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Why Clever Ads Can Backfire

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Oct 14, 2016


When it comes to display advertising—especially online—simpler can be better. That’s the finding of new research at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

One theory of advertising holds that display ads need a degree of nuance or visual complexity to capture the viewer’s attention. But that fails to take into account the increasingly cluttered and hectic context in which ads are viewed today.

“A lot of advertising is being tested over fairly long exposures—several seconds, or even 10 to 20 seconds,” says Michel Wedel, a Distinguished University Professor and PepsiCo Chair in Consumer Science at Smith. “The problem is ads that do well in that scenario may not do well in short exposures.”

Complexity especially does not pay off online, where eye-tracking research shows people actively try to avoid ads. But billboards and even many print ads are often taken in with a glimpse, too.

A new paper by Wedel and two coauthors, accepted at the Journal of Marketing Research, tests reactions to ads over periods as short as 100 milliseconds, which is less than a full glance.

The pleasure derived from ads was closely connected with whether viewers believed they grasped their gist. Positive reviews had little connection to visual appeal, visual complexity or the ratio of text to image.

“We aren’t saying ad agencies shouldn’t be creative anymore,” Wedel says. There are some contexts when you can be sure an ad will be viewed with great attentiveness, like the Super Bowl. But for online banner ads, for example, advertisers should realize they’ll have only one-tenth of a second of a viewer’s attention, if that. And so they should stick to the basics: What’s the product? And what’s the brand? /CS/


The authors broke ads into three categories.

Upfront ads, those that present a product in a straightforward, expected, typical way (a photo of a bottle of orange soda to sell orange soda, for example) are grasped and received positively by viewers in those 100 milliseconds, the authors found. They continue to be viewed positively over 5, 10 or even 30 seconds. Mystery ads, whose visual complexity require work on the part of the viewer to decode, are viewed less positively than upfront ads in the initial glimpse, but they gain in approval over time, reaching similar levels. One example in the study showed a ninja severing a rope holding a refrigerator, which was about to crush apples to create juice. False front ads use a clear image of one thing to sell something different. Such ads are initially appealing, because they appear comprehensible, but are liked less once viewers reorient themselves to the right interpretation. “We find very little justification for false-front ads,” Wedel says. “People don’t like to be duped.” Sponsored content, ads that take the form of news articles, fall into this category.