What makes things memorable?

A few months ago, I was asked to talk at a BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty) Event in Singapore called “Insanity with a Purpose”. I’m not sure I quite worked out how the title related to the content being shared that night but perhaps it was about thinking out of the box, where the box was firmly rooted in the offices of a global advertising agency. But that’s ok – what, I asked, do you want me to talk about? The answer came back – you choose, we want to know whether there is anything in the field of brain science that could be leveraged by our industry. So I reflected briefly and suggested they might be interested in understanding what makes things memorable, based on some insights that we have about the way the human brain works. So here are a few I thought I would share and that might prove helpful in courting consumers.

If you’ve ever studied the psychology of memory, you will know that many different factors play a role in determining what people remember including:

The amount of attention being paid to the event

The novelty of the information

The nature and strength of the emotions that are evoked

And as demonstrated above, the RULE OF 3 is important too – our brains have evolved a hard-wired ability to count 3 or 4 items easily – a tactic used by rethorical speakers as a “clap-trap” to end their speech on a high to a resounding applause. Savvy speakers too tend to leave the audience with 3 key take-homes to ensure the key points are effectively encoded into long term memory.


By and large, the rule with respect to attention is that the greater the attention paid to the image, event or experience, the more the information is elaborated in short term memory (where information is retained for a few minutes or for as long as we rehearse it in our heads) the more likelihood it will transfer into long term memory (which is where you want your message to end up, as memories in here can last a lifetime).

But what attracts our attention? How can you be sure your print, digital or television campaign will capture the audience’s eye (or ear, nose and hands for that matter)? Studies of the human visual system have shown that there are some visual features that we simply can’t ignore.

Movement (implied or real)

Without a doubt, things that move suddenly and particularly in the periphery of vision, capture attention like nothing else. The evolutionary advantage is obvious – long ago when humans shared their living environment with other animals, being able to detect the movement of a predator was perhaps the most vital capability of all – a skill that could mean the difference between life and death. So it is no surprise we have inherited this hard-wired propensity from our ancestors. Who can ignore the motion of even the tiniest mosquito, even when its buzzing is almost inaudible; or the flicker of a subtle e-mail notification when the sound on the digital device is turned off?

Look at the example below, it isn’t only real movement that captures our attention, static images that fool the visual system or scenes that imply motion are also highly attention grabbing.

In this visual illusion above, the brain tries to make sense of a series of geometric shapes it has learned to associate with motion and hence we perceive the concentric circles as moving. Duracell have cleverly exploited this phenomenon to communicate by visual analogy the long-lasting nature of their batteries.  If you want your packaging to stand out on a supermarket shelf, incorporating illusory movement is one sure fire way of attracting shoppers attention.

But implied motion too acts to engage the visual system.  Examine the images below, which do you think are the most memorable?

If you guessed A, D and E, you would be correct. In a study aimed at determining what makes images memorable, the psychologist Aude Oliva and colleagues found that dynamic images with people and central objects in them had the highest recall level. Using a clever automated algorithm applied to thousands of photographs viewed by hundreds of respondents, they found that dynamic scenes in which people were interacting were the most memorable, whereas static indoor environments and human-scale objects were somewhat less memorable, and beautiful landscapes were amongst the least memorable. The implied movement of humans it seems, makes a memorable impression.

High contrast stimuli

If you want to stand out from the crowd, engaging maximum colour contrast is a good strategy with black on white being the most striking of all. This is because the human visual system is optimally tuned to detect high contrast stimuli – a fact that calls into question the UK government’s past decision to feature black and white verbal warning labels on cigarette packs to deter smokers.

Designed to alert smokers to the dangers of smoking, such high contrast black and white warnings were actually rather counterproductive – instead attracting smokers attention to the object of their addiction. In a brain imaging study carried out for Martin Lindstrom’s book “Buyology”, we found that high contrast warning labels failed to reduce activity in an area of the brain involved in nicotine craving.  If anything, compared to the brain activity evoked by packs without labels, packs with high contrast warning signs increased activation in this area.

As far as the visual system is concerned, nothing signals “look at me, I’m over here” quite like the juxtaposition of black letters on a white background.

Faces – all kinds of faces

The human brain is highly tuned to perceive faces – all sorts of faces – a fact that has not been lost on the designers working with several automotive manufacturers.

Human newborns exhibit an involuntary preference for faces and face-like images.  By 3 months of age babies are able to recognise emotions from the face and display a preference for their own-race faces as well as faces that are looking directly ahead compared to whose gaze is averted. This remarkable hard-wiring and adaptation persists into adulthood and demonstrates just how salient human faces are to our object recognition systems. Not only is our attention automatically captured by faces but our attentional systems too are involuntarily directed to the position that the eyes are looking – a phenomenon well illustrated below by this eyetracking study from Bunny Foot.


Things that are novel, erroneous or simply ambiguous also titillate the visual system. There’s nothing the human brain likes more than a visual puzzle that it will invariably try and resolve – another useful ploy for increasing the amount of attention that is paid to an image. Our multisensory attentional systems have been wired up to detect change. By capitalizing on the bizarre, unusual and constantly shifting, creative directors can take charge of what consumers attend to and for how long.

A good example of the commercial application of  ambiguous image is that shown above on the right and used to advertise Pittsburgh Zoo. If you focus on black you will see an iconic tree. If you ignore the black and focus on white, you will also perceive the facial silhouettes of a gorilla on the left and lion on the right beneath the branches, even though of course, neither creature has been drawn.  They exist only in the brain’s imagination.


Brain scans obtained while subjects make decisions or choose between different stimuli have shown that the emotional centres of the brain are activated first. This is particularly the case when the outcome of the choice means the delivery of either a reward or a punishment. And so it is with memories. While attention and elaboration (actively rehearsing the material) helps to shift the information into long term memory, studies have shown that highly emotional events or images can sometimes by-pass the short term rehearsal strategies and go straight into long term storage from where they are easily recalled.

These are called “flashbulb” memories – and such is the potency of the emotions they evoke, they leave a lasting impression in the brain’s storage systems. Everyone can remember where they were when the iconic twin towers collapsed in New York – so shocking was the sight it became indelibly written into our memories.

But less drastic images that are still emotionally salient can also embed themselves into our imagination, as the spider shown at the start of this article well illustrates, particularly if you happen to be an arachnophobe. The more emotionally salient the image to a particular audience, the greater the likelihood it will be remembered.

More recently, the advertising industry has become increasingly interested in harnessing the power of mirror neurons. These are a cluster of brain cells that become activated when we see other people performing an action or making a particular facial expression. When stimulated, mirror neurons cause us to internally mimic that action or expression and helps to put ourselves in other peoples shoes; to “feel” what they do; and are closely linked to feelings of empathy.

Importantly, brain research suggests that the memories formed during the activity of mirror neurons can last much longer (months or years) than those created during active short-term rehearsal of the same information.


So next time you’re planning a campaign, marketing communication or experiential event, don’t forget these 3 crucial factors:

  • attention
  • novelty
  • emotionality

The insights emerging from the field of neuroscience are providing us with a much deeper understanding of how we work, what drives us and how to influence behaviour. But it is only in the hands of creative minds that such insights can be put to use, to craft and communicate inspirational brand memories.