3 ways your brain takes cognitive shortcuts when it views an ad

10/03 By IAS Team

The human brain is capable of great things. As the most complex organ in the human body packing tremendous processing power, it’s not surprising that your brain sometimes cuts corners to save its resources. In psychology, this shortcut is known as a cognitive schema, a framework that our brains use to “help us organize and interpret information” as quickly as possible. 

The positive applications of this brain trick are plentiful: as children, schemas help us learn languages and develop basic social skills. The potential for negative impact, however, is just as high. Schemas can lead us to exclude pertinent new information in favor of what we already know, operate on prejudice, or make false associations unknowingly.

Understandably, brain activity as it relates to advertising is a growing topic of interest for marketers. Our recent study, The Halo Effect, evaluates how an ad’s environment impacts how viewers react to it. Likewise, the Nielsen Norman Group studies on Banner Blindness explore how cognitive schemas can hurt an advertiser’s ability to reach a desired audience.

Let’s take a deeper look into three examples of cognitive schemas that impact consumer perception of ads.

1. Availability Bias / The “Hot Potato” Effect

As part of Nielsen’s research, the group conducted an intensive eye-tracking study that attempted to map patterns of eye movement on a web page as a proxy for attention. What they found was that many internet users operate on availability bias, in which viewers assume where an ad will appear on a page based on one or a few examples of where previous ads have appeared. The impact of this schema is that it often causes visitors to automatically overlook “hot” areas where ads typically appear. In their own words:

“On the web, the hot-potato scanning pattern occurs when users gaze at an item in which they are not interested, then look away and avoid fixating on that area on that page – and sometimes on other pages on the website, and even on completely different websites.”

In other words, if your ad appears in a ‘hot’ area, like the teal sidebar below, it’s best to make sure you make a great first impression, or risk being overlooked. 

2. The Gestalt Rule of Proximity

Aside from placement on the page, the surroundings of an ad also inform potential impact. Gestalt psychology uses six distinct principles to dictate the subconscious associations and conclusions we draw visually when we look at a set of objects. They are: similarity, closure, continuation, symmetry, figure and ground, and proximity.


The laws of proximity and similarity are those that are most often associated with ad placement, respectively stating that objects that are close to one another and that have a common shape, size, texture, or color are often grouped together by the mind. This schema may be part of the reason ads are overlooked when they appear alongside unsavory content: once the user forms a mental model about the type of content they are seeing, the adjacent ads are poisoned by association. Simply put, context matters.  

3. The Halo Effect

Speaking of context, the ‘halo effect’ is already a well-documented cognitive bias, most often associated with the perception we have of people when our brain takes shortcuts by association. Many refer to it as the physical attractiveness bias, or the foundation of the old adage that “what is beautiful must also be good.

In our study The Halo Effect, we explore this cognitive bias relative to advertising. Commissioned by our team at IAS in partnership with Neuro-Insight, the study works by mapping three key factors that indicate how your ads are perceived: favorability, engagement, and memorability.

The study found that ads on high-quality sites were 74% more likable than those on low-quality sites. Not only that – ads that were negatively perceived in a low-quality environment had a greater emotional intensity, indicating an active dislike or irritation toward these ads. 


Research on cognitive schema presents indisputable evidence that ad environments have an impact on consumer perception. So what does this mean? While it may seem tedious, taking a science-based approach to creating strategies as marketers and advertisers is more important than ever. Consider the following when creating your next campaign:

Make a great impression. Leverage enticing, creative design and copy to minimize the Hot Potato Effect and capture attention before availability bias directs consumers’ eyes away from your ad placement.

Go beyond brand safety. The laws of proximity and similarity influence the way consumers perceive your brand, which means the quality of the ad environment matters. Consider The Halo Effect your guide: ensure your ads are aligned with content that is not just safe, but also suitable for your brand to generate positive, memorable experiences. If you’re ready to read the full report, download it here.

Understanding the cognitive patterns of your audience helps to predict mental shortcuts and ensure consumers view your ads in the right context, every time.