval solidifies their memory:
“…the act of retrieval is itself a learning event in the sense that the retrieved information becomes more recallable in the future than it would have been without having been retrieved…if P2 encourages retrieval of P1, recall for P1 should be enhanced.” (Appleton-Knapp, Bjork, & Wickens, 2005, pp. 267)
But why create slight variations? Why not repeat the same ad? If you repeat the same ad, you’ll often trigger annoyance — especially for unfamiliar brands (Campbell & Keller, 2003).
There are other reasons too. This section will explain a few tactics applying those reasons (and how you can create ad variations that will be effective).
When creating a new variation of your ad, try moving your brand or logo to a different spot.
Shapiro and Nielson (2013) exposed participants to multiple versions of an ad (in which the logo changed location). Even though participants failed to recognize the change, they evaluated the logo more favorably when it moved locations.
The researchers attributed that effect to higher processing fluency:
“…we demonstrate that a relatively small visual change from one ad exposure to the next can be detected incidentally…detection of the change likely caused participants to deploy more processing resources to the logos/products, in turn increasing fluency.” (Shapiro & Nielson, 2013, pp. 1211 – 1212)
When you add a slight visual change, people will subconsciously notice the change. And they’ll develop a stronger preference toward that content because of higher fluency.
When choosing a model for your ad, you should choose a model that resembles the market that you’re targeting. That heightened similarity will create a stronger appeal.
“…when consumers are exposed to advertising that is consistent with a salient dimension of their self, they spontaneously self-reference the ad. This leads to more favourable thoughts, attitudes and purchase intentions.” (Lee, Fernandez, & Martin, 2002, pp. 374)
But why am I including this tactic within the “variations” section? Because this tactic can also help with segmentation.
Suppose that you’re using Facebook ads. You might have wondered how to use the overwhelming targeting criteria:
Well, this tactic can help you tailor your ad campaign. Instead of displaying the same ad to everyone, replace the model with someone who resembles a particular segment.
You could keep it broad by segmenting on gender. Show female models for female segments. Show male models for male segments. Or you could create narrower segments by showing models that match specific ethnicities.
Either way, research shows that your ad will perform better when the model resembles the segment (Forehead & Deshpande, 2001).
For over a century, psychologists have appreciated the benefits of “distributed practice” or “spacing effects.”
If you’re studying for an exam, you should study in increments, rather than cram the night before. You’ll encode and retrieve the information more effectively (Anderson, 2000).
And that same effect occurs in advertisements. Sahni (2011) found that people were more likely to purchase a product if the ads were spread apart, rather than bunched together:
“The data show that at a purchase occasion, the likelihood of a product’s purchase increases if its past ads are spread apart rather than bunched together, even if spreading apart of ads involves shifting some ads away from the purchase occasion.” (pg. 1)
With dispersed exposures, viewers can encode and recall your ad more effectively. Plus, highly concentrated ad schedules can often annoy customers:
“Marketers of unfamiliar brands need to build familiarity to compete better with more familiar brands, but they must be careful in how they use concentrated, high-repetition ad schedules in order to avoid alienating consumers.” (Campbell & Keller, 2003, pp. 301 – 302)
To avoid annoying your customers (and to gain the benefits of spacing effects), you should spread out your ad exposures over time.
Where should you advertise your product? Like the other suggestions in the article, the best answer will always depend on various factors.
This section will explain those factors so that you can choose ad mediums that will be favorable for your product.
In this pricing tactic, I explain why you should position prices toward the bottom left. That suggestion involves our conceptualization of number spectrums:
If you position a price on the bottom left, you’ll trigger people’s association with a small magnitude. The price will actually seem lower.
Cai, Shen, Hui (2012) examined that effect with product images. In their study, they showed participants two lamps on a screen. The result? Participants estimated a higher price for lamps that were presented on the right.
So how does that finding relate to ad mediums? Well, if you’re placing your ad in a physical medium, you should place it toward the left. That placement will lower the perceived price of your product:
“Suppose consumers are trying to estimate the price of a product they see in a newspaper. Will they estimate a higher price for the product if the ad is on the right-hand side of the page? Our research indicates that this is often the case.” (Cai, Shen, Hui, 2012, pp. 718)
The same effect would occur in magazines, flyers, and other physical mediums.
In one study, Berger and Fitzsimons (2008) asked people to choose products in a survey. Those people were influenced by the color of the pen they were given:
The color of the pen was a priming cue. When people were exposed to the orange pen, their concept of orange became activated. With greater activation of that node, their brain could process orange products more easily. That ease, in turn, enhanced their evaluation (and subsequent choice) of orange products.
That same effect occurs in advertising. In a separate study, participants preferred an ad for ketchup when it was preceded by an ad for mayonnaise (Lee & Labroo, 2004). The mayonnaise ad activated their node for condiments, so participants could process the subsequent ketchup ad more easily:
“…[when a product] is presented in a predictive context (e.g., a bottle of beer featured in an advertisement that shows a man entering a bar) or when it is primed by a related construct (e.g., an image of ketchup following an advertisement of mayonnaise), participants develop more favorable attitudes…” (Lee & Labroo, 2004, pp. 151)
How can you apply that principle? When choosing places to advertise your product, choose mediums that share semantic qualities with your product.
Are you advertising a technology product? Then advertise via technology:
Those mediums will prime the context of your product (i.e., technology). Because that priming will increase processing fluency, people should develop a more favorable evaluation of your product.
If viewers notice that you paid for your ad placement, they’ll evaluate your ad less favorably. You’ll also reduce the click-through rate for your digital ads:
“…for a random subset of users, we change “Sponsored links” or “Ads” labels to instead read “Paid Advertisements.” Relative to users receiving the “Sponsored link” or “Ad” labels, users receiving the “Paid Advertisement” label click 25% and 27% fewer advertisements, respectively.” (Edelman & Gilchrist, 2012, pg. 2)
Boerman, van Reijmersdal, and Neijens (2012) even found that the duration of disclosure can make a difference. In their study, people developed more critical attitudes of an advertisement based on a 6-second disclosure (compared to a 3-second disclosure).
You could also place your ad toward the beginning or end of a medium, such as the end of a magazine
Part of that recommendation stems from the serial positioning effect (Murdock, 1962). In a sequence of information, content will generate a stronger impact when it’s positioned toward the beginning (primacy effect) or the end (recency effect).
Wedel and Pieters (2000) suggest that the end of a magazine might be the best place. Because magazine readers are exposed to a large amount of information, content presented toward the end of a magazine will be memorable:
“Under high information load, earlier stimuli tend to be displaced from short-term memory by later stimuli in the sequence, which lowers the likelihood of the earlier stimuli being stored and subsequently retrieved…advertisers who seek to maximize brand memory may want to place their ads towards the end of magazines.” (Wedel & Pieters, 2000, pp. 309)
But I’d be cautious with that recommendation. Theoretically, it makes sense. Realistically, though, some people won’t reach the end of a magazine. So the beginning might be your best bet.
Either way, avoid placing your ad in the center of a medium. That position will generate the weakest impact on memory.
Take a deep breath.
…and let it out. Phew. You made it to the end.
And I know…I threw a lot of info at you. But don’t feel overwhelmed. When creating an ad, you don’t need to incorporate all of the tactics. In fact, you shouldn’t incorporate all of the tactics.
These tactics are merely ideas. Use this guide as a starting point for your ad. After you create the ad, then use this guide as a checklist to see if you can enhance it. If you can’t think of a way to improve your ad, then move on. Don’t force any of the tactics.
Academic research is great. And it can be very insightful. But at the end of the day, common sense reigns supreme. If a tactic reduces the visual appeal of your ad, then don’t follow it. Go with your gut.
Lastly, the psychology of advertising is a huge topic —much too big for a single article. If you enjoyed the article, then you can subscribe to my blog to stay updated when I post new content.