Through A Screen, Fuzzily: How People Really Make Sense Of Advertising



“We are all the subjects of impressions, and some of us seek to convey the impressions to others. In the art of communicating impressions lies the power of generalizing without losing the logical connection of parts to the whole which satisfies the mind.”

 George Inness

The illusion of control, precision and fidelity Focusing too much on the idea or the message as a single-minded verbal construct at the heart of what we make vastly overestimates the degree to which people respond to the verbal, the abstract and the intellectual dimensions of what we create.

Moreover, it encourages the notion that we have some semblance of control over what people do with our communications.

It encourages the notion that we’re surgically inserting something precise and well-defined into people’s brains.

And in doing so, it obscures the crucial distinction between stimulus and response. It allows us to believe that in crafting the stimulus we are crafting, managing and controlling the response.

We can be focused, single-minded and pithy all we like in how we express and define our ideas.  But it is an utter fool’s errand to expect people in the real world to be equally as focused, single-minded and pithy in how they respond and decode what we put out into the world.

What we make, and how people respond are never a precise mirror image of each other.

When will marketingland learn to finally let go?

Marketing versus human nature Indeed, when will some parts of marketingland accommodate themselves to human nature? There are times when its assumptions and behaviours seem to be deliberately picking a fight with it.

The notion of the ‘message’ is problematic, because it’s specific, abstract, and verbal.

It’s problematic because human communication is dominated by the imprecise and non-verbal, because words do not dominate our thought processes, because we make sense of the world through generalizations, and because we respond to aesthetic wholes and don’t distinguish between form and content.

Non-verbal signals dominate human communication The psychologists Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson have distinguished between so-called ‘digital’ and ‘analogue’ communication. Digital of course, has a very different meaning today than when this book was written. It helps to think of it in terms of the difference between a digital clock and an analogue clock.

Digital communication they argue is logical, conscious, explicit and intellectual. This is used for the sharing of information about objects and for the transmission of knowledge.

In contrast, is analogue communication. This encompasses virtually all non-verbal communication. It is implied rather than stated, and it is experienced to a large extent unconsciously.

A digital clock givens us unambiguous replicable information about an abstract number. While an analogue clock expresses time spatially - it’s open to interpretation.

What’s significant for our purposes is the conclusion Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson conclusion draw from their studies and analysis:

Wherever relationship is the central issue of communication, we find that digital language is almost meaningless. This is not only the case between animals and between man and animals, but in many other contingencies in human life, e.g. courtship, love, succor, combat…”

Voice matters more than message. And behavior matters more than voice.

That’s why we humans can communicate with animals - as anybody who has watched Cesar Millan 'reprogramme' errant dogs in the show The Dog Whisperer works knows. It’s all about voice and behaviour.

We don’t think with words Stephen Pinker has argued that language - while an important dimension of the minds - is but only one part:

I don't think that we think in language, or think in words. I think we think in visual images, we think in auditory images, we think in abstract propositions about what is true about what. And I think that language is a way of communicating thoughts, of getting them out of one head and into another by making noise. I think that even if you look at language itself, you see that there's got to be something underlying the words themselves, because words can be ambiguous.”

Our insistence on defining ideas verbally can lead us to assume that people think with words, and extract verbal propositions from our communications.

In contrast to some of the assumptions of marketingland, Albert Einstein, rejected the notion that the thought with words:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entity which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be "voluntarily"reproduced and combined.”

As Steven Pinker argues, words and sentences are simply too ambiguous for thought:

Thoughts cannot be English words and sentences; notwithstanding the popular misconception that we think in our mother tongue (Sentences) achieve brevity by leaving out any information which the listener can mentally fill in from the context, in contrast, the "language of thought" in which knowledge is couched can leave nothing to the imagination, because it is the imagination.”

According to Pinker, Einstein claimed to have come upon his insight about relativity theory by imagining what it would be like to be in a plummeting elevator and then to take a coin out of your pocket and try to drop it.

If people don’t think about the world using words, it seems a rather futile exercise to insist on defining what set of words they will take out from our marketing content.

We interpret the world through generalisations We are built to make generalisations about the world around us. We’ve all pulled on a door to open it, despite the sign that reads ‘Push’. Because that’s how we expect door to work.

We are built to make generalisations because we use mental rules of thumb - or ‘heuristics’ - to make sense of the world. And we use them because it makes decision-making easier.

Examining and analyzing every door we came across in order to work out how it opened would be a tedious inconvenience in our everyday lives. So generalising helps us navigate through the world efficiently.  According to the psychologist James McClellend, generalization “is central to our ability to act intelligently.”

In contrast, autistics according to Professor Daniel Schacter, lack real-world critical thinking skills precisely because they look at everything in a very individualized, atomised way. They can’t see the wood for the trees.

Similarly, Daniel Pinker in his account of the malady of ‘Dr. P’, gives us a vivid depiction of what happens when we lose the ability to make general judgements and instead must laboriously analyse the world:

“What is this?’ I asked, holding up a glove.

‘May I examine it?’ [Dr. P]  asked, and, taking it from me, he proceeded to examine it as he had examined the geometrical shapes.

‘A continuous surface,’ he announced at last, ‘infolded on itself. It appears to have’—he hesitated -  ’five outpouchings, if this is the word.’

‘Yes,’ I said cautiously. You have given me a description. Now tell me what it is.’

‘A container of some sort?’

Yes,’ I said, ‘and what would it contain?’

‘It would contain its contents!’ said Dr P., with a laugh. ‘There are many possibilities. It could be a change purse, for example, for coins of five sizes. It could ...’

I interrupted the barmy flow. ‘Does it not look familiar? Do you think it might contain, might fit, a part of your body?’

No light of recognition dawned on his face...

No child would have the power to see and speak of ‘a continuous surface ... infolded on itself,’ but any child, any infant, would immediately know a glove as a glove, see it as familiar, as going with a hand. Dr P. didn’t. He saw nothing as familiar."

When it comes to the content we produce - whatever hoops we put ourselves through in crafting those compelling creative presentations and whatever absurd questions researchers might insist on asking respondents in focus groups and pre-tests - people in the real world do not take out pithy ideas, verbal propositions, single-minded messages, USPs or any of that nonsense.

Rather, we perceive something altogether fuzzier.

Bill Bernbach had the intelligence and insight to discern this long before the development of modern neuroscience:

Most readers come away from their reading not with a clear, precise, detailed registration of its contents on their minds, but rather with a vague, misty idea which was formed as much by the pace, the proportions, the music of the writings as by the literal words themselves.”

Our internal distinction between ‘strategy’ and ‘execution’, or between ‘message’ and ‘execution’ can lead to assumption that in the real world, people distinguish between advertising’s form and its content.

Yet as JWT’s Planning Guide - authored by Stephen King - noted back in 1974:

An advertisement as a stimulus is a combination of medium, words, pictures, movements, symbols, associations, tones of voice, etc. The stimulus is received as a totality; the receiver does not separate content and form. The individual elements of an advertisement have no meaning on their own. They can only be judged in combination.” 

We respond to aesthetic wholes Decades later, Feldwick has still found it necessary to remind us that advertising, like art does not work through reductionist concepts, but through the experience of aesthetic wholes.

Try for example, to reduce Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis to the rigours and tortures of the creative presentation and interrogation. Try reducing it to a single, reductionist verbal ‘idea’, and we inevitably struggle. And yet is is very much about something. There’s a real conscious intent in this painting. Just as in advertising, Rembrandt was after a particular reaction. He wanted people to feel something.

Similarly try reducing Picasso’ Guernica to a single-minded idea. And yet it is very much a polemical piece of art. It is an argument. It has a point of view. Again, it’s got a view on what it wants us to feel.

By far and away the best book I read last year was Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. It’s a great, extraordinary, poetic, deeply affecting novel. It’s clearly about stuff. There is a clear authorial intent. But I couldn’t for the life of me distill it down to a single idea, in the way that we demand our work is capable of being reduced.

Judith Williamson in her wonderful, essential, hostile and demanding book Decoding Advertising: Ideology and Meaning In Advertising demonstrates how advertising’s real work lies in its aesthetic wholes, and how it operates largely silently, through its codes and signals. It’s worth quoting from her concluding chapter at length:

What an advertisement ‘says’ is merely what it claims to say; it is part of the deceptive mythology of advertising to believe that an advertisement is simply a transparent vehicle for a ‘message’ behind it. Certainly a large part of any advertisement is this ‘message’: we are told something about a product, and asked to buy it. the information we are given is frequently untrue, and even when it is true, we are often being persuaded to buy products which are unnecessary... a criticism of advertising on these grounds is valid, and I would support it. However such a criticism is in many ways the greatest obstacle of all to a true understanding of the role of advertisements in our society, because it is based on the assumption that ads are merely the invisible  conveyors of certain undesirable messages, and only sees meaning in the overt ‘content’ of the ad rather than it its ‘form’ - in other words, ignoring the ‘content’ of the ‘form’.”

Treating creativity merely as a means of tricking or bribing the viewer into paying attention to the message within it profoundly undervalues and undermines the both the nature and the value of creativity. Creativity isn’t some kind of distraction tactic, bait or bribe. It isn’t a wrapper or envelope for a message. It IS the content.

“It is part of the deceptive mythology of advertising to believe that an advertisement is simply a transparent vehicle for a ‘message’ behind it” - what still too much of marketingland fails to comprehend, it takes a non-marketer and self-confessed Marxist opponent of advertising to recognize.

We exercise, as MT Rainey has rather nicely put it, ‘brand impressionism’. We don’t ‘take out messages’, but are left with general impressions from what we’re exposed to.

The triviality of learning about brands There is another crucial - and often overlooked reason why people should respond to advertising in this way. Learning about brands just isn’t that important to them.

In his theory of low involvement processing, Robert Heath reminded us that most advertising is simply not important enough to be processed consciously, actively or rationally by consumers:

In general, consumers do not expect to learn anything of importance about brands from advertising and are therefore not pre-disposed to pay much attention to it. The result is that any message that requires active evaluation or reinterpretation to be understood is likely to be poorly registered.”

Research practices are rather adept at distorting our understanding of human nature. We don’t ‘take out’ ideas and messages. Nobody is waiting to extract the ‘key message’, ‘single minded thought’, ‘proposition’ or ‘promise’ from anything that we put out into the world. Not least of all because we don’t pay that much attention to it (in contrast to what happens in the focus group or pre-test) and because it really doesn’t matter that much to us.  As Robert Heath has done much to remind us, much of it rather washes over us (or through or, or even past us). Although that doesn’t mean it doesn’t leave traces of associations in the mind.

We can slave away all we want in crafting those tightly-defined ideas, messages and propositions. We can spend all the hours we wish in airless conference rooms debating the words to fill an onion or pyramid with. We can aspire to the compactness of Haiku and the brevity of the aphorism’s wisdom. But in the real world, our content is experienced as something altogether fuzzier and distributed within the brain as a set of associations across networks of connections.

Memory isn’t a thing but a process We know that the brain is not some rigid filing system in which memories reside as fully formed recordings. It is something altogether more dynamic and malleable.  Indeed it’s more accurate to think of memory as a process, not a thing. Our brain’s networks of nerve cells or ‘neurons’ are not fixed entities, but rather, are dynamic and continuously modified by experience. What people experience results in new connections in the structure of our brains.

While parts of marketingland still believe we’re in business of transmitting of information, of ‘communicating’ abstract, intellectual ‘messages’ or propositions, advertising doesn’t work through filing verbal messages and propositions in people’s mental filing systems.

Memory actually works through the creation of connections.  A brand is simply a set of connections and associations in the brain. We form and access memories of brands by creating and activating these networks of associations.

So people don’t consume and file away abstract ideas and propositions. They consume (as Robert Heath has shown, they often with fairly low levels of attention) all the visual, verbal, audible, tangible characteristics of our content - and these create new connections and in the brain.

This creating of networks of associations is in stark contrast to the notion of imparting single-minded messages. The consumption and decoding of marketing content is something altogether fuzzier than we often allow for.

We are active meaning makers The language of ‘messaging’ has inculcated in too many of us an assumption that people are receivers rather than interpreters. And that what we send out is what they file away in the brains.

And this is the real point. We are active consumers of communication. All communication is interactive.

As JWT’s Planning Guide noted all the way back in 1974:

Communication should not be thought of as the sending and receiving (or not receiving) of a message; it is more the sending of a stimulus - a combination of what is said, how it’s said and who said it - and the making or a response. Often the response is very different from the nature or the intentions of the stimulus. What people get out of communications is by no means always what went into it” 

We are, as Judith Williamson has put it, not simple receivers but creators of meanings. Although it is still unendingly depressing to see how little of marketingland truly embraces that reality.

What this means for us Jeremy Bullmore memorably brought to life the fundamental but often overlooked difference between the stimulus and the response:

The advertising person is a sender of stimuli and as such can learn from the comedian. The comedian is also a sender. And he has his receivers – the audience. 

The comedian’s medium of course is his voice.

But what is the message? Well, he knows what he wants his receivers to think – he wants them to think he is funny. However, I doubt any comedian would begin his performance by saying ‘ladies and gentleman the first thing you should know about me is that I am funny.’

The comedian is a far more skilled communicator than that. He knows if he wants the audience to think he is funny then he has to make them laugh. So he tells a joke and they laugh – it’s their response which demonstrates he is funny. They came to that conclusion. It is their contribution not the comedian’s. The communication is completed, and in a sense, only exists by the audience’s contribution.

And that is because receivers are not passive – they are active. They will contribute, complete, modify, reject, select or repudiate – whether we like it or not. They do not absorb messages; they respond to stimulus, they draw their own conclusions.”

It’s fairly obvious to anyone that the nature of our output is diversifying. We’re designing and building interactions (both on- and offline), and the expectation that people take out some ‘key message’ from such experiences is even more unhelpful here.

What’s the single-minded, focused message of a piece of branded utility? Of an app? Of a piece of long-form branded content? Of a sponsorship platform? Of a consumer promotion delivered via mobile?

They can contribute to people’s networks of connections and associations. But they are most certainly not single-minded in the responses they evoke in people’s minds.

With that in mind, some advice to marketers, adfolk and researchers:

  1. Don’t confuse stimulus creation with response creation

  2. Recognize that responses are not a mere mirror image of your stimulus

  3. Embrace the fact that however tightly you might manage the stimulus, people’s responses to it simply cannot be controlled

  4. Stop expecting precision in people’s responses, and instead expect them to be fuzzy, general, and messy

  5. Stop asking people in research what the message was and seek to understand what networks of impressions and associations your content activates, nurtures, or creates

  6. In considering how people will respond to what you make, abandon the distinction between ‘form’ and ‘content’, or between ‘execution’ and ‘message’. People don’t dissect or disaggregate what we make but respond to it as a whole

  7. Stop treating the details of execution as the mere window-dressing for a message

Precision, reductionism, fidelity... they are as irrelevant to advertising responses as they are hard to find in any form of human discourse.


Paul Feldwick, ‘Exploding The Message Myth’

Robert Heath, 'How The Best Ads Work', Admap, April 2002

JWT Planning Guide, 1974

MT Rainey, ‘A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’, Admap, May 2010

Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works

Oliver Sachs, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales 

Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory

Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory

Interview with Stephen Pinker by Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, at