Skip to content

A Few Things Neuroscience Tells Us about the Art of Advertising

400 milliseconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time but a new study suggests that’s all it takes for viewers to begin making judgments about a brand or product based on a video ad. Does that mean the age of the split-second spot is just around the corner? Hardly, but the findings do suggest that like first impressions, there’s no second chance to make up for a bad first second.

This is Your Brain on Advertising
According to the Mobile Marketing Association’s Cognition Neuroscience Research project, conducted in partnership with research company Neurons Inc. and The Advertising Research Foundation, the cognitive processing of advertisements occurs lightning fast (but not literally since lightning happens in microseconds), particularly in the mobile environment. Using eye-tracking and EEG monitoring to gauge how 900 participants saw and reacted to ads, researchers found that a strong majority of the mobile ads tested (67%) were triggering reactions at only 0.4 seconds.

On desktops it took much longer—2 to 3 seconds—to reach the same percentage, perhaps a result of how intently consumers engage with their phones vs their computers. The study also highlighted the persuasive power of sight, sound and motion as video ads were twice as likely to trigger emotional responses as static, and in faster exposure speeds (less than 0.7 seconds). Relatedly, cognitive processing was found to occur much more rapidly with ads from well-known brands and “weak” ads, which created negative emotional reactions in less than a second.

Zero-Second Branding
With an ad’s potential—to do well or go south—determined so quickly, Tressie Lieberman, vice president of digital marketing and off-premise at Chipotle, told the Wall Street Journal how her teams would apply the findings going forward. “We have to develop a strategy for the first second,” she said. “That doesn’t mean the second second doesn’t matter either, but it’s really about immediately breaking through.”

The Journal identified some common tactics for getting off to a good start including featuring human faces looking into the camera or at the product, depicting strong emotions and using color, contrast and composition to set apart specific elements of the ad.

A New View of Viewability
The half-second findings also have implications for how viewability should be measured—and by extension how ads should be bought, according to other marketing executives contributing to the Journal story. Media buyers who choose ad destinations based on industry guidelines for viewability, may want to reevaluate some of the publishers previously deemed less desirable. At present, to qualify as viewable, a video ad must appear halfway on the screen for at least 2 seconds. But if content can start engaging a viewer at half a second, buyers currently may be passing on inventory that actually has potential.

Neuroscientific input into the creative and business aspects of campaign development can offer marketers additional layers of insight into creating a successful campaign and these findings are no different. Because, ultimately, this research reinforces the core tenet of advertising: great campaigns start with great content—regardless of when cognition starts.