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Simplicity Is Key to Effective Online Advertising

Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko

Online ads make more of an impact when they are simple and easy for viewers to comprehend.

  • Online advertising is critical for attracting customers and revenues for all sizes of companies.
  • Advertisers have a fraction of a second to gain the target audience’s attention.
  • Simple ads are more effective at capturing that attention than complex ones.

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

In today’s hectic and cluttered online environment, you have milliseconds to get consumers to see and comprehend your ads. That’s why basic and straightforward ads make a bigger impact than clever, visually complex ads.

Complexity doesn’t pay off online: Eye-tracking research shows that people actively try to avoid ads, said Michel Wedel, a leader in eye-tracking data research and a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. 

“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 University of Maryland 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 100 milliseconds, 500 milliseconds, two seconds, five seconds, and 30 seconds after they viewed an 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 100 milliseconds. The participants continued to view these ads positively over five, 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. One mystery ad used in the research was an ad 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 and 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.

Examples of successful simple ads

Simple ads should be effective across media types and carry their message clearly whether on a billboard, a television ad, or a website. One great example is the Nike slogan, created in the late ’80s and still wielding power today. Widely recognized as one of the best advertisements of all time, “Just do it” is simple and powerful. It speaks to the core issue that Nike is trying to solve for its customers: No matter what it is you are doing, just do it. Push beyond your limits, whether those limits are one flight of stairs or an ultramarathon. 

A recent example of a simple but powerful online advertisement is a Slack ad, highlighted by WordStream as particularly effective for use on Facebook. The fanciful imagery shows a seemingly joyous woman riding a pink unicorn through puffy clouds and a rainbow, with the tagline “What is feels like to sit in 25% fewer meetings” and, below that, the Slack slogan (“Slack: Make work better”). Slack has a great slogan, and using the personally oriented social media with a fanciful meme (unicorn) projects the subliminal message that work can be more fun.

The use of online ads to enlist your customers to aid in your growth is a current trend in simple advertising. Single Grain highlights ads by Lyft, which offer current customers discounts for sending referral codes to their friends. Lyft recognizes that 83% of people are more likely to use a product or service if it is recommended by someone they know, and this ad creates an incentive for its customers to spread the word. It’s a win-win.

Image Credit: Ridofranz / Getty Images
Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko
Staff Writer
Adam Uzialko is a writer and editor at and Business News Daily. He has 7 years of professional experience with a focus on small businesses and startups. He has covered topics including digital marketing, SEO, business communications, and public policy. He has also written about emerging technologies and their intersection with business, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain.