Image Influence: Placing Pictures for Maximum Impact


Guest post by John Carvalho

before and afterThere’s an idea from cognitive psychology called cognitive fluency that has been making the rounds in the business world lately. The idea is simple enough: as human beings, we prefer that which is easy for us to understand and process, and will find products and messages that are “easy” to grasp more desirable than those that are “challenging.” (See Convince with Simple Fonts.)

What does that mean? Companies that have easy-to-pronounce stock tickers actually have more successful IPOs. If I handed you and your best friend two sets of identically worded instructions to assemble the same product, yours written in Times New Roman, his in calligraphy, he would view the product as being more difficult to put together and likely less desirable as well.

Two different studies slated to be published in the August 2013 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research add fascinating depth to our understanding of cognitive fluency in advertising and how it can significantly affect product perceptions.

Order Counts: Past vs. Future

before left, after rightFirst, researchers from the University of British Columbia found that for certain products, something as simple as the placement of photos on a page (or web page) can dramatically affect how favorably the product is viewed. It turns out that in cultures where we read left to right, we have a spatial understanding of things on our left as being in the past, and things on the right as being in the future. So, researchers were able to show that when the product in question had an implied “time” component (home improvement products, etc.), consumers actually had a more favorable impression of the product when the ads they viewed had visual components that traveled from left to right across the page. The opposite was found true for people from cultures that read from right to left.

Close Relationships

closer is strongerAnother study in the same issue expands upon another facet of how we perceive: when two things are presented as being close to each other, we perceive a relationship as existing between them, and the strength of the perceived relationship is related to how close the two things are. This insight has been translated into the advertising world. When it comes to products with a “before” and “after” (think acne medication), the spatial proximity of visual representations of cause and effect can influence customers’ perception of the product’s effectiveness. That is to say, the closer together you place the before and the after images, the greater causal relationship the viewer perceives, and the more effective they think your product is.

What is the neuromarketing takeaway here? The brain has evolved with a certain perceptual and psychological toolkit that dictates how we think, feel, and behave The better you align your marketing communications to how your consumer’s brain already works, the easier you’ll make it for them to focus on your brand and the better chance you’ll have to drive positive feelings about your product.

  1. John Carvalho says

    Roger, thanks! I think the research is quite interesting, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it and the insights it provides into marketing and branding.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thank YOU, John – great actionable advice for Neuromarketing readers!

  2. Keith Lovgren says

    This is a terrific post. Thanks for putting it together. Before/After images are great for CRO tests. You see them a lot, but from the great results we’ve seen with them, they are still under utilized.

    Before and After pics can be used for a lot more products than most people realize. Remember the ads for Memorex? “Is it live or is it Memorex?”. It’s worth a Google if you’re not familiar with the campaign.

  3. Scott says

    Interesting on the past-present relationship. In film making, traveling north is represented by a train, car or vehicle traveling from the right to the left on the screen. South is left to right.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Fascinating, Scott. Good to know if you are selling travel products and services!


      1. John Carvalho says

        Scott, thanks for adding that insight- it’s interesting to see these principles at play in different industries and situations.

  4. Chester Butler says

    NIce post. Robin Williams’ little book Design for the Non Designer agrees that proximity is an important function of good design. Good design sells. Proximity is so important that she says it one of the 4 pillars of good design. Ahh, the right brain and left brain have united!

    1. John Carvalho says

      Chester, thanks- one of the things that I think is interesting about a number of these insights is that good art/creative directors seem to know a number of them intuitively- now it just becomes a matter of adding some research to back it up.

  5. Brian says

    Good article. I’m surprised Roger didn’t make you say “the Brainfluence takeaway is…”. Haha been reading the book and that stuck out.

  6. Sani says

    Great article, never really thought about image placement before. Thanks for sharing!

    1. John Carvalho says

      Thanks, Sani.It’s definitely an interesting topic.

  7. Claire Boyles says

    great post thanks, do you know of any research showing the left to right=past to future experience?

    I learned about it some years ago, and would love to see if there are any studies that show this, it makes perfect sense, and I make use of it when I’m presenting on stage, moving to the left of the stage when talking about the past, and moving to the right when talking about the bright future the audience will have, IF they apply the knowledge they’ve learned by listening to me 😉

    1. John Carvalho says


      Thanks for the feedback! It’s fascinating the extent to which seasoned marketing communicators/presenters already intuitively “get” a lot of these ideas- they are, after all, pretty deeply baked into how humans think, feel, and behave.

      The left=past/ right=future association seems to be a culturally mediated effect of how we consume information- in cultures that read right to left, the spatial/temporal relationship with left/past and right/future is found, where in cultures that read right to left, that relationship is flipped!

      Two citations to get you started:

      “Metaphoric Structuring: Understanding Time Through Spatial Metaphors”, from the April 2000 edition of the journal Cognitiion. Author is L. Boroditsky.

      “Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time- Evidence from an Implicit Non-Linguistic Task”-from the November 2010 edition of the journal Cognitive Science. Authors are O. Fuhrman and L. Boroditsky.

      Hope this helps!


      1. Claire Boyles says

        Hi John,

        that’s great thank you! I first learned about the left right movement linked to past/present from someone who I later found out was using information which wasn’t based on scientific research, hence my curiosity to see if there was any backing this up! 🙂

        I appreciate you taking time to comment and provide the information I was seeking, thank you!

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