Despite what you’ve seen on “Mad Men”, advertising is complicated. At its core, the goal of any ad is to cost-effectively reach the largest qualified audience possible and attract new customers. However, in our modern world of sensory overload, getting noticed has become more difficult than ever.

It all starts with breaking through.

The competition for eyeballs is incredibly fierce—and as a consequence, very expensive. According to a recent Harvard Business School publication, advertising costs have risen 7 to 9 fold in the last 20 years.1 To produce successful advertising messages, an agency can no longer just deliver inspired, clever and beautiful creative. They must now also take on the role of amateur psychologist and behavioral scientist, using their knowledge of what makes people “tick”, to carefully craft imagery and messaging that cuts through the noise and facilitates the desired reaction.

Research suggests a person can be exposed to up to 5,000 advertising messages per day — from television commercials and product labels to the ads in your mailbox and even the tag on the shirt you’re wearing.2 However, the vast majority of these ads go unnoticed or forgotten — disregarded by the brain as non-essential information before a consumer is even consciously aware of its presence. The brain quickly (and almost entirely subconsciously) chooses what is relevant and what is not, and retains only what it regards as necessary. In fact, a study conducted last year at Erasmus University in the Netherlands suggests that it takes the brain less than 1/3 of a second to determine whether or not an advertisement is relevant! 3

If your ad fails this test, it’s almost immediately forgotten. If your ad passes, it has another two seconds to convey its message before the average viewer loses interest. When you take into account that about 1.5 of those extra two seconds is spent looking at the images, it presents a discouraging outlook for advertisers.

In order to overcome this hurdle, it is important to understand that meaningful communication doesn’t occur like a tape recorder – on a neat, straight path from ears and eyes to long-term memory in the brain. We’re complex beings with increasingly busy lives and a wide range of emotions, thoughts, ideas, and attention spans. All of this affects how we process and retain information. Emotion plays an enormous role in the formation of memories. People tend to remember things that are emotionally charged. Further, research has shown that memories associated with positive emotions are more likely to be recalled.4 

However, simply crafting positive messaging isn’t the golden ticket.

Keep your creative uncluttered and uncomplicated.

People will not devote time to understanding an ad. The more effort required to decode the message, the less likely the ad will be perceived as relevant. The most effective ads are positive and simple. All ads should have an immediately understandable message (in most cases using high-impact imagery with a supporting headline), a prominent logo and a simple and memorable call to action. Body copy is fine, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the three items listed above. If an ad’s message needs the body copy to pay off, the ad will undoubtedly fail. While it’s tempting to cram as much information in as possible, we recommend keeping body copy to 3-4 sentences MAX.

Avoid extreme humor and fear.

Cleverness is key to a memorable ad and has unrivaled stopping power. But use bold humor with caution and avoid the perception of manipulating viewers with fear. These approaches were shown to attract attention, but attach negative emotions (and memories) with the brand. As noted above, positive emotions are more likely to be remembered than negative ones.


  1. Teixeira, Thales S. The Rising Cost of Consumer Attention: Why You Should Care, and What You Can Do about It. Harvard Business School, 17 Jan. 2014.
  2. Story, Louise. Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad. The New York Times, 15 Jan. 2007.
  3. Grimm, Erik. Brain Research Shows Print Ads Have 0.3 Seconds to Prove Their Relevance to Readers., 30 June 2014.
  4. Anderson, A.K. & Phelps, E.A. Lesions of the Human Amygdala Impair Enhanced Perception of Emotionally Salient Events. Nature, 411, 305-309, 17 May 2001.