Making Consumers Think Harder on Ads Can Have Its Merits

It is an ever lasting quest of advertisers to find the content, format and style that will draw more consumer attention to their ads, and subsequently elicit a positive response to the ads and their target brands. Consumers would have to focus on the ad long enough to capture some critical elements (e.g., visual or textual, informational and affective) so as to grasp a key message from the ad. With a print ad, often just a few seconds should be enough but on some ads it may take a minute or two to properly comprehend the ad and make sensible inferences. For video clip ads, on TV or the Internet, the consumer may ponder on the ad for no longer than its duration (e.g., 20-40 seconds), yet sometimes he or she may elaborate or relate to the ad for a few more minutes afterwards (e.g., particularly for humourous ads with a punch). It is a puzzle never really and fully solved, among other reasons because there is no single “secret solution” to this puzzle, and even the best solution for the same brand and audience can change over time and across situations.

There is a growing propensity among advertising professionals to claim that marketers should not expect consumers to think too much on an ad, that an ad should include minimum product information and instead concentrate more on gaining a pleasant emotional reaction. The problem of low involvement when consumers encounter ads, particularly during commercial breaks on TV, is a topic widely and extensively researched. Yet advertisers should not use this challenge as an excuse to produce simplistic ads of little informative value. There are enough occasions where it is suitable or even desirable to create more intriguing and thought-provoking ads. Ads that emphasise graphic elements in their design can be either gross and superficial or imaginative and clever. Advertisers should not shy from turning consumers to utilise the central route of processing product-relevant information contained in their ads (1). But then ads may induce consumers to think a little further, beyond a typical “central”, analytical processing of an ad to decode its message; these are cases where thinking may be accompanied by positive emotions like enjoyment and amusement. When catching the clever punch in a humourous ad, the consumer is entertained by both feelings of fun and the gratification that “I got it”.

On one hand, a print ad may include an impressive photographic image, complete with detail and colours at high-resolution (e.g., visualise a photo-scenery in National Geographic quality) that make them imagine themselves “jump-into the scene”. This approach may be suitable, for example, in the area of travel and tourism when advertising a vacation resort. Perception of highly vivid images is likely to interfere with voluntary mental imagery by consumers-viewers, based on their own ideas and experiences; but the picture-image can inspire the viewer to “experience” the scene-imagery as proposed by the advertiser (2). On the other hand, an ad may mask or omit in its composition certain visual elements, letting the consumer-viewer complete the image (e.g., following rules of Gestalt), and thereby arrive via this additional contemplation more independently to the main message of the ad. Such ads are engaging consumers by stimulating them to work-out the whole ad-scene; it has some risk, but when the viewer makes the extra effort to get the message, it is a rewarding experience.

More sophisticated and artful methods for creating intriguing ads use visual rhetorical figures such as rhymes (schemes) and metaphors (tropes). Visual figures, however, are still less frequent than verbal figures. Meaningful visual metaphors are particularly more difficult to construct (e.g., a package of tablets against a feeling of nausea is placed instead of the buckle in a car seatbelt). McQuarrie and Mick have shown that ads with visual figures are perceived more artful and clever than respective control “regular” ads, evoking more elaboration by being more vivid, interesting and provoking to viewers. They also induce greater pleasure in seeing the ad, implying a more positive attitude towards the ad. Moreover, these effects are stronger for ads that include a metaphor or pun than a scheme. The problem is that these ads are generally more difficult to comprehend, hence the risk in using this creative approach. The balance between pleasure and difficulty is very important — a visual metaphor, for instance, can create pleasure when it is intriguing at first sight and is interesting to resolve, yet it should not be too difficult to comprehend, confusing or ambiguous, lest it may cause frustration and fail to persuade (3). The visual figure intrigues viewers to “think into it” to imply its meaning (“implicature”); when the figure is too difficult to interpret, viewers are likely to imply more original but irrelevant meanings (4). Hence, the designer should keep in mind that while a visual rhetoric figure like a metaphor has to present a challenge, it must not be too sophisticated to allow the viewers to resolve it successfully.

Another perspective on the effort consumers have to invest in processing advertising information observes the difference between presenting product information as a list of attributes or conveyed in a “story”. Nielsen and Escalas suggest that making the information in the ad more difficult to process can have inverse effects on brand preferences or attitudes depending on how information is conveyed, having a negative effect when consumers process a list of attributes in an analytic mode versus a positive effect when consumers read a “brand story” in a narrative mode. Preference fluency defines the ease at which consumers are able to construct their preference for a brand. When consumers encounter a difficulty in reading or interpreting information relating to a brand, thus lowering preference fluency, they are more likely to conclude that something is wrong with that option and decline it. The researchers argue and demonstrate that while this consequence holds in the case of analytic processing, a different process happens when engaged in a narrative mode: the decreased fluency induces the consumers-viewers to get more immersed into the story, possibly by developing their own imagery around the base-story in search of meaning (a phenomenon known as “narrative transportation”), leading to stronger preference or a more positive brand evaluation (5).

In a series of three experiments, Nielsen and Escalas reveal some interesting differences between the two modes of processing information in ads. They show that making the information more difficult to perceive (e.g., using small vs. large font) in a list of attributes results in lower brand evaluation (consistent with previous research) but in a storyboard the result is a higher brand evaluation, as hypothesised. However, an instruction to participants to be critical and skeptical about the ad, directing them to analytic processing of a storyboard that should have involved narrative processing, a small font indeed produces a negative effect on their brand evaluations. The researchers also substantiate in two experiments (in two different product categories) the role of narrative transportation: when displaying a story, greater processing (reading) difficulty has a positive effect on brand evaluation but that is obtained by first evoking narrative transportation, and then narrative transportation positively effects the brand evaluation. This research thereof demonstrates how driving consumers to invest more cognitive effort in comprehending a story can benefit the target brand in the advertising.

There is also a basis for criticism of the research of Nielsen and Escalas. I wish to point out two weaknesses.

  • First, the authors focus on factors that influence the ease or difficulty of perceiving the ad (i.e., its perceptual fluency), viewing the ad image and reading text. They do not treat in their experiments semantic aspects of the ad, that is how well attributes are described or how clearly a story is told, its meaningfulness and associations it elicits in consumers (i.e., conceptual fluency). Is the presentation of text in small font the true motivation to increase effort by narrative transportation?  The research is lacking in that respect.
  • Second, the storyboard composed of a sequence of image-frames with captions and the single image of an ad with a list of product attributes do not match as parallels of the same ad format (video vs. print ad, respectively). The storyboard is not the natural way in which consumers view video-audio ads and process their “story”. Alternatively, an attribute-based style should have been contrasted with other configurations that convey a story but are compatible with the print format; for example, providing the same attribute information in a rich paragraph told in the frame of a story or a combination of image and text-paragraph.

Different predication prevail with regard to the occurrence of mental imagery and the type of processing it follows. Nielsen and Escalas explain that their display of product attributes should give rise to analytic processing. However, it has been argued that a single product profile described by concrete words is more likely to be conceived in a holistic manner, possibly in the form of mental image. On the other hand, a comparative ad with two adjunct product profiles encourages an analytic by-attribute type of processing. Rich verbal descriptions with concrete words,  pictures, and explicit instructions to imagine or visualise are recognized as effective techniques for eliciting mental imagery. In many cases a combination between them is the most productive strategy (e.g., joining a picture with concrete words, instructions accompanied by concrete words) (6). It may be noted that techniques applied in the ad design that are capable of eliciting imagery fit with the expectation of imagery during narrative transportation.

The research in this field is interesting and offers many insights on the possibilities and opportunities for creating more clever, intriguing and imaginative advertising. It has to appeal not only to advertising professionals in its creativity and sophistication but also to the consumers, capturing and driving them willingly to invest the extra cognitive effort. Yet, due to the importance of striking a right balance between difficulty of comprehension and pleasure, and the greater effort required to design successful ads, advertisers and advertising professionals often remain unconvinced that pursuing this course is cost-effective. They need more convincing empirical evidence that producing advertising that makes consumers think harder — but not too hard — can deliver the desired reactions and rewards.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) In reference to the Elaboration Likelihood Model: “Central and Peripheral Routes to Advertising Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Involvement”, Petty, R.E., Cacioppo, J.T., & Schumann, D., 1983, Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (Sept.), pp. 135-146.

(2) “Brain Areas Underlying Visual Mental Imagery and Visual Perception: an fMRI Study”, Ganis, G., Thompson, W.L., & Kosslyn, S.M., 2004, Cognitive Brain Research, 20, pp. 226-241; “The Role of Imagery Instructions in Facilitating Persuasion in a Consumer Context”, Mani, G. & MacInnis, D.J., 2003, in Persuasive Imagery: A Consumer Response Perspective, Scott, L.M. & Batra, R. (eds.)(pp. 175-187), NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

(3) “Visual Rhetoric in Advertising: Text-Interpretive, Experimental, and Reader-Response Analyses”, McQuarrie, E.F. & Mick, D.G., 1999, Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (June), pp. 37-54; also see their other article “The Contribution of Semiotic and Rhetorical Perspectives to the Explanation of Visual Persuasion in Advertising” in Persuasive Imagery: A Consumer Response Perspective (ibid. 2)(pp. 192-221).

(4) “Thinking Into It: Consumer Interpretation of Complex Advertising Images”, Philips B.J., 1997, Journal of Advertising, 26 (2), pp. 77-87.

(5) “Easier Is Not Always Better: The Moderating Role of Processing Type on Preference Fluency”, Nielsen, J.P. & Escalas, J.E., 2010, Journal of Consumer psychology, 20, pp. 295-305. (Available on the website of eLab at Vanderbilt University:

(6) “The Role of Imagery in Information Processing: Review and Extensions, MacInnis, D.J. & Price, L.L., 1987, Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (March), pp. 473-491; “The Role of Imagery Instructions in Facilitating Persuasion in a Consumer Context” (ibid. 2); “The Effects of Information Processing Mode on Consumers’ Response to Comparative Advertising”, Thompson, D.V. & Hamilton, R.W., 2006, Journal of Consumer Research, 32 (March), pp. 530-540. (For more background on decision processes consult also the work of Payne, Bettman and Johnson on the constructive approach).

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