The Stopping Power of Advertising: Measures and Effects of Visual Complexity

Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel, and Rajeev Batra
Journal of Marketing
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Executive Summary
Consumers are literally bombarded by thousands of commercial messages daily, in magazines, in newspapers, in the Yellow Pages, on Web sites, on television, through cell phones, and so forth. Advertising needs to cut through this competitive clutter, to reach consumers and grab their attention in likeable ways. In other words, advertising needs to have “stopping power,” and marketers need to know which factors influence the stopping power of their advertisements and how to assess this to improve their effectiveness. The visual complexity of advertising plays a central role in grabbing consumers’ attention, but the ideas in advertising theory and practice about its effects conflict, and objective measures of complexity are rare. One school in advertising believes that visually simple advertisements are best, whereas another school favors visually complex advertisements to attract and hold consumers’ attention in likeable ways. In this research, the authors distinguish two types of visual complexity with drastically different effects on attention and likeability and propose straightforward measures of each. Advertisements are visually complex when they contain dense perceptual features (“feature complexity”) and/or when they have an elaborate creative design (“design complexity”). Feature complexity hurts attention to advertisements and lowers ad likeability, whereas design complexity actually helps attention and improves ad likeability. Thus, it is not the case that visually complex advertisements are either good or bad; rather, feature complexity hurts and design complexity helps advertisements. In addition, the authors find that creative tactics that reduce the ease of identifying the brand in the advertisement do not improve ad attention and likeability but rather hurt the comprehensibility of the advertisement. The authros propose a new simple metric to assess this brand identifiability as well. An analysis of 249 advertisements tested with eye-tracking shows that, as the authors hypothesize, feature complexity of advertisements hurts attention to the brand and attitude toward the ad, whereas design complexity of advertisements helps attention to the pictorial and the advertisement as a whole, its comprehensibility, and attitude toward the ad. This is important because design complexity is under direct control of the advertiser. Feature complexity can be readily assessed by the file size of the JPEG-compressed visual image of advertisements, and design complexity can be assessed by counting the number out of six design principles that are used in the ad images, which is facilitated by the coding schemes that the authros propose. The proposed measures assess the visual complexity of advertising, and the findings can be used to improve its stopping power. On the basis of the findings, the authors recommend reducing feature complexity whenever possible, in particular when advertising competition is high, such as in the Yellow Pages, in retail and newspaper advertising, and in Web advertising. The authors also recommend increasing design complexity in thematic advertising when pictorial attention and likeability are important, such as in magazines. Finally, when advertisements need to be rapidly comprehended, which is increasingly the case as a result of soaring competitive clutter, the brand should be placed front and center rather than masking it.

Rik Pieters (PhD from University of Leiden, 1989) is Professor of Marketing in the Faculty of Economics and Business at Tilburg University. His research focuses on attention and emotions in consumer behavior and communication effectiveness. It has appeared in Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Marketing Science, Management Science, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, PINT, and Emotion, among others. He is the developer of Latent Pie Analysis (LPA) and is an associate editor at Journal of Marketing Research.

Michel Wedel is Pepsico Professor of Consumer Research in the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Michel’s main research interests are in the application of statistical and econometric methods to problems in marketing and marketing research. Much of his recent work has addressed issues in visual marketing using eye-tracking technology. He has published more than 150 articles in peer-reviewed journals that have been cited nearly 2500 times. He serves on the editorial boards of several journals and is an area editor at Marketing Science and an associate editor at Journal of Marketing Research. His work has been awarded with several prizes, including, among others, the O’Dell best-paper award from Journal of Marketing Research; he received the Muller award for outstanding contributions to the social sciences from the Royal Dutch Academy of the Sciences and the Churchill award for lifetime contributions to the study of marketing research from the American Marketing Academy.

Rajeev Batra (PhD from Stanford, 1984) is S.S. Kresge Professor of Marketing in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. His research interests cover the creation and management of brand equity; emotional advertising; advertising repetition; and budgeting, global branding, and marketing in emerging economies. He has published almost 50 articles on these topics in Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, Journal of International Business Studies, and others. With coauthors Dana Alden and J.B. Steenkamp, for their papers on Global Brands, he won the Excellence in Global Marketing Research Award given by the American Marketing Association Global Marketing special interest group in 2007, and he was a finalist for the International Journal of Research in Marketing Best Article Award for the best paper that appeared in 2006. He is frequently listed among the most frequently cited consumer behavior and advertising scholars.

Journal of Marketing, Volume 74, Number 5, September 2010
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Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel, and Rajeev Batra
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