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5 Golden Rules of Effective Advertising from Hundreds of Neuromarketing and Psychology Studies

By Tom van Bommel
Persuasion Artist

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I count myself lucky to have wandered around in the world of neuromarketing and consumer psychology for quite some years now. I’ve researched and consulted on a great number of interesting questions, oftentimes revolving around how to predict and boost sales impact.

Yet, there’s one question I’m asked more often than any other: “Do you know any golden rules that I can apply to any ad, regardless of creative approach, type of brand, and category?”

In other words: which pearls of advertising wisdom are so fundamental to what makes us human that they always work? In this blog I’ll share five of these fundamental principles, based on hundreds of studies in psychology and consumer neuroscience, both from within the academic world and Unravel’s own labs.

I promise you this blog will change how you approach advertising forever.

1. Early Brand Identifier

Do you remember Pavlov? He was the Russian physiologist who managed to make his dog salivate at the ring of a bell. All he had to do was to ring a bell each time right before the dog wolfed down his bowl.

In the dog’s brain, this pairing forged a mental connection between the bell’s sound and the rewarding taste of dog food. Before long, the bell alone was enough to evoke the same bodily response as the dog food: salivation.

In many ways, the art of advertising isn’t much different from Pavlov’s classical conditioning effect. Substitute dog food with advertising and the bell with the brand, and you’re there. Effective advertising evokes reward expectations, which are then carried over to the brand. After repeated exposure, the brand by itself will spark these reward expectations, which is exactly what makes advertising work at the point of purchase.

Now here comes the part where advertising creatives may get a bit defensive. Pavlov discovered that his effect was much stronger when the bell preceded the food than when it was ringed either simultaneously or after the dog had his meal. For advertising, this means that effective commercials signal the brand first, and then go on with creating reward expectations. In other words: present your brand early on to maximize effectiveness.

Some advertisers may think this principle limits their creativity. I believe this couldn’t be further from the truth. It doesn’t confine creativity; it actually requires creative juices to flow at high speed to make it work.

Why? Because putting your brand at the end of an ad is easy, but activating it at the start is hard. Sure, you could simply open your commercial by blatantly showing your brand logo, but that’s not what I would recommend. Instead, use brand identifying cues that (implicitly) signal the brand without crudely pushing it center stage. This is where your creativity can go into sixth gear, because there are many possible brand identifiers besides the logo:

  • Product
  • Product context
  • Sound
  • People
  • Colors, lighting, and overall visual esthetic
  • Moments of use

I love the example of Nespresso below. This campaign has gotten the principle of the early identifier down to perfection. How many do you notice?

2. Retrieval Cues

Advertising has one major challenge that sets it apart from many other forms of marketing: it has to work over a long period time.

An ad you see today could (subconsciously) impact your purchase behavior tomorrow, next week or even next year. Although a campaign’s impact tends to peak right at the start (if it doesn’t, it’s a telltale sign the campaign won’t work in the future either), it waggles its long tail of sales impact deep into the future.

This means advertising requires brand memory as a vehicle to travel from initial view all the way to the point of purchase. Memory researchers have discovered an extremely straightforward yet profound trick to put this memory process on steroids: a retrieval cue.

A retrieval cue is nothing more than a visual cue at the point of purchase that calls back to the ad. This reactivates the network of brand memories the commercial is embedded in. In practical terms, this simply means to put something on your pack design which is also seen in the ad. Just think of any pet food brand. Chances are the brand is identified by its own signature cat or dog taking the lead in both the commercial and the packaging. There are many possible retrieval cues:

  • Cues most brands already have in place: logo, color, and typography
  • Characters
  • Slogan
  • Objects
  • Emblems

Alternatively, you can go the other way around: pre-activate brand memory by showing the point of purchase in the commercial itself. This is why it’s effective to clearly show your packshot in the commercial, but also why it’s surprisingly effective to have your commercial’s storyline simply take place in a supermarket.

neuromarketing brand identifier advertising

3. The Right and Wrong of Movement

It probably comes as no surprise that movement is a sure-fire method to capture attention. For this reason, advertisers and filmmakers alike bring movement into their compositions.

The third golden rule is about the direction of movement. In our neuro ad testing studies, we see the brain can react strongly to the direction where the camera is going. More specifically: does the camera go in or go out?

Our brains love it when the camera moves closer to, or zooms in on, an object or character. We mentally (and sometimes even physically) tend to lean forward with the camera’s movement. However, when the camera moves backward – thus increasing the distance between viewer and object – the opposite happens. Our brain data shows outward movements cause an aversive response. We mentally tune out.

This principle is clearly visible in the example below. The bottom graph in red shows the amount of approach motivation experienced by the brain. This measure varies second by second and is one of the most important neural predictors of sales impact. Interestingly, approach motivation clearly mirrors the camera’s movement. When the viewers move away from the main character, approach motivation drops dead in one’s tracks.

There’s one exception. Backward movement can work wonderfully well when it reveals new information to the viewer. For instance, a backward movement revealing a second character hiding behind a wall.

4. Single Point of Focus

Did you know our brains consume 20% of our resting metabolic rate? Most people burn more daily calories thinking than running on a treadmill.

Needless to say, the human brain has evolved to operate as efficiently as possible – which, by the way, is a nice way of saying our brains like to act as lazily as possible.

We have learned from user interaction research that effective design is simple. ‘Don’t make me think’ is the design mantra that consistently leads to the most fluent user experience.

Interestingly, this goes for any type of information. When marketing communication is easy to grasp, it receives an emotional bonus just for the sake of being easy. This is called processing fluency. At the same time, when something is hard to process, our brain taxes it with a pinch of negative emotion.

Nowhere is this fluency effect more apparent in advertising than in its visual composition. When a shot is framed in such a way that the viewer’s attention is intuitively pulled towards a single point of focus, the shot is experienced as pleasant. However, if a shot presents multiple equally focal points of interest at once – thus requiring active thinking about where to put one’s attention – this oftentimes results in negative emotion in the brain.

In our neuro ad testing studies, we combine Eye Tracking with EEG. Interestingly, we see that eye tracking consensus (that is: all respondents intuitively look at the same things) goes hand in hand with favorable brain activity that’s predictive of sales.

Eye Tracking EEG Neuromarketing

You therefore want to avoid compositions where there’s too much is going on. This doesn’t mean you should never show multiple people or multiple objects. However, do not shy away from the many tricks of the trade that filmmakers have at their fingertips to subtly guide attention. Composition, lighting, contrast, depth of field – all beautiful tools to create a single point of focus amidst any shot.

5. Tickle the Mirror Neurons

Take a look at the image below.

neuromarketing mirror neurons

Sorry you had to endure that. Yet, this image beautifully demonstrates a core function of the human mind: the ability to instantly feel the emotion of others, without any effort. Mirror neurons have evolved to immediately respond to the visible emotions and actions of others. These neurons allow us to understand others, simply by making us an internal witness to their experience.

This explains why emotions are contagious by nature. Do you see someone cry? You’ll mentally shed a tear as well. Do you see someone crack up? Your brain will chuckle too.

This also explains why we get thirsty when someone else chucks down a can of pop. Or why our arms want to rise when someone throws a ball.

Mirror neurons have two important applications to advertising. Firstly, it explains why it’s so tremendously powerful to simply portray the action you want your customer to take:

  • Selling smartphones? Show people swiping on screens
  • Selling beer? Show people opening a bottle and drink it
  • Want people to go to a website to take action? Show someone grabbing their phone and visit the site

It’s that simple.

Secondly, the phenomenon of emotional contagion opens up a more subtle area of application. Viewers feel what they see. That’s why it never hurts to show smiling people in your ads. It’s an old trick, but it has been shown to work time and time again.

Alternatively, watch out with displaying negative emotions in your commercial. While there’s certainly a time and a place for negative emotion in advertising, don’t show a frowning person right after your brand identifying shot (remember Pavlov?).

When gold’s not enough

The 5 golden rules above are extremely useful in helping you:

  • avoid common pitfalls
  • use the impact boosters that are up for grabs in boosting the sales impact of your next campaign

However, modesty requires me to emphasize that even the most profound principles only bring you so far when creating your next ad campaign. Advertising truly is a marriage of art and science, and each new baby it delivers comes into the world truly unique with its own set of rules.

The only way to predict and optimize the sales impact of your specific campaign is to do proper research. Neuromarketing Ad Testing is the new standard for ad testing in the 21st century. With Eye Tracking and EEG, you gain both an overall estimate of sales impact, as well as a second by second analysis on how scenes can be tweaked to make your ad reach its full potential in triggering the brain to buy.

advertising rules neuromarketing ad testing