The objective of advertising is persuasion. Through its various forms, it has evolved in channels, medium, messaging and also pace. But at its very core, it talks to the human brain. Silently or out loud. And that’s scientific more than an art.

While there are various lenses that one could take to decode advertising, this article is an extrapolation of Daniel Kahneman’s theory of cognitive thinking and its impact on decision making. It correlates advertising and what we observe in our daily life (as ads) with his inferences.

Now before we start, let's have a look at the picture below:


As soon as you saw this image, it effortlessly came to your mind that there’s something negative about her. The color & length of her hair; her reactions were indicative enough for you to form an opinion in some way. If she was for real in front of you, it wouldn't take long for you to gauge how she’d react. And to summarise all of this in your mind, it took you no effort and almost no time. That was fast thinking on your part.

Now, have a look at the problem below:

19 X 27

Some of you have already skipped the problem to go straight into what’s written below. Assuming that the solution would be given here. And now that you are searching for the solution, your mind is racing back and forth, if you should’ve even read this far without getting to the answer. For the rest of you, you tried to answer the problem. If you still haven't. Suggest you go back and at least try and answer. It took some time, some effort and now you are going back and forth with holding some numbers in your mind, while multiplying the others. To finally arrive at the solution, it took a while. More than it took for you to judge the woman above. Your mind had to put in some effort and it was mildly discomforting. Because you never expected this sort of a problem to appear in front of you especially in this article. But when you started thinking about the solution, your mind was engaged in the multiplication. Your pupils subconsciously dilated a bit, your sweat glands were in action (so mildly that you wouldn't even notice), your blood pressure rose, your muscles tensed and the hair on your body rose a little. All of this happened as soon as you tried to answer the multiplication problem.

That was slow thinking on your part.

Kahneman defines both of them as System 1 & System 2, for ease of reference. To summarise, System 1 operates voluntarily, with no effort or with no control from your end. It’s just something in the passing. It’s more cognitive. It forms “first impressions” and often is the reason why we jump to conclusions. Another example of system 1 could be driving a car. For more experienced drivers, the path is natural and comes in effortlessly System 2 on the other hand, is more complicated, requires effort, attention and deviates you from your usual path. It does reflection, problem-solving, and analysis. An example of System 2 would be reasoning out which Insurance you need, with your broker. It’s unnatural and requires significant effort from your brain, to stay focussed.

With this base in mind, lets now understand now our mind works with regards to things we see and experience around. If you’ve read his theory, the correlation is just beginning for you.

More often than not, advertisers forget to add in a layer of human psychology into advertising. They are more involved and engrossed in pushing the product out to the consumer in every possible way. By maximising channels of marketing, it may not always lead to a recall being established in the consumer’s mind. There are no blanket rules to advertising and hence it’s an art. But an art that needs to be backed up with science and logic. Because you are pushing a message out to the human brain, which is more complicated than one can imagine.

Let's have a look at the billboard below:

Image Credit: Ringboost

The billboard promotes 3 things: First, Stranger Things, which is a popular enough show for you to have heard about it. If you aren't a fan you may not may not notice that it talks about the launch of it’s Season 2. Second, it gives out the date of launch. And third, without even noticing much, you do realise that it’s going to be premiered on Netflix.

Imagine if the words of Netflix were reversed from Neftlix. Your mind, in its usual course, would skip the change in spelling. Like you just did. (f & t are interchanged). Not just in this article, but also while driving past this billboard.

The billboard in all its advertising sense, has managed to do a good job of promoting the show. But now let's decode this, bit by bit.

A billboard of this sort is usually placed on prominent roads or in public places where you would just breeze through the message in a glance, rather than stand and stare at it for minutes or even seconds. It is because your mind is primarily involved in another parallel cognitive activity like driving or walking through a mall. It doesn’t need effort to drive or walk, because you've been doing it for years. System 1 is at ease and in action while driving. Like brushing your teeth. Now if there was any additional activity that you mind was to be involved in, which requires effort, like reading a book, you’d possibly crash. System 2 would never let any other activity kick in. In fact the self control exerted by System 2 in itself is painstaking enough to stay focussed. In a scenario like this, the billboard cannot have long sentences. In case it has something unknown, your mind wouldn't really register it. System 2 which is in action to curb any other efforts taking activity for your mind, wouldn't let you indulge into decoding any piece of advertising that's even mildly more complicated (or layered) than this ad.

In fact there’s a higher possibility that your mind may not even see this billboard. Which is why Netflix places these ads across multiple locations across the city. With minimal content on each of them. To help establish some level of recall. Or perhaps make you initiate conversation (effortlessly) with someone else (while you are driving or walking) with at least one of it’s billboards. Because they understand that the placement of a billboard, for a brand as prominent as Netflix, needs to be strategic. There’s science behind why and how advertising on billboards is aced.

Diving real quick into a more complicated example around billboards. Or any form of physical outdoor advertising.

Some brands, in order to promote a new show, or product or just a new brand arrival into a particular city, place contextual ads across locations. Ads that are hyperlocal. The reason why contextual ads work is because once again, your mind (assumably) is well versed with contextual scenarios in your own city. Hence, System 1 is still in action while decoding the ad and it’s message. The moment it gets too complicated for the mind to decipher, System 2 kicks in case of outdoor advertising to refrain you from deviating from your primary task on the go.

Also, let's dive into another layer while talking about outdoor advertising. Imagine if instead of Netflix, the ad was placed by another brand in a totally different context to entertainment. If a lesser known brand was to come up with a similar contextual, hyperlocal billboard campaign, chances of its success are fairly low. It wouldn't pass through your biases of System 1. It would ask for effort to recognise their logo, their offering and their brand promise and that's too much for System 1 to process in one go. Hence, you might let it pass.

However, digital advertising works in the completely opposite way based on the same logic. It’s far more complicated.


While browsing through Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat or even YouTube, your mind is engaged in different activities across each channel. Consider Instagram for instance. As you browse through multiple stories and profiles, System 1 is in action because (by now) it’s effortless to go through content for you. Also, depending on the time of the day and where you are browsing (at work or at home or before sleeping), the cognitive desires of the mind have different expectations. It's based on the routine that you’ve set for your life everyday. Sometimes, you are just browsing subconsciously out of habit (or addiction) and sometimes you are actually on the hunt for meaningful content. In a case like this, depending on how you are feeling, System 1 is willing to give up its effortless control to System 2 which finds it stimulating enough to ‘engage’ in more meaningful content.

Say you are easily excited by fashion and it’s trends; your feed obviously (algorithmically) is wired to show you a lot more of fashion than anything else. Which means that it takes real good content (engaging and meaningful) for System 2 to kick in and actually engage. Like go into different profiles and find out more about a certain trend or product. Or with an ad that takes you to the e-commerce website. The threshold for System 1 to relinquish control to System 2 is much higher if it’s content that usually excites you. Hence, great content isn’t just about aesthetics, it should also be stimulating for the habitual mind to go positively off track and engage. The time of the day, overall feed of the profile, words to images ratio and the usage of words have an equal if not any more important role to play than one another. It isn’t just great graphics or a great script that define the success of digital advertising. It’s backed by human psychology.

If we were to dive into Snapchat or Facebook, the levers that are required for System 2 to kick in and take control to positively influence your mind amidst the plethora of content being subconsciously consumed by you is different than Instagram. It differs from platform to platform. The size of a banner ad matters as much as the content on it. And likewise with every tiny detail and offering of the platform.

As you become skilled in a task, the energy required to perform it significantly reduces over time. Same is the case with habits, talent, etc. A ‘law of least effort’ applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways to reach the same goal, the mind will choose the one with the least effort. Which in a case like browsing through content, may be more subconscious than you can imagine. It’s unlike reading a book. The effort taken by a brand to have any impact or to make you deviate from subconscious browsing is massive.

Amidst this chaos of content & information, advertisers would have to study the science of content consumption, based on their target audience and tweak the relevancy of the ads.

As much as you’d like to believe advertising to be an art, it is, backed by science & psychology.