Getting the Message, Part 1

Quick — tell me what you dreamed last night. Having a hard time getting your mind around it? Is everything fuzzy and uncertain? If you’re like most people, you have snapshots of blurry memories that may have some meaning to you but would be almost incomprehensible to anyone else. Generally, the harder we try to recall a dream the fuzzier those memories become.

That’s OK. Though often interesting, dreams aren’t that significant to our conscious lives. Sleep researchers think dreaming actually constitutes a maintenance phase of brain upkeep. Dreams may clean up electrochemical spills and convert short-term memories into long-term ones.

The conscious brain has a different task. Not only must it have access to memories, it must also quickly distinguish real memories from dream memories. Fortunately, this isn’t hard to do. Dream memories and conscious memories come from separate places and are processed differently.

What does all this have to do with advertising? For starters, the nature of human thought forms the basis of how well any marketing message does in the real world. Not discounting factors such as demography, culture, and language, most human brains constantly shuttle information around and through our daily consciousness.

At the core of the decision-making process is a part of the brain known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS works as a central switchboard for the brain by routing all input to either conscious or unconscious thought. Possibly you can hear traffic now. However, I’m willing to bet before I mentioned it, although the sound reached your ears, your conscious mind didn’t register the fact. You probably haven’t been thinking about the tiny itch behind your left ear or the tightness of your right shoe.

Why this dereliction of duty? Because the significance of these factors is, well, insignificant. The traffic has nothing to do with you. Were you standing in the middle of the street and hearing traffic, it would suddenly be very significant and most likely convince you to get out of the road.

Incoming information’s relevance determines whether the information becomes a conscious or an unconscious thought. When perceiving advertising, the brain goes through a similar process based upon two factors: relevance and timeliness.


Perhaps the most important criteria used to measure any input is relevance. Simply enough, what does this mean to me?

We’re a very me-centric species. This is a good thing. Without this high-level filter, we’d most likely be bombarded with data that would occupy conscious thought to the point of inactivity. Instead, we’ve developed shorthand to deal with the world around us.

For the hundreds of ad messages we see or hear daily, the primary reaction is, “Does this mean anything to me?” If the answer is no, the message doesn’t stop long enough to enter the conscious mind. If the answer’s yes, it sticks around long enough to determine if timing is good. Ads for panty shields, though I see them, offer nothing in terms of significance. Those ads don’t reach my consciousness. My wife is probably just as ambivalent about beard-trimmer offers.


Timeliness is a large part of the relevance filter. It allows us to determine messages’ personal value at different times. Let’s say your car is at the point where AAA is on speed-dial. You are, like it or not, in the market for a new car. Once the concept reaches conscious thought, the perception avenues regarding new car messages open as well. Suddenly, you see car ads everywhere! Online automotive ads capture your attention for a change. You consider what you might want in a new vehicle. Eventually, using personal experience and desires, you purchase the car that seems best for you.

Then, those relevance perceptions are closed. You no longer need a new car. Most of the myriad car ads you continue to see fade in significance. The need for an automobile has been relevant all along. The timeliness of the offers became significant only once your perception of need changed.

Structure Ads for Relevance

Advertisers, online and off-, must structure their ads in a way that tells the consumer what the relevance of the offer is to her, personally. An important first step is for the advertiser to preplan how the offer’s significance applies to the consumer’s relevant needs. Ask questions such as:

  • What existing problem will this product solve for the consumer?
  • How can the ad be structured so different consumers can follow different interest paths?
  • How clear are the offered benefits?
  • What’s required to get the consumer to want to take immediate action?
  • How can the ad be structured so it allows irrelevant consumers to discount themselves?
  • How can I use interactivity to achieve all this in the ad space?

If an ad can’t establish a personal link with the consumer, it can’t sell to that consumer. Though relevance in all cases is nearly impossible, ads that provide consumers with answers to the questions, “What does this mean to me?” and “Why should I care?” are the ads that establish a mental foothold.

In part 2: Human cognition filters. What happens to the message after the consumer has determined relevance?

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