Consumers are cognitive misers – meaning they generally have relatively little conscious capacity.

As discussed in the posts on marketing and branding, this means that consumers tend not to put a lot of careful thought into consumption decisions.

There are two implications for advertisers. The first is that persuading consumers to like a brand is not a particularly effective: the majority of a brand’s customers do not think or care about the brand enough to be persuaded either way.

Take, for example, the GoCompare adverts featuring the irritating tenor Gio Compario. He was hated so much that the brand won ‘most annoying ad’ two years in a row, and, eventually, the brand even dropped him from their ads. However, he worked: he decreased their advertising cost per unique visitor from £3.34 to £1.94 in just one year.

Similarly, the HeadOn advert was despised intensely – but it increased the brand’s sales by 200% in one year.

The second implication is that it is far more effective for advertising to focus on mental availability – that is, making a brand front-of-mind so that it is more likely to be thought about, and it is more likely to be recognised or noticed at the point of purchase. For instance, research has shown that a brand is much more likely to be chosen if people have simply been reminded of it earlier in the day.

Brain science can help brands with this.

In the non-conscious brain there is a system of regions (such as parts of the amygdala, limbic system and hippocampus) which makes up a sort of ‘doorman’ for the brain. The brain processes 11,000,000 ‘bits’ of sensory information a second – the ‘doorman’ directs the 40-‘bit’ allowance of conscious processing to that which is most important.

For example, imagine you are engaged in a conversation at a crowded party. There is a lot of sensory information to which you are not paying attention – such as all the other conversations in the room. Now imagine that someone across the room has spoken your name. Your attention will instantly be directed to that person, even though you were not previously paying attention to them.

The brain’s ‘doorman’ has something of a ‘VIP list’ of stimuli that will always demand automatic attention. This stimuli generally have an evolutionary value: we would not have survived as a species if we had not paid attention to them. For example, we are hardwired to attend to faces; when looking at an image with a face in it, there as an 80% chance the person will look at the face first.

There are several other principles which help an advert to be remembered – including surprise, sex, and narrative, among others. Let’s have a look at a popular one: emotion.

While we are hardwired to look at faces, there is evidence that we are particularly likely to look if it is a baby’s face. Likewise, cute animals are very effective at getting attention. One experiment found that showing people pictures of baby animals made them better at an Operation-type game which required close concentration: they spent longer on the task and they made fewer mistakes.

It is perhaps, little wonder, then, that viral videos online often include kittens and puppies. In fact, in the paper ‘What makes Online Content Go Viral?’, researchers found that a standard deviation increase in emotionality made a New York Times article 18% more likely to reach the ‘most emailed’ list.

This viral trend has seeped into advertisements in recent years – ads by brands like O2, Three, CompareTheMarket, Cadbury, McVitie’s, and many others, have included adorable animals.

Indeed, research shows that adverts are about twice as likely to be recalled two weeks later if they are emotional.

Ultimately, by understanding what people will notice and remember, and why, brands can make their ads much more effective.


HeadOn advert


Hardwired to see faces

Cadbury’s gorilla

Three’s pug