Cognitive Science in Advertising: Visual Salience

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The idea that cognitive science has anything to do with marketing and advertisement might seem weird to some. Others learned and know how to tame its powers, creating unforgettable advertising campaigns such as “Got Milk” and Volkswagen’s “Think Small”.

The end goal of advertising is simple: it needs to have an impactful and lasting effect in the mind of your target consumers. That’s what will lead them to buy your product or service.

How do you do that? Is textbook marketing enough?

You ought to know your target’s persona, how to reach them, and by which mean. Yet, advertising is now done so easily and massively online. We see ads at any time, between your grandma’s birthday pictures on Instagram and the latest gossip from TMZ. How can you be impactful and memorable? Advertisement has become a jungle. One that you need to become the king of.

Knowing more about your consumer base is the key to that success. You need to know what goes on in their mind, and that isn’t impossible.

Big companies like Netflix or Coca-Cola spend millions on researching their consumers’ minds. But not all brands have the time and money for such research. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had developed a tool that would democratize doing that? Well, we thought exactly the same. And we found the research to make it work.

Different studies over the years have explored how to become impactful and long-lasting. Both online and offline.

Visual saliency, or instant attention; is the state or quality by which a stimulus stands out relative to its competing stimuli. That stimuli can be an experience, brand, or piece of communication. Understanding how to grab your consumer’s instant attention should be your first priority.

Recent research has demonstrated the possibility to model out the parts of the human mind that get visually triggered:

  • M. Milosavljevic & M. Cerf’s work on computational neuroscience and research on visual attention as a useful framework for studying bottom-up attention (2015)
  • R. Droste, J. Jiao, and J. Alison Noble research on Unified Image and Video Saliency Modeling (2020)

At Hippoc, we have developed a saliency map. 

The goal of the saliency map is to reflect the degree of importance of a pixel to the human visual system. It does this by highlighting the region on which people’s eyes focus first.

This map gives you an idea of where to put your key messages. It can show you what is seen, what is overlooked, and what is later remembered. You can create more successful designs knowing what attracts the human eye.

Why does it matter so much for marketers and advertisers? Click-Through Rate (CTR) is not an effective measure of advertising performance.

Research confirms it: Advertisers should rely more on brand awareness and advertising recall.

Thus, we claim that advertisers should rely more on traditional brand equity measures such as brand awareness and advertising recall. Using such measures, we show that repetition affects unaided advertising recall, brand recognition, and brand awareness and that a banner’s message influences both aided advertising recall and brand recognition. (Drèze and Hussherr, 2003)

The overwhelming quantity of information.

Thousand of marketing messages impact consumers daily. The brain avoids processing most of this information because of its limited capacity. Scientifically it is referred to as the attentional bottleneck. Attention is a scarce resource. In recognition of that, researchers came up with the term “attention economy. (Davenport & Beck, 2002) (Milosavljevic & Cerf, 2015)

Exposure does not guarantee a user’s attention.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the Internet, where ad avoidance occurs the most. If an ad is noticed, the message may or may not remain in the consumer’s memory after cognitive processing. However, even if not consciously remembered, the exposure can be unconsciously processed. That might change the user’s affective state and affect future use of your product. (Milosavljevic & Cerf, 2015)

Classic Example: Volkswagen’s “Think Small”

You probably have seen this classic Volkswagen “Think Small” ad. Think Small was one of the most famous ads in the advertising campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle, art-directed by Helmut Krone. The copy for Think Small was written by Julian Koenig at the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency in 1959.

In this ad creative, the text is the second most salient information after the car. On the impact map (left) we see the text has only a 35% impact. But when you look at the saliency map (center) that score goes up to 66%. And in the instant attention map (right) it becomes 100%.


While an audience might consciously ignore an ad, the message and the image representing the message are likely to be at least pre-attentively processed. This will create positive advertising effects where the message still triggers an emotional event that will influence actions (overriding the ‘avoid advertising’ goal).