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The Psychology of Banner Blindness

Customer Experience

By now we know that banner blindness is having a significant impact on the effectiveness and growth of display advertising. The vast majority of consumers have trained their eyes and brains to overlook advertising, no matter how pretty the pictures or how clever the words. Yet the industry continues to spend (or rather, waste) billions of dollars on making display ads better. Rich media, behavioral targeting, interactivity – none of these things come cheap, and none of them can really accomplish their goal of engagement if the ad is never seen in the first place.

As marketers and communicators, we know psychology plays a major role in how we reach out to consumers. Persuasive language, color theory, incentives – these elements of an ad message are carefully crafted based on principles of modern psychology, and specifically designed to create a positive perception of and response to a brand.

Consumer psychology, like all studies of the human mind, is an evolving field, and is by no means the sole determining factor in the effectiveness of an ad, but it does point us in the right direction by telling us what visual and verbal elements are likely to appeal to different audiences to elicit a specific reaction. So why wouldn’t we use psychology to help gain insight into the banner blindness issue, and to guide us toward addressing it as an industry?

That said, it doesn’t take very deep psychological analysis for us to know that advertising is not exactly something that consumers seek out. Many consumers consider it intrusive and annoying (and to be fair, it often is) and after many years of Internet use, they have repeated the behavior of glancing at an irrelevant ad and then looking away so often that their brains have learned to automatically direct the eye away from the locations in which advertising usually appears.

The fact that most of the online ads we see are still irrelevant to our interests and needs is an important factor in the spread of banner blindness. Humans are hardwired to seek out fulfillment of their own needs, so when they are online, it is usually to find information or content that answers a particular need. Messaging that does not relate to that purpose will be overlooked as a matter of course, and that eventually becomes a habit.

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General distrust in Internet advertising (as opposed to ads on other media) also plays a role. According to consumer psychologist Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D., consumers assign human characteristics like trustworthiness to different media channels, and a 2013 report from Forrester Research noted that only ten percent of consumers trust online messaging from brands. In any context, the phrase “I saw it on the Internet” is generally met with a certain degree of skepticism, and advertising content is even more poorly regarded.

“Old Habits Die Hard”

The adage is unquestionably true; ask anyone who has tried to quit smoking or stop drinking soda. “Psychology Today” calls habit formation “the process by which new behaviors become automatic. If you instinctively reach for a cigarette the moment you wake up in the morning, you have a habit. By the same token, if you lace up your running shoes and hit the streets as soon as you get home, you’ve acquired a habit.”

So for our purposes, the question becomes “Is banner blindness a consumer habit?”

Eye tracking has been widely used to examine consumers’ content consumption patterns, and it has consistently shown that the majority of consumers—up to 86 percent according to our recent study—automatically ignore standard ads along the top and right side of most pages they visit.

So based on that observation, and on the definition above, it’s probably safe to say that banner blindness is indeed a habit, which is both bad and good news. Habits form because the behavioral patterns we repeat most often become literally etched in our neural pathways. As you might guess, that etching is hard to reverse, which is why it is so difficult to break a habit.

But the good news is, through repetition, it’s possible to form new habits. Working together as an industry we can break the old habits. With properly targeted, relevant ads, consumers will willingly engage to enrich their online experience.

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