By: Elizabeth Urbic
Scan across the grid below and watch the dots at the intersections fill in and then change back to white as your eyes move across. If you focus exclusively on one white dot, or if you hold the grid too close or too far away, the illusion stops.
The scintillating grid allows you to become consciously aware of one aspect of your out-of-consciousness processing system at work. Your vision system automatically sharpens contrasts on surface edges to make it easier for you to separate objects from their backgrounds. The grid’s design forces your vision system to attempt to construct surface edges that do not exist. Scanning the grid reveals this ongoing process that you normally do not notice. Seeing the dots appear and disappear on the grid demonstrates that we do not passively perceive reality, but instead actively construct reality using more than basic sensory inputs. To our conscious processing systems, however, it still feels like we just perceive reality. That’s why the grid is called an illusion.
The cognitive mechanisms at play here have great implications in the world of marketing and advertising. Traditional marketing programs do not take the out-of-conscious processing system into account and therefore miss the potential impact of its undeniable influence on consumer behavior. We are awash in continuous streams of signals from our internal and external environments; the subconscious mind encounters these signals first and makes directions, which lead to behaviors. Consumers cannot break from these directions–we cannot help but see dots appear as we scan the grid, even when we know they are not really there. And so, the most thought-out or creative advertising campaign is only as effective as its incorporation of what appeals to the subconscious thought process.
There is tremendous value in understanding consumer behavior at this level. The following recommendations for improving a marketing/advertising campaign’s efficacy are based upon measurements of what consumers not only attend to, but subconsciously respond to.
Ten Rules for Harnessing the Power of the Out-of-Conscious Processing System in Marketing & Advertising
1. Tell a simple story–don’t just convey information. A good story has a beginning where a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation, a middle where the character confronts and attempts to resolve the situation, and an end where the outcome is revealed. A good story does not interpret or explain the action in the story for the audience. Instead, it allows each member of the audience to interpret the story as he or she understands the action. This is why people find good stories so appealing and why they find advertising that simply conveys information so boring.
|“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer,
and more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
- Robert McKee
2. Make the desired call to action a part of the story. A good story that is very entertaining but does not make a direct connection between the desired call to action – the purpose of the ad – and the story is just a very entertaining story. The whole point of the story in advertising is to effectively deliver the desired call to action. If the audience does not clearly understand the desired call to action after seeing the ad, then there is no point in running the ad. Contrary to popular belief, having an entertaining story and clearly delivering the desired call to action are not mutually exclusive.
3. Use basic emotional appeals. Experiences that trigger our emotions are saved and consolidated in lasting memory because the emotions generated by the experiences signal our brains that the experiences are important to remember. There are eight basic, universal emotions: joy, surprise, anticipation, acceptance, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Successful appeals to these basic emotions consolidate stories and the desired calls to action in the lasting memories of audiences. An added bonus is that successful emotional appeals limit the number of exposures required for audiences to understand, learn, and respond to the calls to action; people may only need to see emotionally compelling scenes once and they will remember those scenes for a lifetime.
4. Use easy arguments. “Jumping to conclusions” literally gave our ancestors an advantage even when the conclusions that made them jump were wrong because delaying actions to review information could have deadly consequences. Easy arguments are the conclusions people reach using inferences without a careful review of available information. Find and use easy arguments that work because it is almost impossible to succeed when working against them.
5. Show–don’t tell. “Seeing is believing” and “actions speak louder than words” are two common sayings that reflect a bias and preference for demonstrated behavior. This is especially true when interests may not be the same. Assume audiences are skeptical about any advertising and design advertising that shows and does not tell.
|Appeal to the senses.|
6. Use symbolic language and images that relate to the senses. People prefer symbolic language and images that relate to the senses and they are far less receptive and responsive to language and images that relate to concepts. Life is experienced through the senses and using symbolic language and images that express what people feel, see, hear, smell, or taste are easier for people to understand, even when used to describe abstract concepts. The language and images used in advertising should “make sense” to the audience.
7. Match what viewers see with what they hear. People expect and prefer coordinated audio and visual messages because those messages are easier to process and understand. Audio and visual messages that are out-of-sync may gain attention, but audiences find them uncomfortable.
8. Stay with a scene long enough for impact. People have limited mental processing capacities. Quick cuts to different scenes require people to devote more of their limited resources to following the cuts and fewer resources to processing each scene. It takes people between eight and ten seconds to process and produce a lasting emotional response to a scene. Camera movement or different camera angles of the same scene can engage people through their orienting responses while providing enough time for them to process the scene.
9. Let powerful images speak for themselves. Again, the processing capacity of our brains is limited and words may get in the way of emotionally powerful visual images. When powerful visual images dominate–when “a picture is worth a thousand words”–be quiet and let the images do the talking.
10. Use identifiable music. Music can be a rapidly identified cue for the recall of emotional responses remembered from previous advertising. Making the same music an identifiable aspect of all advertising signals the audience to pay attention for more important content.
Leahy’s Law states that if a thing is done wrong often enough, it becomes right; volume becomes a defense to error. When advertising fails to sway consumers, most advertisers follow Leahy’s Law by increasing the frequency of the advertising hoping that more of what is not working will somehow work when consumers are subjected to more of the same. Understanding how to reach the consumer at the subconscious level can increase an ad’s efficacy and decrease the number of times they need to be exposed to it. Amidst a sea of marketing repetition, a powerful ad can be seen once and remembered forever.