Physiological research conducted at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has delivered new insights that can help print ads to deliver better results. Most striking in this study is insight into the processing speed of the human brain.

Within 0.3 seconds, a consumer can decide whether an advertisement is relevant or not. While observing an ad, the brain delivers a quick response depending on the appreciation of the image. It only takes one-third of a second to distinguish the good (relevant) creatives from the bad (irrelevant).

This is the outcome of research from Erasmus University using physiological techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain’s electrical response to advertising. In this study, initiated by branched organisation Magazines.nl, a total of 150 ads representing five branches — automotive, cosmetics, fashion, food, and electronics — were observed.

Positive and simple: The most intensive brain reactions were measured when the observed ads contained a simple message and evoked positive emotions. Also, the brand involved was noted to have  influence on the effectiveness of the ad. A well-established brand evokes a quick response of the brain.

The style of communicating also plays a major role. Advertisements appealing to fear or containing bold humour had a negative effect. Such ads will get noticed but tend to evoke a negative response and be valued as odd or shocking. Furthermore, consumers need more time and effort to digest such messages.

That’s related to another lesson from the study: If a consumer doesn’t instantly understand the advertiser’s message, he won’t make further attempts to understand it a second time.

(Left side: negative metaphor – don’t! Right side: clear, positive message – do!)

Branch differences: In this study, ads for cosmetics showed the most intensive brain response. Ads in this category are valued as very appealing. In these creatives, strong visuals are used, mostly pretty faces.

Professor Ale Smidts noted: “The strength of the brain response within half a second is indicative for the general appreciation of an ad. This brain reaction is likely to be a good indicator of the effectiveness and will be useful to test different variations of an ad.”

About the study: The study was carried out by Erasmus Centre for Neuroeconomics at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University. A total of 30 respondents observed 90 ads each. While they observed the ads, the brain activity of these respondents was measured by means of EEG signals.

All the creatives displayed were judged in advance by 1,200 respondents who were questioned on such aspects as stopping power, ad attitude, and general appreciation. These scores were used in the brain study.

Learning from the brain study: Dos and Don’ts

The study didn’t only deliver insights about the reaction time of the brain; it also produced several valuable insights.

  1. Uncomplicated ads that evoke positive emotions have proved to be most effective.

  2. Consumers don’t bother to understand the ads. The more effort required, the less attractive the creatives are perceived.

  3. Advertisements using extreme humour and fear are ineffective. On criteria like appreciation and attitude these ads get a bad score. Ads with these elements get noticed, but tend to  evoke a negative assessment.