How good is a good ad? Cognitive load holds the key

Effective creative must be divergent, but a low cognitive load helps wedge an ad into a person's consciousness.

David Ogilvy once said: "Never stop testing and your advertising will never stop improving".

Our industry has created some brilliant ads over the year but we often don’t know how those ads will be received until they’re out in the public domain. 

Some of the ads we consider to be the greatest have very low brand recall, so how effectively does this creative perform in the real world?

Everyone interprets creativity in their own way, and testing helps us to understand whether a creative idea will fly, or fall flat, in the eyes of consumers. But it’s the kind of testing you do that counts.

According to George Bernard Shaw, "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place". This is an issue so many creatives fail to confront when producing ads. Simply put, the way we say or communicate something isn’t necessarily how it will be deciphered by the consumer.

While the importance of studying the human brain has always been crucial in adland, there isn’t always total agreement on how we can best understand it. 

Our brains are incredibly lazy organs – they have to be, they are a massive energy drain on our bodies. But time and again we expect people to engage with incredibly complex content and ideas. The challenge is in creating work that is cognitively engaging but still manages to hero the creative idea. 

We wanted to apply HeyHuman’s psychology and neuroscience IP to crack this issue and to see how creative output can perform in the way we want it to.

The neuroscience research we launched this weekend at SXSW reveals that ads with a low cognitive load – the mental effort required to process information – actually generate the highest levels of brand recall. And ads with high levels of engagement can generate negative emotion and low recall levels if the cognitive load is high.

Before we travelled out to SXSW, our neuroscience team conducted testing using brain monitoring techniques to evaluate six of the most highly regarded ads in recent memory, which we revisited in our SXSW presentation.

The ads were  Apple’s "1984", "Unlock" and "Welcome home"; Sony Bravia’s "Balls" and "Paint" and PlayStation's "Double life". Twenty participants between the ages of 21 to 66 took part, split evenly between men and women, with an average age of 34.


According to the analysis, 50% of participants claimed to have seen Sony Bravia’s "Balls" before, but only 9% correctly recalled the brand, with more people saying it was from Canon. By comparison, although only 14% of people had seen PlayStation’s "Double life" before, 33% of those were able to recall that PlayStation was behind it.

Given "Double life" had the lowest cognitive load and "Balls" had the highest, this proves that low cognitive load is a strong predictor of ad recall. Although engagement and motivation are important, cognitive load gives brands the ability to measure how accurately the message is encoded to ensure they are unmistakably associated with their creative.

Put simply, ads that provide simple, thoughtful messages will win in terms of brand recall in the long run.

Generally speaking, ad academics define successful creativity as how it diverges from the norm. In other words, to what extent an ad differs from others – whether by being novel, original or unusual. It’s easy to see how "Balls" has artistic value or Apple’s "1984" is original, but does this mean that every ad that fulfils the above criteria is effective? Ad professionals can be quite quick to tick that box.

Effective creative needs to be divergent, but it also needs to have a low cognitive load if it’s to wedge itself into a person’s consciousness. It’s about finding that sweet spot, but therein lies the challenge.

As creatives, we don’t want to be constantly testing and evaluating the "effectiveness" of creative. But by analysing and understanding the results, we can create a set of principles that ad execs can apply every day.

The first being recognition. Understand your key brand assets and what happens in a person’s mind when they see your brand collateral. These are often hardwired into a person’s brain, and they don’t always have to relate to the logo. Sometimes it comes down to the colours or shapes you use. It might sound a little creepy, but tapping into the shortcuts in a person’s brain can really help someone to encode your brand message. 

It’s also about being resonant and connecting to primal instincts. For example, dynamic posts on social media are more connective than static posts. Moving images tell our brain to pay attention, which is, in fact, triggered by a fear stimulus.

And finally, it’s the famous R we all know and love – relevance – and by association, context. We’ve looked at how different social media platforms impact people’s brains and – surprise surprise – Facebook is more cognitively draining than Instagram. This means the content we create for Facebook should differ significantly to that used on other social platforms to be effective.

The creative idea is still crucial, but agencies and clients must consider cognitive load if they’re to reap longer-term benefits for the brand. Understanding what is happening in a person’s brain is a huge opportunity for brands, and neuroscience holds the key to understanding how we can develop truly engaging content.  

Neil Davidson is managing director at HeyHuman

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