The Weird Science Behind Ad Effectiveness

brain-paperScientific research gives us new cold, hard facts on how human brains interact with advertising…and digital marketers may be in for a surprise.

One thing the digital revolution has taught us is that digital advertising is not the magic bullet many companies expected it to be. Sure, it’s good for grabbing immediate attention. Yet in truth — as advertisers who abandoned print for digital over the last several years have discovered the hard way —  it falls far short in being a pathway to action.

This isn’t just speculation; it’s cold, hard neuroscience, part of a study undertaken by the USPS in partnership with Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making.

The purpose of that stud, per the report, was “to conduct a neuromarketing study focused on the differing response to physical and digital media in the consumer buying process, including intent to purchase.”

That may sound like a lot of researcher jargon, but basically the Post Office wanted to understand where direct mail and printed advertising fits into the marketing mix now that brands have more choices for advertising and consumers have more platforms than ever on which to engage.

Research of this kind uses eye tracking, body core biometrics and MRI technology to measure visual attention, emotional engagement and deep brain activity, offering a much deeper analysis that we could ever glean from a survey or similar forms of user-feedback research.

The study investigated the participants’ responses at three points in the buying cycle:

  1. Exposure, which measured the body’s response to the ad;
  2. Memory, or how quickly and accurately the brain remembered the ad; and
  3. Action, the value and desire for the advertised item, which is a predictor for purchase.

The results? Scientific proof that “participants processed digital ad content quicker. However, participants spent more time with physical ads.”

“When viewing physical ads, participants had a stronger emotional response and remembered them better. Physical ads, though slower to get one’s attention at first exposure, leave a longer lasting impact for easy recall when making a purchase decision. Most importantly, physical ads triggered activity in the area of the brain (ventral striatum) that is responsible for value and desirability for featured products, which can signal a greater intent to purchase.” (pg. 1)

Some key findings include:

  • Participants spent more time viewing physical ads than digital, but put more focused attention on key elements of the digital ads. “Thus, if a busy consumer only has 10-20 seconds to view advertisements, a company is more likely to get its message across quicker through digital, rather than physical, ads,” the report notes (pg. 7).
  • While digital ads got the quicker response, the physical ads made a longer lasting impact. “A week after the initial viewing, the emotional response and concrete memory of the physical ads allowed participants to more quickly and confidently remember the physical ads than digital ads. This may be crucial when making actual purchases (pg. 7).
  • The physical ads produced a great subconscious value and desire of the advertised items than digital, a key consideration at the purchase stage (pg. 9).

What This Means to Advertisers

Marketing and advertising decision-makers need to understand what media is most likely to influence the customer to purchase. Through this study we now know that “digital ads may provide a cost effective option for companies that are trying to get consumers’ attention to quickly understand a marketing message. However, companies that want to generate a more accurate memory of an ad, for better recall during a purchase, would be served best by physical ads.

Does this mean advertisers should abandon digital entirely? Of course not; digital still has its strengths, as the study notes. What it does help us understand is how to wisely choose the proper channel with the correct message for each particular position on the journey to purchase. And that is incredibly valuable information to have.

Want more? Read and download the complete report; it’s fascinating stuff.