psychology of advertising


Of Two Minds: Your Brain on Advertising

March 29, 2018

By Caitlin Evans, Marketing Science Analyst


Understanding human behavior is key to understanding data analytics. As we crunch the numbers, it’s important to remember that there are people behind those numbers.


Dual Processing is one of the core concepts of human behavior research. Dual Processing theories are based on the notion that people process information in one of two ways: peripherally or cognitively. There are many theories in communication, psychology, and behavioral economics that embrace this idea. Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller “Thinking, Fast and Slow” dives deep into the concept.

Peripheral System

Our peripheral system is used most often and relies on stereotypes and mental models to quickly understand the world. It’s useful so that we don’t have to spend time thinking about everything around us. That would be exhausting.


For example, we quickly understand that a golden retriever and a shih tzu are both dogs even though they don’t look the same. To us, they can both be categorized as “dogs” without too much thinking. However, thinking this way occasionally causes cognitive biases and judgements that have the potential to be misleading.


Cognitive System


Our cognitive system is a slower processing mechanism that uses cognitive effort to process the incoming stimulus. This processing mechanism is where real learning takes place, but it takes time and effort to think this way. This type of processing involves asking questions about a stimulus and formulating counter-arguments.


For example, if we think about the dog example again, a breed of dog you may not know could cause you to pause and ask a series of questions. The next time you see that same breed of dog, you won’t need to spend the time to think about those same questions. People, for better or worse, are “cognitive misers” and try to avoid using this deeper thinking system by putting things into large mental categories.


How the Brain Chooses


How does one system get chosen over the other? Factors that influence how we process include:


  • an individual’s ability
  • repetition of the message
  • distractions
  • characteristics of the source
  • personal relevance to the audience
  • complexity of the message
  • previous knowledge


In other words, there is a lot that goes into whether a message or advertisement will be processed in a way that makes an impact on the audience.


How Marketing Fits In


When it comes to advertising, using the peripheral system is much easier to target and does create short-term buying behavior. However, when people use their cognitive processing system, the outcome is more likely to influence long lasting behavior such as increasing brand loyalty and repeat customers.


Here is just a small list of behavior change tools that might help businesses create better marketing messages.

  • Focus on the benefits of your product or behavior in your message strategy. Make your target behavior the easy choice to make.
  • Use prompts or cues to action in your message strategy
  • Utilize narratives whenever possible. People live their lives in story form and can relate to a narrative message better than moral appeals or fear appeals.
  • Gain a commitment. If you can get people to commit to something, especially in front of other people, they are more likely to follow through.
  • Developing social norms. What others do is important to what we will do. Marketers can create social norms around products or services in different ways including using influencers on social media or creating messaging that illustrates a sense of community.
  • Capture attention and use vivid messaging.
  • Know your audience. Know who you are targeting and what kinds of messaging they will care about.
  • Be specific and make your message easy to remember.
  • Time, location, and delivery are all key factors in message strategy.
  • Finally, focus on self-efficacy. People will not perform a behavior that they think they cannot do. Give people agency.


How does this all relate to marketing analytics?


Understanding the marketing metrics and ROI of campaigns and creatives as well as understanding the theories and possible ways that people are processing (or not processing) these messages might help provide further insights on consumers. Remember that people are complex. Data analytics can provide great insights into the effectiveness of marketing, but why someone chooses to purchase a product or not is a reflection on their psychology as well as on our marketing to them. By utilizing the behavior change tools above, marketers can create messaging with the best possible chance of effectiveness.


-- Caitlin Evans, a Marketing Science Analyst at Analytic Partners based in Colorado, will be receiving her Ph.D. from Colorado State University this May. Her studies focused on how technology impacts behavior and how message design can influence behavior. That said, she is definitely not an evil marketing scientist.