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Simplicity Is Key to Effective Online Advertising

Simplicity Is Key to Effective Online Advertising
Credit: Tashatuvango/Shutterstock

If you want to get the most out of your online ads, focus on simplicity, not cleverness, new research suggests.

In today's hectic and cluttered online environment, advertisers have milliseconds to get viewers to see and comprehend their ad. That's why basic and straightforward ads make a bigger impact than those that are clever and visually complex, according to a study recently accepted by the Journal of Marketing Research.

Complexity doesn't pay off online: Eye-tracking research shows that people actively try to avoid ads, said Michel Wedel, one of the study's authors and a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. [See Related Story: Your Online Ads Are Creeping Out Your Customers ]

"A lot of advertising is being tested over fairly long exposures — several seconds, or even 10 to 20 seconds," Wedel said in a statement. "The problem is that ads that do well in that scenario may not do well in short exposures."

For the study, researchers tested reactions to ads over periods as short as 100 milliseconds, which is less than a full glance. The authors divided the ads into three categories: upfront ads, which present a product in a straightforward, expected and typical way; mystery ads, whose visual complexity requires work on the part of the viewer to decipher; and "false front" ads, which use a clear image of one thing to sell something else.

The researchers tested the different ad types in experiments involving 1,360 test subjects and 50 advertisements. The experiments looked at the participants' reactions at 100 milliseconds, 500 milliseconds, 2 seconds, 5 seconds and 30 seconds after they viewed the ad. A final experiment let the participants look at ads as long as they wanted.

The study's authors found that upfront ads, such as a photo of a bottle of orange soda to sell orange soda, were understood and received positively by viewers in those 100 milliseconds. In addition, the participants continued to view these ads positively over 5, 10 and 30 seconds.

The mystery ads weren't viewed as positively as upfront ads in the initial glimpse, but they gained in approval over time. An example of a mystery ad used in the research was one for apple juice. The ad showed a ninja severing a rope holding a refrigerator, which was about to crush apples to make the juice.

The false-front ads, such as one that used a headshot of a blond woman to sell wheat beer or ads that take the form of news articles, were initially received positively because they appeared logical. However, the longer the participants looked at these ads, the less favorably they viewed them, because viewers had enough time to reorient themselves to the correct interpretation.

"We find very little justification for false-front ads," Wedel said. "People don't like to be duped."

The study also found that a viewer's familiarity with the brand being advertised didn't affect which type of ads they preferred.

The research isn't trying to tell advertisers to stop being creative. Wedel said there are certain times, such as the Super Bowl, when advertisers can be sure their ads will get full attention.

"But for online banner ads, for example, advertisers should realize that they'll have only a tenth of a second of a viewer's attention, if that," Wedel said. "And so they should stick to the basics: What's the product? And what's the brand?"

The study was co-authored by Millie Elsen and Rik Pieters of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.