The Role of the Eye and Brain in Effective Advertising

by Joelle Steele

It's the 21st century and advertisers everywhere are struggling to reach their potential audience and get them to buy. But they are operating at an extreme disadvantage. First, the majority of all marketing design is being done by amateurs, individuals who can run a piece of design software but lack design training. Second, the high illiteracy rate in America results in poor to mediocre copywriting. Third, most creatives are uneducated in the psychology that drives marketing. And four, a recessive economy makes it almost impossible to find dollars to invest in advertising as consumers only begin to reluctantly open their wallets.

No article can solve these problems. But for those who have a reasonably good design team, there are a few things that can help you better understand some of the subtleties that occur when art meets the mind, that point at which the eye captures an image and the brain interprets it. What that eye sees and how the brain reacts to it is what advertising is all about. With that information in hand, you can create more effective advertising and promotional pieces.


Without getting into the actual structure of the eye and brain, let's just say that, for the purpose of this article, the eye can best be compared to a camera with an extraordinarily good lens capable of capturing the big picture as well as the most minute details. The brain is likewise similar to a computer that stores the eye-camera's images — but not until it has edited them.

Have you ever gone to a state park with your digital camera and taken pictures of all that gorgeous scenery, only to later download the images and see that your photos have power lines running through the trees, telephone poles, trash cans, trail head markers, and a front car bumper or two from the shots you took near the park's entrance? You are not alone. You are experiencing your eye and brain at work. Your brain filters out unwanted details almost instantly. It can allow you to revel in the natural beauty of the landscape without the need to focus on those unessential and often unsightly elements of civilization.

Does this mean that when someone looks at the page of a magazine or a Web page that their brain is filtering out unwanted items there as well? You bet it does. That's why it can be so hard for an advertiser to get the attention of a reader onto their ads and to keep them there if they see the ad at all. Most readers simply aren't interested in ads and bypass them altogether because they are reading the pages for information. According to many marketing studies, unless readers are shopping for specific items, they don't look at ads at all. This makes the jobs of designers and copywriters a real challenge. What to do?

Start by remembering these tried-and-true steps to good advertising:

• use a photograph of a person or product, preferably both, preferably someone using the product
• write a dynamite headline that calls to the reader, and make it big and colorful to draw their attention to it
• write a minimum of 3 compelling reasons — benefits to the reader — that will encourage them to buy
• give the reader multiple ways to make contact — don't assume they all want to call or they all want to visit your Web site or they all want to send a check to a PO Box
• always use dark text on a light background — never use dark text on a dark background or light text on a dark background (this is even more important on the Web)
• use color that is psychologically appropriate to what you are selling and to whom you are selling
• use serif typefaces like Times New Roman, as studies consistently show that serif typefaces are easiest to read

Not sure how to tell if a photo or an ad or a cover are designed well? Look at the image upside down. It's a good, old-fashioned, time-honored way to see the design elements without the interference of the brain being distracted by the subject matter itself. When you turn an image upside down and look at it, you can easily see how balanced the photo is, how big the headline is, how heavy one part of the ad is compared to the rest of the piece, etc. It's a quick and easy solution to catching a lot of tiny details that make the difference between so-so design and great design.


Getting a reader to notice an ad depends not only on the design of the ad itself but on the placement of the ad on the page. I learned this when I was working part-time at an advertising agency while attending college way back in 1971. It was already a known fact at the time, and today, the quasi-scientific results of eye-tracking studies confirm what publishers have known for at least 50 years, probably longer: for languages, like English, that are read from left to right and top to bottom, readers view ads, articles, and entire pages from left to right and top to bottom.

What does this do to the theory that an ad on a right-facing page gets better results? Is it true? Or would placing an ad on the left-facing page of a magazine or newspaper draw a substantially greater response? What about ads placed similarly on a Web page or ads placed in the "front of the book" versus the back? Unfortunately, the answer is no to all the above. But how about ads placed at the top of a page? Now that's a different story. Ads at the top of a page have shown to consistently produce measurably better results, regardless of whether they are centered on a page, or are on the left- or right-facing page. This is true in print as well as online media. The same goes for large ads. Advertising is definitely one of those instances where bigger is a whole lot better. But, those big ads will produce a good response only if the ads themselves are effective to begin with.

What about the use of photographs and illustrations? Eye-tracking studies have shown that in print media readers look at photos before they look at the text. The reverse is true on Web sites, where text takes priority over photos. However, in advertisements, photos still get the most attention, whether they appear in print media or on Web pages (although display ads are virtually ignored on most Web pages in favor of text-only ads).

So, when you create an ad, a magazine page, or a Web page, prioritize your components according to which ones you want to draw the most attention. Start with the top, then the center, then the left, and then the right. Some designers simplify matters by centering the content of the ads themselves so that they can go on the outside edge of either a right- or left-facing page or anywhere else on a page. Other designers make two separate ads, one in which the text is left-justified for placement on the outside column of a left-facing page, and another that is right-justified for the same placement on a right-facing page.

For Web pages, place the logo (flag, banner) across the top of the page and to the left, with the most important information on it — such as a tag line that identifies what the Web site is about. Place navigation buttons across the top and/or down the left side of the page. Place any pay-per-click advertising banners at the top in the long rectangle sizes that are known to perform best. Keep your most important information "above the fold." Write in short paragraphs and use lots of subheadings — left justified and boldfaced — throughout long articles whenever possible.


It should come as no surprise that the Internet has changed the way people shop, and it has also changed the way they read marketing materials, from ads to Web pages. But, in the end, great copywriting is key to the success of any effective advertisement or promotional piece, whether it's print or online media. Either way, we live in an information society, and when people read magazines, newspapers, and Web sites, they are single-minded in their quest for information. How can you convince them to buy products or services when all they really want to do is read the articles and not the ads?

One possible solution is to create advertorials, those ads that consist almost entirely of text and look like small articles or sidebars. An advertorial is not suitable for every product or service. It is better for some than others. But if you're trying to sell something that could use a lot more explanation, a well-crafted advertorial will probably do the trick. In fact, an independent publishing study in 2003 revealed that advertorials were read 38% more than were other traditional ad formats.

This applies to the Web too. Forget about trying to design the most beautiful Web page in the world. It won't bring a visitor to the Web site (search engines rely on text only), it won't keep them there longer (people visit for information), and it won't increase the Web site's conversion ratio (turn a visitor into a buyer). But words? The right words presented in a compelling article format will sway visitors to whip out that credit card faster than anything else.


Understanding the subtleties of the eye-brain connection and how people see and react to advertisements, magazine pages, and Web sites can be a great tool for designing improved marketing materials that induce buying. But don't get too caught up in the various eye-tracking or other studies. It's not enough to have a consumer look at an ad or look at the most important part of your Web page. It's about whether they find what they want when they are seeking information, or find the product they want and make a purchase. That effectiveness is the only true measurement of the advertising design's value.

This article last updated: 09/19/2015.