Orlando Wood
Orlando Wood 13 December 2019

Digital Advertising And The Left Brain

Digitalisation is transforming a huge number of industries, and advertising is one of them.

It is estimated that over half of agency revenues in the US come from ‘digital work’[1], and a whole ad tech industry has grown up around the promise of targeting - “right message, right person, right time”.

But some influential voices hold this industry up to question. A recent feature in The Atlantic called ad tech “the next dotcom bubble”, alleging that most of the sales it claims would have happened anyway, making the billions spent on banner ads, search, and social media largely wasted. Is ad tech truly being used effectively?

To answer this question we should take a look at what makes an ad effective according to System1’s recent research. Elements in ads, from the soundtrack to the way words appear on a screen, can be identified and categorised to establish whether they appeal more to the left- or right-brain. The left-brain abstracts things from their context to build mental models of the world, favouring repeatability and predictability. The right-brain, meanwhile, understands the world through connections and relationships, with a sense of proportion and perspective. The right brain is also responsible for broad and vigilant attention and is in charge of flagging anything of interest to the left brain, so if advertising wants to get noticed it needs to appeal to the right brain.

System1’s research shows that left-brain elements have come to dominate during the past decade, with a decline in elements of ads which appeal to the right-brain. The average number of left-brain features across all TV ads in the UK nowadays is 3.9 compared to just 2.3 right-brain elements. And in the digital realm the gap is even starker: UK YouTube ads contain 4.1 left-brain features on average compared to 1.7 right-brain ones.

To put this in terms of what the viewer actually sees - ads with left-brain appeal tend to be more hectic, with less storyline and less connection between people. They feature abstracted body parts, products or event ingredients. Words are common on screen, soundtracks are rhythmic and dictate the pace of the ad, and scenes take place against a flat, depthless background rather than in an identifiable place or time.

If all this sounds like the typical Instagram story ad, display ad or mobile ad, that’s because those new media have come of age during this era of a swing to left-brained appeal.

This isn’t just a matter of taste; it has an impact on effectiveness. The loss of right-brain elements in ads deeply damages the ability that advertising has to deliver long-term market share growth. The work shows that the more an ad is built to appeal to the right brain, the more effective it will be at appealing emotionally and creating long-term brand growth.

Digital platforms have compounded the issue, developing guidelines that push advertisers towards a left-brain direction. It’s not easy to offer efficient user experience while also integrating adverts. In order to find a good balance these guidelines tend to encourage shorter time spots, breaking longer ads into shorter parts and splitting the screen into multiple images. They favour a single message, showing your brand upfront and getting in close on your product. Visual rhythm and repetition are also common in digital ads - all of which are elements which appeal far more to the left-brain than the right.

What digital advertisers should realise is that features such as abstraction, repetition and rhythmic devices will lower your chances of long-term growth. And with sceptics calling the value of targeted, sales-oriented digital ads into question, long-term thinking and brand building are coming back into fashion. But as companies increasingly design for mobile first, before considering TV or other channels, the very guidelines they use might harm this ambition.

So, what can advertisers do to ensure long-term effectiveness?

The creative brief needs to be liberating. The point of the creative brief is to get the ball rolling, and enlightening words and phrases are much more likely to come out in chance conversation than in a more structured process. When creating something new there’s no rules or rigid procedures, following your instincts can be surprisingly effective!

Test your work and be flexible in the face of feedback. It’s very tempting to stick rigidly to every detail of an idea, but don’t be scared of confronting your (or someone else’s) left brain. The left brain likes things to be clear and simple, but the right brain favours flow and spontaneity. Embrace the right brain’s sense of flow; arriving at the best work means accepting that it can be improved at every stage.

And finally, make the work itself appeal more to the right-brain by using elements that catch its attention. Gestures and glances among characters can create a sense of “between-ness”, which the right brain loves. Dialogue and wordplay can entertain the right brain. A setting with depth, a strong sense of place or time, and memorable characters are all also things which can be deployed to get the right brain on board, improve an ad, and create long-term impact. Not all these things are easily done with the shorter times and smaller canvases available to digital marketers - but there are ways to do them well. And if you do, you’ll restore humanity, depth and effectiveness to your digital work.

[1] Orlando Wood, Lemon, 2019

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