Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Evolution and Advertising - Part 3: Pop ups in our past.

Despite the mass of advertising that the average consumer faces every day, it is clear that some messages constantly grab our attention irrespective of our interest.

So why are some forms of advertising particularly salient and robust against the noise of mass marketing? One answer is attentional capture.

Cognitive psychologists argue that at any given time, people have limited resources to devote to all possible tasks and incoming information. In regards to human vision, most agree that sudden movements and bright colour tends to naturally draw our attention, perhaps involuntarily. This is known as attentional capture. It has been hypothesised that this prioritising of attentional resources to new visual objects has evolved due to predatory associations. It makes obvious sense that our attention is drawn to new visual objects to assess them for danger or potential threats.

Literature outlines that there may be two separate mechanisms at work when analysing visual attention, with attentional resources captured in a ‘goal directed’ fashion, whereby attention is directed based on a the task at hand, or involuntarily in a ‘stimulus driven’ fashion’ when attention is draw to an object that is unrelated to a potential task. While modern day marketers often aim to capture our attention through sophisticated, aesthetically pleasing and humorous advertising, it is apparent that campaigns are also developed to capitalise upon our raw, stimulus driven impulses.

Research illustrates that attention is broadly allocated to multiple elements within a visual scene, not simply by their location, but according to their position and status as noted in preattentive visual organisation. Attention is subsequently provided to aspects of our visual scene for which it deems to be most relevant. It has been reported that the abrupt appearance of objects, apparent visual movement and luminance changes are highly prioritised within this attentional hierarchy.

Studies indicate that the abrupt onset of a visual object captures attention automatically. These studies reveal that even when observers are attending to other tasks, an abrupt visual onset of an object is processed first. Thus, these onsets have been argued to capture our attention in a purely stimulus driven fashion. Internet pop-up advertising capture similar attentional resources to those of abrupt onsets. These messages draw us away from the task at hand to apply our attention, even if only for a moment, to an advertising message or brand. This is not necessarily because we are interested in what the advertisement is saying, but rather that we are hard wired to attend to them.

Theories regarding the perception of luminance also outline that a rapid luminance increase is detected by visual mechanisms which are selectively tuned to the onset of luminance signals. These signals are transferred to higher level cognitive mechanisms, indicating the importance of this change in luminance and that attention must be directed towards it. Similarly to the abrupt onset of a new object, an increase in luminance also captures our attention being perceived as a new visual object. It goes without saying that a flashing light from a police car in our rear view mirror captures our attention, but so too do flashing neon signs and advertisements at the football. With the rapid increase of luminance, a new visual object is perceived, and similarly to abrupt onsets, we are momentarily captivated.

Movement within a visual scene is also detected easily by humans, with unexpected object movement also reported to capture our attention. If we think about it, it is not uncommon to wave our arms to capture someone’s attention within a crowd, or wave a flag to slow down F1 drivers after a crash. Well maybe that’s a little uncommon, but overall, movement detection is robust. Interestingly, research indicates that visual movement is most salient when it may be used to indicate the location of visual targets, while not as successful in capturing our attention if it fails to predict a targets location. This also makes sense in evolutionary terms. It would not benefit us to attend to irrelevant movement cues, while it makes perfect sense for us to detect the location of a predator in the undergrowth, as indicated by a brief calculation of these cues.

Outdoor digital billboards and online banner advertising heavily employ visual motion to draw consumer attention to a message or brand. Despite consumers having to attend to the road while driving, to the players while watching sport or to the rise and fall of the stock market on the computer, we are constantly interrupted to notice potentially irrelevant advertising. When watching digital advertising surrounding major sporting events it is clear to see how cues of motion have been used to draw our attention. Brand messages or logos fly across the billboard, not unlike an advancing threat, engaging our attention and visual resources long enough to recognise the brand and create a visual impression, but not to decipher a complex message. On the internet, banner advertising is constantly in motion, with brands, logos and products dropping in from all areas, again diverting our attention for split second.

Practical Implications:

While companies often employ the use of attentional capture via the abrupt onset of objects, sudden increases in luminance and the implementation of movement cues, it is also apparent that the effectiveness of such advertising is also waning as they begin to over-saturate the market. Studies report that the more intrusive an advertisement is perceived, the less effective it will be. It appears that consumers are starting to block their innate impulses in order to increase productivity and reduce distraction, especially when advertising is perceived as highly intrusive to the task at hand.

So, how do we capitalise on our innate impulses, while also reducing advertising intrusiveness? One solution may be congruency. Studies which have focused primarily on web based advertising have noticed that the more congruent the advertising is to the current web page, the less the viewer will actively block the attentional capture and the more likely they are to retain its information. Particularly it has been reported that viewers are more likely to retain the information from the advertisement if it employs the same colour palette as that of the web site. I noticed a similar example on the television the other evening while watching the Rugby Union, where Mercedes cleverly advertised their company in a pop-up message that was so congruent with the current context, that I thought it was a player profile or notification of a players substitution. It was not until I had read and comprehended the message, that I realised I had been duped!

Ultimately, in a busy and noisy world, where mass marketing is king, the fight for attentional resources is very real. In shaping and implementing campaigns, we must acknowledge the limited information capacity system of humans, but also be aware of more modern annoyances. This is a fine line to tread. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that to achieve success via maximal brand recognition and information retention, modern day marketers must capitalise on human beings innate reflexes to attend to potentially relevant information in a purely stimulus driven manner. This is no smash and grab job however, marketers must also act creatively and unobtrusively to obtain maximal attentional resources, brand recall and positive brand recognition.

Cho, C., & Cheon, H. (2004). Why do people avoid advertising on the Internet? Journal of Advertising, 33(4), 89-97.

Edwards, S. M., Li, H., & Lee, J. (2002). Forced exposure and psychological reactance: antecedents and consequences of the perceived intrusiveness of pop-up ads. Journal of Advertising, 31, 83 – 95.

Hillstrom, A. P., & Yantis, S. (1994). Visual motion and attentional capture. Perception and Psychophysics, 55(4), 399-41.

Moore, R. S., Stammerjohan, C. A., & Coulter, R. A. (2005). Banner advertiser web site context congruity and color effect attention and attitudes. Journal of Advertising, 34, 71 – 84.

Müller, H.J., & Rabbitt, P.M.A. (1989). Reflexive and voluntary orienting of visual atten-tion: Time course of activation and resistance to interruption.

Rushton, S. K. & Ludwig C. J. H. (2008). Capture of attention by scene-relative object movement during self-movement. Perception, 37 (ECVP Abstract Supplement), 90.

Theeuwes, J., Kramer, A. F., Hahn, S., & Irwin, D. E. (1998). Our eyes do not always go where we want them to go: Capture of the eyes by new objects. Psychological Science, 9(5), 379-385.

Yantis, S., & Hillstrom, A. P. (1994). Stimulus-driven attentional capture: evidence from equiluminant visual objects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 20(1), 95–107.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Evolution and Advertising- Part 2: The Power of Colour

Colour is tremendously powerful.

Fascinating research has discovered that colour is a commanding force in altering and initiating emotions and behaviours. The use of different colours can calm an angry prisoner (Schauss, 1981), improve recovery rates in hospital (Dalke et al., 2005), influence your perceived attractiveness of a mate (University of Rochester, 2008) and in the world of marketing, it has been found that about 62-90 percent of a product assessment is based on colour alone (Singh, 2006).

So why is colour such a powerful and influential force? Particularly, why is it so relevant in consumer behaviour? A brief look into the history of colour in our past may help to explain some very interesting phenomena and also highlight techniques with which marketing companies have implemented to tap these primal instincts.

Colour has long been associated with communication. In the natural world, colour is used within species to indicate and draw attention to reproductive behaviour and territories, while between species, colour is often used to warn or deter predators. For the peacock, a female is believed to choose its mate based on the size and colour of its spectacular tail feathers during courtship, while for the Poison-Arrow frog, its bright colouration has benefited its survival by warning off potential predators. These are just two of many such examples of colour in the animal kingdom. In regards to Darwinian Theory, the ability to detect colour in both instances is vital in species survival.

The perception of colour by humans occurs by the communication between both the eyes and the brain. Our eyes transmit light information from the external world including reflected colours from objects. Thus, when we look at a banana, the banana is not yellow; it simply reflects the wavelengths of colour which we perceive to be yellow and absorbs the rest. Subsequently, a black object has absorbed all wavelengths of colour. This light is projected to our retina, which is covered in millions of light sensitive cells, some shaped like rods and some like cones. Cones cells which are concentrated in the middle of the retina are responsible for the perception of colour vision. These cells transmit visual information to our visual cortex, enabling the perception of multiple colours.

Interestingly, significant latencies exist in the transmission of visual information to our visual cortex (Campbell et al., 1988). It has also been established that these latencies are not constant, but are shorter for stimuli of higher intensity (Maunsell et al., 1999). As a direct consequence of this physiology, some colours stand out to humans more than others. Bright yellow is one of the most visible of all the colours in the spectrum, it is the first colour that the human eye detects. Because of its special salience, yellow is often used in street signs and action orientated branding. We can see below on that all the action buttons have been cleverly coloured yellow, not only drawing our attention towards these functions, but promoting purchasing action.

Colour and human emotion are also closely intertwined. In an old study, Cimbalo and colleagues (1978) highlight a reliable association between emotion and colour, with young children associating yellows and oranges with happiness and brown and darker colours with sadness. The authors also argue that due to the young age of the participants in the study, these effects may well be innate. The psychology of colour has continued to illustrate the emotional implications of different colours based on human history with dark blues being associated with night time, thus passivity, and bright yellow colours being associated with sunlight, arousal and action (Luscher & Scott, 1969). To this end lighter blues and greens are described as cooling colours commonly associated with tranquillity and serenity, while warmer colours such as reds and oranges are energetic and arousing. Evidently, the emotional properties of colour that have been reported in the literature are very relevant to our past and our relationship with our immediate environment.

While it is apparent that colour and emotion have a strong association, the link between these emotions and innate responses to colour is also fascinating. Numerous studies have been conducted determining the influence of colour over particular behaviours. A particular shade of pink (Baker-Miller Pink) has been found to reduce aggressive and antisocial behaviour in prisoners when compared with prisoners in cream painted cells (Schauss, 1981). It has been commonly reported that since painting London's Blackfriar bridge green, suicide levels have dropped by a whopping 34%. The colour blue also has interesting implications, reportedly acting as an appetite suppressant. One prominent explanation of this is that blue food is a rare occurrence in nature with only blueberries, a small number of potato and corn varieties holding elements of blue. Blue is also commonly an indicator of spoiled food. This effect is so strong that weight loss programs often advise people to eat off blue plates or even eat with blue glasses in an attempt to stem their hunger. Alternatively, red, a common colour in food such as apples, berries, tomatoes of course red meat, reportedly stimulates our hunger and also increases our metabolic rate (Singh, 2006). Let us look at the branding of the world’s top fast food chains. When also acknowledging the association between yellow and happiness, these super brands seem to have it made.

Could the influence of colour also be a determining factor in the war between Pepsi and Coke? Maybe the appetite suppressant effects of blue are enough to alter our impulse buying decision when we go to the fridge?

The importance of colour in advertising and brand strategy is obvious. Advertising is designed to capture our attention, induce our emotion and evoke a particular behaviour. Clearly, a calculated use of particular colour can promote this sequence of events, funnelling an audience into a desired emotional state, hopefully in promotion of a purchasing decision.

The use of prescriptive colouring can also add a different dimension to a product. Blue is often used to promote cleanliness, intelligence and superiority, while reds are energetic colours used in marketing games, energy drinks and products related to high activity. Colour also has implications in brand recall. The recognition of different colours has also been vital in our evolution. In our past, the ability to recognise and differentiate colours in fruits and buds was vital in the avoidance of sickening or poisonous substances, while maximising recognition of edible resources. Today, a similar recognition is occurring in the modern market place. Like our predecessors, consumers also learn colour preferences for particular products based on associations they have formulated through their experience (Grossman & Wisenblit, 1999). Colours such as Cadbury purple and Heineken green are so strongly marketed and related to the products they produce, that consumers are falling back in to a thoughtless heuristics strongly based on colour recognition.

Evidently, deep rooted emotional and biological associations between colours and our evolution have been tapped into in modern day marketing. Maybe on a subconscious and impulsive level, Coca-cola will always be more appetising than Pepsi due to the use of different colours in their branding and the strong, subconscious impulses these promote. With an alarming number of impulse decision based on the colour of products alone, it is clearly vital that marketers use every scrap of research in their power to implement different colours to say the right thing, about the right product, to the right person.


Campbell, F. W., Artigas, J. M., & Felipe, A. (1988). Visual reaction-time versus action time. Opthalamic and Physiological Optics, 8, 60-62.

Cimbalo, R.S., Beck, K.L., Sendziak, D.S. (1978), "Emotionally toned pictures and color selection for children and college students", Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol. 33 No.2, pp.303-4.

Grossman, R. P., & Wisenblit, J. Z. (1999). What we know about consumers’ color choices. Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, 5(3), 78-88.

Jacobs, K.W., Suess, J.F. (1975), "Effects of four psychological primary colors on anxiety state", Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 41 pp.207-10.

Luscher, M., Scott, I. (1969), The Luscher Color Test, Random House, New York, NY.

Maunsell, J. H. R., Ghose, G. M., Assad, J. A., McAdams, C. J., Boudreau, C. E., & Noerager, B. D. (1999). Visual response latencies of magnocellular and parvocellular LGN neurons in macaque monkeys. Visual Neuroscience, 16, 1-14.

Schauss, A. G. (1981) The Physiological Effect of Color on the Suppression of
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Singh, S. (2006). Impact of color on marketing. Management Decision, 44(6), 783-789.

University of Rochester (2008, October 28). Red enhances men’s attractiveness to women, psychological study reveals. ScienceDaily.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Evolution and Advertising- Part 1: Sex Sells

It has often been said that sex sells, but rarely have we asked why?

It goes without saying that sexualised marketing is successful in capturing our attention. There is no doubt that sexual cues hold a unique salience when compared to other non-sexual cues. Sexual cues have been found to be so prominent, that they are salient for women who have reportedly low sexual desire (Conaglen & Evans, 2006). In an interesting study, Spiering et al. (2003) also report that responding to sexual stimuli in a task was influenced by sexual priming, while responding to non-sexual stimuli was not. It is logical that this unique salience of sexualised cues stems from our evolutionary origins, with the detection of such signals being vital in preparing to engage or indeed inhibit sexual behaviour (Conaglen & Evans, 2006). The ability to attend and respond to this information has clearly been fundamental in prolonging the existence of our species throughout time.

Further delving into the intricacies of sexual cues, research has illustrated that nonverbal cues such as eye contact and provocative clothing can heighten perceived sexual interest (Muehlenhard et al., 1986) and as a result, may be more salient than imagery with objects of sexual desire alone. Interestingly, it has also been found that the use of different colouring also has a significant aphrodisiacal effect. A recent study conducted by the University of Rochester (2008) discovered that women wearing red were rated as being more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women wearing different colours. One theory is that these biases originated in our primate ancestors, where baboons and chimpanzees redden conspicuously when nearing ovulation. We can see from the advertisement above, that a scantly clad Cindy Crawford, sporting a bright red dress, is engaging in clear eye contact with the observer, provocatively capturing our attention and maybe even selling some Pepsi. Clearly there are numerous non-verbal factors that may alter perceived sexual interest associated with an image, subsequently increasing its salience.

While it is relatively easy to understand that men and women may attend to and even be engaged in sexual advertising, an expanded view into the psyche of male and female sexuality has exposed even more information that can be utilised to benefit marketing campaigns.

Sexual Strategies Theory (SST) offers an account of the adaptive problems our ancestors confronted during the course of competitive evolution and presents a view of sexual psychology that has evolved as adaptive solutions (Buss, 1998). In short, STT indicates that men are only constrained by the number of fertile women they can inseminate (Buss & Schmitt, 1993), while women who invest and risk more in sexual engagement, require a degree of commitment and additional resources from a mate. Basically, men want casual recreational sex, while women require emotional intimacy and resource commitment.

In close adherence to SST, associations between evolutionary adaptation and contemporary advertising have been reported. Specifically, Dahl et al. (2009) report that women’s typical dislike of sexualised advertising is softened when the ad can be interpreted as commitment related. Thus, correlated more strongly with the underlying strategies of female sexuality. The male underware model above is a perfect example of this, his expression and gesture on the bed symbolising intimacy and a degree of commitment. Colour it appears, is not important.

Ultimately, the cliché that sex sells may be an oversimplification. It appears that it is not simply the evolutionarily relevant salience of sexual cues which may be utilised in advertising, but that further manipulation of the forms of sexual images that are included are also highly relevant when aiming to engage and attract different markets. When used appropriately however, it appears that sex may be able to sell just about anything!


Buss, D. M. (1998). Sexual strategies theory: Historical origins and current status. The Journal of Sex Research, 35(1), 19-31.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on mating. Psychological Review, 100(2), 204-232.

Conaglen, H. M., & Evans, I. M. (2006). Pictorial cues and sexual desire: An experimental approach. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Dahl, D. W., Sengupta, J., & Vohs, K. D. (2009). Sex in advertising: Gender differences and the role of relationship commitment. Journal of Consumer Research, 36.
Muehlenhard, C., Koralewski, M. A., Andrews, S. L., & Burdick, C. A. (1986). Verbal and nonverbal cues that convey interest in dating: Two studies. Behavior Therapy, 17, 404-419.

Spiering, M., Everaerd, W., & Janssen, E. (2003). Priming the sexual system: Implicit versus explicit activation. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 134–145.

University of Rochester (2008, October 28). Red enhances men’s attractiveness to women, psychological study reveals. ScienceDaily.