Advertising Voodoo #1

Incongruous Information = Stopping Power

Incongruous information is a powerful tool for successfully achieving the first element in ad effectiveness – stopping power.

Time is a scarce resource and advertising media are inherently noisy environments. You have only a second or two – at best – to grab a the attention of your audience long enough to deliver your message and achieve understanding. It is the same for print, broadcast and online media, but I’m going to primarily focus on print advertising as the example in this post.

Incongruous information involves hitting your audience with information or imagery that doesn’t quite jive with their expectations. This causes readers to stop turning the page and spend time on the ad to try to understand and classify it. We are all familiar with the concept of “standing out”, but this post takes a shallow dive into the psychology and neuroscience behind ads that stand out effectively.

Classic use of incongruous information in TV ads is the Energizer Bunny campaign. You think you seeing just another boring ad when suddenly, a pink rabbit banging on a drum enters the room.

The Technical Explanation (or pay-dirt for consultants)

The definition of incongruous information gets a little technical. I’m sorry, but at least you’ll have some complicated-sounding bonus terms in your pocket you can use to dazzle your client or boss and sell them on your shiny new ad concept.  If you’re a consultant, you’ve just hit pay dirt.

Incongruous information (bonus term) is information characterized by inconsistency. A more common explanation is information that is unexpected or doesn’t fit with a person’s preconceptions. Those preconceptions can relate to any current knowledge, attitude, emotion, and most importantly for advertising, expectations.

Information incongruency causes cognitive dissonance (another bonus term). Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that describes the uncomfortable, but unconscious, tension that comes from holding two conflicting cognitions (bonus term meaning thoughts) at the same time. This theory holds that these conflicts compel the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, in order to minimize the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions.

Now here’s the non-technical explanation:

  1. The brain doesn’t like when it encounters things that don’t fit into one of it’s buckets.
  2. When something doesn’t fit, your brain is compelled to spend time on it either to figure out why it doesn’t fit or to convince itself that it does fit.
  3. Either way, whatever that “it” is, your brain has to focus attention on it to comprehend it and make it fit.

To make “it” fit, your brain has to modify it’s preconceptions to accept the new information.  You can see the value here – after all, the goal of advertising is to modify preconceptions and get our audience to accept our new products. In advertising we call this “gaining mind share.” (duh)

Go to part two: Advertising Voodoo #2: Information Incongruency Applied

Advertising VooDoo Series

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

Further Technical Reading:

Neural correlates of incongruous visual information. An event-related fMRI study.

Role of Incongruity and ‘Aha’ Effect in Positive Affect Experienced from Visual Metaphors