Many brands try to cut-through the cacophony of communication by deliberately asking as little as possible from their intended recipient. John Harrison, Managing Partner at BBH London, argues that the most effective communications are those that force people to make a mental leap.

It is sometimes said that there are only two types of people in this world: Those unable to reach conclusions from incomplete data sets.

If you’re in the second group of people, then there’s a good chance that you’re feeling quite pleased with yourself for recognising as much. That isn’t just because you feel superior to those in the first group (though I’m sure that’s part of it). It’s also caused by your brain releasing a sizeable dose of dopamine as a reward for your having to work to solve a problem.

This is relevant to those involved in communications because it’s counter to a lot of current ‘best practice’ thinking.

We rightly appreciate that people have busy lives. They aren’t sat about, patiently looking forward to the next advert that interrupts them going about their day. In fact, it’s now estimated that the average person is exposed to up to 10,000 brand messages a day[1]. Most brands try to get their intended message through this maelstrom of communications by attempting to minimise the amount of time they ask of people. As such they try to be as explicit and un-demanding as possible. Being ‘frictionless’ has become more than just an approach to UX. It’s frequently cited as an ambition for how brands want their relationships with their target audience to become. Of course there are occasions when this should absolutely the case, especially when we want people to keep repeating a current behaviour.

However, if we want to change behaviour or force reappraisal, then the problem with such an explicit approach is that it fails to appreciate how the brain works in the real world. The brain simply doesn’t want to deal with so much stimuli, so it is desperately trying to filter out as many messages as possible, in order that it can focus on what it thinks is worth spending time processing[2]. Our brain is programmed to appreciate and seek out novelty. It wants the shot of dopamine that comes from new experiences or having to work in order to make a mental leap.

It’s a balance of course. If we ask too much of people, by making that mental leap too big, then we’ll lose them.  However, going too far the other way can be just as ineffective. In the past, I’ve certainly been told that we need to make the communications “as didactic as possible” to ensure that the intended message doesn’t “get lost”. The artificial environment of most research – where we force people to pay conscious attention to communications – can also appear to verify an explicit messaging approach. Only for these same communications to fail miserably once released into the real world.

The irony is that by filling in all the gaps, using executions that spell things out, or using familiar tropes and language, then we actually make it easier for people to ignore what we are saying. Our brain decides this message isn’t worth bothering with, even before we’ve consciously recognised as much.

Don’t take my word for it though. I’m sure that you’ll all be able to recognise this yourself by thinking about your favourite ever piece of comms. I’d be amazed if there was even one of you who chose something which took a didactic approach that didn’t ask anything of you. It’s much more likely you’d have chosen something that left you asking yourself “I wonder if other people got as much out of that as I did?”

So, if we want to make better, more effective communications, let’s use creativity to make sure we aren’t being explicitly bland.


[1] https://www.ama.org/partners/content/Pages/why-customers-attention-scarcest-resources-2017.aspx

[2]Psychology Today: This is how the brain filters out unimportant details. Feb 2015


10 Responses

  1. i read the headline and i had to read it.
    It was counter to what i know of communications. And as a planner, it is a great habit to explore opinions that are counter to yours. so i read the piece.
    And please pardon me, but i must say, you are misguided. i thought perhaps if i don’t agree i should shut up and close the window. but hey, what’s an opinion if it doesn’t lead you to change it? so since you didn’t manage to change mine, i will try to change yours.

    first, the clickbait headline. i can agree to your argument if you qualify it – there is merit in making communications a puzzle to solve – in few instances. but this line of thinking is a terrible scourge that plagues copywriters who try to write witty lines that most people don’t bother to decode. so the first critisism is about generalisation. don’t. generalisation never helps anyone. 😛 (and that is the last time i will use a generalisation. 🙂 )

    second – our brain does seek out novelty. But it sure as hell does not want novely sponsored by xyz brand. brands are incidental to our lives. we must appreciate this fact – brands are not as important to the lives of people as we think they are. byron sharp does an excellent job of proving it in his book – he talks about the importance of the infrequent users. we tend to attribute far too much importance to ads’s impact on brand consideration.

    third, if every brand tries to create novely, all it does is creating clutter. we have to recognise the fact that any strategy we create to ‘break the clutter’ will end up being the clutter. this is inescapable. refer zengotita’s mediated for an interesting perspective about it. so essentially – we can have a thousand articles like these with thousand unique ways to stand out and none shall prove true beyond a few instances.

    lastly – you said to think of my favourite campaign. and the jingle ‘washing powder nirma’ popped in my head. it is a legendary old commercial in India. The jingle is practically the product advantage story sung out to leave no doubt about product’s efficacy. it leaves absolutely nothing for the consumer to imagine. it was simple, though lovely film about washing powder’s awesome power to wash colourful clothes. and most importantly, it was succesful because it drilled down that jingle in our collective heads for years with incessant reach and frequency. so there’s that importance of ‘mental availability’. it was easier a decade ago, true.
    But even then, if i look at contemporary campaigns – ‘har ek friend zaroori hota hai’ comes to mind for airtel. (Every friend is essential). it was a fun jingle talking about importance of friendship for a cellular carrier brand. makes sense. not much processing there.
    practically all the great campaigns i can think of now do not make me join the dots.
    though some award winning campaigns do what you suggest. then again – awards are judged by advertising people – we WANT to be creative. consumers don’t want us to be creative. actually, consumer don’t want us. though this realisation is not healthy for us to go on working in the industry. what we need is a bit of camus in our lives – to work with full vigor even as we accept the absurdity of it all.

    • Thanks for your comment Ajinkya – different opinions are always welcome.

      I think that we come from very different schools of thought about what we should expect advertising/communications to deliver.

      I believe that creativity provides an unfair competitive advantage.

      Applied creativity makes marketing budgets more effective. At BBH we say that ‘Effectiveness is our objective. Creativity is our strategy’. One way of doing this is by asking people to make mental leaps that reward them for paying attention to what the brand wants to convey. As I said in my original post, this leap can’t be too big or we’ll lose people.

      You say that consumers don’t want advertising. I fundamentally disagree. Consumers don’t want bad advertising that isn’t entertaining or useful.

      In terms of creative advertising just being for the benefit of our industry, the findings from the IPA study prove that creatively awarded campaigns are 6 times more efficient at driving market share than non-creatively awarded campaigns. It’s worth pointing out that this is a high bar of comparison, since even the non-creatively awarded campaigns were from the IPA Effectiveness Databank.

      The good news is that there are lots of clients who subscribe to your point of view and, fortunately for BBH, a lot that also subscribe to ours.

      Thanks again – I also love a good jingle by the way.


  2. Just the fact that I had to read and re-read this article more than several times, I would say this heart-turning piece flipped a dormant switch somewhere.
    And yes indeed, John clarified “this leap can’t be too big or we’ll lose people”.

    Thorough invigorating, can’t to experiment!

  3. Definitely a click-bait headline. However what is being said for and against this case is what is the divide in the industry. What do you want to say and how do you want to say it. However despite the ‘make the reader work for the message’ is a an interesting thought, as a client, I will not want to put my money on a campaign that people cannot understand. If the counter to that is- make it difficult but not too difficult- then, we approach the question of common denominator. Surely you must base the future success of your upcoming creative campaign on some forecast on would people understand it before even appreciating the message and hence the brand? I guess it’s always been a challenge. And will continue to be a challenge. So this debate will go on. In the meanwhile, while this is about creativity and comprehension, one thing that turns viewers/readers off is another C- which is Cliche. As long as that’s taken care of even if your brand cannot get fans, it won’t make many enemies either.

  4. Great post John and nice discursive thread following on. Perhaps a new segmentation in the making to allow for both schools of thought? Target puzzlers/problem solvers with one creative, those who can’t be ar5ed making even small leaps with another creative execution? Would make for an interesting challenge on the data driven targeting front, if nothing else. I believe you could probably achieve that at execution and still stay singular at the strategy level

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