Andrew Arntfield

Sometimes what a brand intends to say to its customers, and what those customers actually see are two different things, as the Toronto Argonauts recently discovered.

As a marketer, your job is to make sure the brand message gets through to your customer. It shouldn't be difficult, right? After all, if the message is clear and concise, how can it be misinterpreted?

The truth is that our brains can throw up roadblocks that prevent us from understanding even the simplest of messages. If you want to increase your odds of success, you need to know how we read and interpret written words.


When we read, our eyes don't move smoothly across the text looking at the individual letters in each word, or even at the words as a whole. Psycholinguist Keith Rayner of the University of Massachusetts says that the typical reader instead looks at an entire group of words. Our eyes pause briefly – which is called a "fixation". This "fixation" lasts less than a quarter of a second on average.

After the brief pause, our eyes move to the next group of words. This movement is called a "saccade" and takes only a tenth of a second. Then the pattern is repeated with the next group of words. After a few repetitions, we pause to comprehend the message just viewed, which takes less than half a second.

The brain receives billions of sensory signals at any given moment, and it instantaneously prioritizes this information. To our brain, not all data is of equal value. If it were, we would simply grind to a halt while our brain tried to deal with an overload of data. Instead, redundant or repetitive information is given low priority or skipped over altogether.

As an example of this prioritization, when reading the written word, the brain has trained the eye to skip past short or predictable words such as "a", "the", "in" and "of".

According to Rayner, this process results in 95% of college educated people reading and comprehending an average of 300 words per minute – or 5 words per second.

But how does this cognitive process impact your marketing message?


Cineplex Entertainment is currently running a series of ads for their "mobile box office" app. Consumers can now purchase movie tickets via their smart phones. The intention of the banner ads is to convey that if you have a smart phone in your pocket, you can access the Cineplex box office, anywhere, any time.

But when I first glanced at this ad in the Globe and Mail, my brain saw something else. My eyes fixated on "NOW OPEN" for a fraction of a second, then moved past the predictable word "IN", and fixated on "YOUR POCKET".

It took less than a second for me to read and comprehend the message. And what I saw was this:

Instead of a cheeky declaration, my brain saw it as a brusk command to "open my pocket". My immediate, subconscious interpretation was that Cineplex wanted me to hand over my money, and they wanted me to do it NOW!

Granted, not everyone would have this same understanding of the Cineplex message. While the reading process is generally the same for everyone, our comprehension and interpretation of the message are influenced by other factors, from the style and tone of the graphic design of the ad, to our emotional state at the time we read the ad. Perhaps most importantly, our life experiences, attitudes and memories have a considerable impact on our response to marketing messages.


The Toronto Argonauts recently launched a campaign with a message to consumers that the Argos would put up a tough fight on their home field this season. The campaign headline was "Home is where the heart is. It's also where we hurt people."

While most consumers took the message at face value, some had a different interpretation – including Toronto councillor Mike Layton. "While I understand the intended meaning, my concern is the unintended consequences," Layton wrote. "In the context of domestic violence, the ad insinuates that domestic violence in the home is acceptable or normal. The ad may also trigger traumatic responses in the many survivors of domestic violence who are courageously moving forward with their lives."

Argonauts' vice-president of marketing and communications David Bedford said that the team didn't consider the posters in that context, but perhaps they should have. "I think it's pretty common knowledge that football is a contact sport and a physical game," Bedford said. "We didn't look at it in the context of domestic violence and we probably should have, given that we've had a handful of complaints."

As a result of the controversy, the Argos removed 1,000 posters from Toronto subways and replaced them with revised creative. In the end, the media coverage likely gained the Argos more public awareness than they ever could have hoped for from a thousand transit posters.

The Argos may have been unaware of how consumers might interpret their campaign message. What IS clear, however, is that savvy marketers who understand the cognitive process can use this knowledge to positively influence their customers' thoughts and behaviour.



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