Advertising Voodoo #2: Information Incongruency Applied

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In, “Advertising Voodoo #1: Incongruous Information = Stopping Power“,  I explained the concept of Information Incongruency, but how does it work in practice?

Information incongrunecy has to do with expectations of your target audience – in this example, the readers of a magazine. One expectation has to with general look and feel of a magazine. Another has to do with the expected style of an ad in that magazine.

Each magazine has an overall style set by the editors. There also tends to be a general style of ads within any particular industry. For example, ads in technology trade publications almost stereotypically employ imagery that is serious; quasi-futuristic (bonus term borrowed from Austin Powers); analogous to sports, animals or high-performance machinery; composed of serene vistas and landscapes that attempt to covey some secret knowledge of the “big picture”; or completely technical with graphs and schematics.

A magazine is a noisy environment. Each publication has a unique style that readers learn to expect in terms of content and ads. Ads that “fit the mold” can just disappear into this white noise.

Magazine layout contributes to the noise with the predominance of full page ads on right-hand pages. With most of the full-page ads on the right, readers eyes – out of habit – tend to be drawn to the magazine’s content on the left.

Getting Their Attention

Incongruous information comes into play when your ads do not conform to reader expectations. Readers of electrical engineering publications are used to seeing stereotypical engineering ads with schematics, graphs and technical illustrations. They are not used to coming across and ad with a bold image of a masked, shirtless pro wrestler diving off the top ropes of the wrestling ring about to land on the product being advertised.

Imagery that is unexpected gets the reader to stop turning the page momentarily to try to identify what it is he is looking at and its information relevancy to the magazine. The reader has to “make it fit”. To do so, he has to examine, read and comprehend the ad in addition to making a judgment regarding its information value.

Tie it Together and Make It Relevant

But stopping power alone isn’t the only measures of an effective ad. You have to close the deal. Unexpected images need to be combined with short, relevant and resonating copy that ties the image and the product you’re selling together in an appealing way.

Relevancy, in this case, refers to the degree to which an item or a piece of information contributes to the identification of the primary message communicated by the ad.

Research has shown that ads composed of unexpected imagery combined with relevant information score higher on attention getting ability, believability, information value, and elicited more favorable attitudes towards the product or company than did ads with expected imagery and relevant information. Additionally, adding humor to the mix boosts ad recall.

Don’t confuse this with shock-value. Shock value alone doesn’t work. Ads with unexpected imagery and irrelevant information yield the least favorable attitudes. You have to combine these unexpected images with additional content that reinforces your message and drives cognition in your audience.

  • Unexpected/Relevant = Good
  • Expected/Relevant = Not as Good
  • Unexpected/Irrelevant = BAD


The process of resolving the cognitive dissonance can open a reader to new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs about a product. Ads that can create cognitive dissonance with imagery AND help the reader resolve that cognitive conflict with information that both makes sense to the reader and relates to the image in a clever way get results.

Advertising VooDoo Series

Advertising VooDoo is a series of articles that explore neuroscience and psychology of what makes advertising work.


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