This Is How Your Brain Deals With Google And Facebook Ads

Why you can’t ignore them, no matter how hard you try.

Alicia Jenkins is 24 and doesn’t plan on getting married anytime soon. But she says it’s rare that her Facebook feed doesn’t have at least one advertisement for “ethical engagement rings,” wedding dresses, or honeymoon packages — she helped plan her sister’s wedding last fall and just returned from her best friend’s engagement party — so now Alicia has been effectively placed in the wedding registry hell category of Facebook’s advertising partners.

This is the reality of advertising in 2013. Online advertising has quickly transformed from mass media irrelevance to pop-up annoyance to heavily targeted, eerily personal advertisements thanks in part to two of the largest intimate information banks: Google and Facebook. Between the two, Google generates almost 30 billion ad impressions each day compared with Facebook’s 7 billion, and those numbers are only increasing, raising concerns about whether we have the ad literacy or cognitive ability to keep pace with the future of advertising.

The targeted and social advertising techniques employed by Google and Facebook aren’t necessarily a bad thing — more relevant, less intrusive advertising arguably makes our lives simpler and easier. But as Google and Facebook continue to refine their use of two of the most exhaustive data sets on human behavior, our cognitive limitations may become even more apparent. As advertisements become entangled with advice from a good friend and tap further into this realm of things you never knew existed but always wanted, the data giants continue to forge ahead while the human brain’s ability to process information remains largely the same.

Put simply, the brain is not built for advertising. When we see an ad, we don’t think, Who sent that ad? Why? What is their motivation? Clifford Nass, director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab at Stanford University, says. “Humans are not built to scrutinize the sources or the causes of information,” he adds, which seems problematic. We might be better at doing this after the fact — recognizing these targeting efforts by Google and Facebook — but at that moment, we’re not thinking about why.

In understanding how the brain processes information — any information, not just ads — researchers often draw on the The Limited Capacity Model of Motivated Mediated Message Processing, or LC4MP, a theory used to explain our limited capacity for cognitive processing. LC4MP essentially says that with any type of message, our brain is doing three things simultaneously — encoding, storing, and retrieving information — and that we have a finite amount of resources that get split among the three. To make things even more complicated, this information digestion happens automatically or can be controlled — and you don’t get to “choose” which one your brain is going to do.

Consider a difficult task, like doing your taxes. It’s costing you a lot of resources to focus on all the confusing rules and requirements, to make sense of it by remembering what the hell you did last year (retrieval), and to successfully memorize any new legislation or breaks for next year (storage). You’re at the limit of your cognitive capacity. If someone walks into the room and says your name, it will elicit an automatic response and you’ll be forced to give resources to encoding the “Hey, are you doing your taxes? Ugh that sucks,” whether you wanted to or not. By default, your brain will borrow from the storing and retrieving processes — meaning that anything you were doing at that time is effectively gone.

“Encoding is what we think of when we ‘pay attention to something,’” says Robert F. Potter, director of the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana University, where researchers devised the LC4MP model. In terms of the effectiveness of an ad, encoding is the most important process, says Potter. This is where the automatic versus controlled processing happens. If the message evokes an orienting response — something novel or unexpected — in the brain (like the friend whispering your name) then automatic encoding will occur. On the other hand, when we consciously choose to pay attention to a message, that’s controlled processing — and this is the most effective way to store, and later retrieve, a message.

Advertisers “want automatic encoding to happen,” says Potter, in order to bypass the part where you decide whether or not you’re going to encode the message. However, just because you’ve automatically encoded something — a product or a brand — doesn’t mean you’re going to remember it or later be persuaded by its message. Advertising is about developing a relationship with a brand, but the first step is always getting your attention. “If you’re Orkin [pest control], you better have a picture of big old cockroach up there,” says Potter, “because your brain has evolved to automatically encode it as a negative image.” Negative encoding, from an advertiser’s perspective, is still better than no encoding at all.

Google collects information about user activity and search history across the entire web, while Facebook’s data is based more on what a user shares — interests, experiences, friendships, and relationships. Because of the differences in the information they have about their users, and what people are doing when they arrive at Google versus Facebook, the companies’ advertising strategies are slightly different.

Google currently employs two main advertising programs: search and display. With its Search Engine Marketing (SEM), advertisers can bid for space in any of its search-related spheres — general search, maps, images, etc. — using their AdWords to select key words or phrases that people might use when they’re searching for a product or service through Google. SEM ads are generated based on a “quality score” — an algorithm that weighs the relevancy of search and an advertiser’s bid to create the secret-Google-advertising-sauce that “unfortunately, we [Google] don’t really have anyone that can address this,” a Google spokesperson told me in an email.

Display ads are still generated from this quality score, but they are based on context and not what someone is searching — their interests, the websites they visit, age, demographic, etc. Advertisers can purchase ads that follow people across Google’s Display Network — “a group of more than a million websites, videos and apps,” reads the support page. In the display network, advertisers can choose specific sites or types of sites where they want their ads to appear, in addition to the certain times of day and the audiences they hope to target.

Facebook, on the other hand, must approach advertising from a wholly different perspective because its users aren’t typically in buying mode. “They face a slightly harder task than Google,” says Catherine Tucker, an associate professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan Management School. “When you arrive at Google, you are in the mood to find information about stuff — the mind-set we want when people look at ads — but Facebook has to try and understand what kind of advertising works best when people are passive observers of ads.”

While advertisers who partner with Google can bid for the biggest, flashiest ads on the web, Facebook’s social advertising approach is much subtler. Advertisements can be camouflaged as ‘likes’ within a user’s newsfeed, or discreetly placed on the side of the page as a “sponsored story” — like the bottle of lube Amazon paid Facebook to have Nick Bergus share with his friends and family. There are a couple different variations of these kinds of social advertising techniques on Facebook, but for the most part its strategy is about engagement through friends and “likes.” Last summer, Facebook announced the Facebook Exchange, its version of Google’s re-targeting that displays ads on Facebook for things people did outside of Facebook — and it might be getting even better at it than Google.

Regardless of how Facebook’s ads are generated, Tucker’s study, “Social Advertising,” part of an MIT working paper, found that the success of Facebook’s advertising comes not from knowing the movies or music an individual user likes, but knowing which friends they look to to discover new books, movies, or music. “It wasn’t using social to personalize content, it was using social to improve targeting,” she said.

Whether an advertisement is inherently social or all too personal, and whether it appears on the newsfeed or while browsing the web, the end goal for both Google and Facebook’s advertising partners is to get their message through to you and have you remember it (without disdain). Advertisers want to push the brand; it’s not just about buying things.

Despite the debate over what is worse — Google’s massive troves of information or Facebook’s more nuanced, personal data — from a neurological perspective, what matters is not where the ads are coming from. Rather, it’s the extent to which an ad (a secondary task) disrupts the encoding, storing, and retrieving from what the viewer was originally focusing on (a primary task), says Kevin Wise, co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects Lab at the University of Missouri. Wise’s research focuses on how different features of media affect cognition and emotion. With advertising, he says, the level of disruption that takes place depends on a lot of things: the viewer’s motivation, the significance of the primary task, and features of the ad, like novelty or relevance.

“With respect to advertising effectiveness, you want the ad to be as big a part of the primary task as it can be, so you don’t have to switch tasks,” says Wise. “Switching back and forth requires effort, and notoriously we’re not very good at doing that — people find that a distraction,” he says.

An advertisement tries to strike the perfect balance between interruption and disruption, enough to get you to stop what you’re doing and process the ad, but not too much to make you instantaneously rebel and shift back to your primary task before encoding occurs. Pop-up ads were effective in that they forced people to shift their attention, but because they were so disruptive they were largely ignored, says Wise.

“If I’m on Facebook looking at the newsfeed, and there are ads on the periphery of the page, that’s still a secondary task,” says Wise. “I’m still paying attention to the primary task [of reading the newsfeed]. No matter how combined the ads get with other content, they still represent a secondary task,” says Wise.

But the sponsored stories on Facebook that live within the newsfeed are a different story. “If I’m reading my Facebook feed and it says ‘Allison just liked Taco Bell,” then the advertisement has become part of the primary task,” says Wise. That’s the gold standard, he tells me, making it so there is no distinction between what someone is doing naturally and the advertisement.

But there is also a tension between ads that become part of the primary task and ads so inconspicuous we don’t even notice them — like the tiny line of advertisements above unread emails in Gmail — which are barely discernible. This is perhaps why advertisers grow frustrated with Facebook, arguing that most ads on the site go unseen or unclicked in comparison with Google’s ads, which reach far, wide, and in your face. While it’s important for an ad to initially grab your attention — to be successfully encoded, stored, and retrieved — once you’ve seen an ad, what matters is your attitude toward the message.

“The outcome most advertisers are interested in is persuasion, which is related to attitude change and not based on attention,” says Sundar. In one of his studies, “Interactivity and Persuasion: Influencing Attitudes with Information and Involvement,” published in the Journal of Interactive Advertising, Sundar found that stimulating aspects of an interface — such as animation or interactivity — may result in “sensations,” but that these compete for the same finite amount of cognitive ability needed to encode the information. “Therefore, the experience of having viewed a flashy web ad is memorable, but it comes at the cost of actual memory for product information contained in the ad,” the researchers describe in the paper.

What is memorable, and likely more persuasive than flashiness and the ability to grab your attention, are recommendations by peers, says Sundar — the entire premise of Facebook’s social advertising. Although Google has a greater repository of information and host of different places to reach you across the web, Facebook arguably has the data that matters — not just what you like, but who your friends are and what they like — which is more effective for developing positive, lasting attitudes toward products and brands. The more meaningful the message, the more deeply we process it, so while automatic encoding is useful for getting the message through at all, more effortful processing of information will “help advertisers get to that next layer of attention beyond mere exposure,” he tells me.

And that next layer of attention might actually be the previous layer, if that’s possible. At least that’s the hope.

Google calls it the “Zero Moment of Truth,” or ZMOT, and although Facebook doesn’t have a name for it, they’re shooting for the zero moment too. For Google, this is the moment before you get to the store or go online to buy something; it’s when you first start to search. From the ZMOT handbook:

Non-brand (or “generic”) searchers are the ones who aren’t thinking about you yet. They’re the people searching for “facial tissue” instead of “Kleenex,” or “fast food” instead of “Burger King.”

Google wants its advertisers to know what you’re interested in before you do — before you think about buying or doing something or going somewhere — this is the moment advertisers yearn to touch. On Facebook, the zero moment might look more like a check-in or recommendation from a friend — a new restaurant they’ve been to that you should probably go to now too. Perhaps this is why Google Plus exists as well: a social network created solely for the purpose of social advertising.

“It’s catching people before buy mode on Facebook,” says Dennis Yu, CEO of BlitzLocal, an internet marketing firm, and a Facebook advertising expert. “And that could be triggered by the fact that you saw something from a friend.”

Advertising messages during the “zero moment” might be so accurately timed, they don’t have to address as many obstacles in human information processing. Timed exactly right, zero-moment ads might not have to strike the perfect balance between eye-catching but not distracting, relevant but not too relevant, meaningful but not too personal, from a trusted friend but not an ex-lover — the subtle nuances in social psychology that researchers have been studying for decades and that advertisers desperately want to understand.

If zero-moment ads can help them bypass the hard part — the part where they have to figure out the most persuasive, least invasive way of delivering a message that grabs your attention but doesn’t make you hate it — they could save billions of dollars. John Wanamaker, considered to be “the father of modern advertising,” is famous for saying, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” And the zero moment could be the answer to this long sought-after question.

Historically, advertising has been about reach and frequency. If advertisers wanted reach, they bought a Super Bowl ad. If they wanted frequency, they played their ad on TV every hour. But a lot of this approach changed with online advertising when advertisers were given the opportunity for both reach and frequency. With targeted and social ads, the future looks like reach and frequency at exactly the right moment — what Sundar calls “just-in-time persuasion.”

“[Consumers] have to be wary about the possibility that ads are seemingly giving us exactly what we happened to be looking for or wanting at any given time,” he says, “when we might be most receptive to persuasion.” If Google’s and Facebook’s data can pinpoint the zero moment, when we’re most vulnerable or most likely to impulse buy, then it might be time to be seriously concerned.

Maybe not, though; in many cases, this type of advertising is welcomed — wanted, even. For an upcoming vacation, ads that provide information about the destination’s best spots are invited, especially when that ad is generated by a recommendation from a friend who’s been there before. “The idea that using peer recommendations or peer activity is bad — that is, in fact, what most consumers want to know,” says Douglas Wood, a digital privacy lawyer in New York City. “It’s the most powerful marketing message there has ever been.”

Wood argues that there are serious advantages to targeted and social advertisements, and that, when given the choice, more consumers would prefer relevant, targeted advertisements to the alternative. He also believes that Google’s and Facebook’s most avid users — those who are likely the most accurately and heavily targeted — are also the most web savvy. “Younger people really do understand [targeted ads], and really do know how to navigate the web,” says Wood. “They know what is at stake. They know the benefits and downsides to being targeted.”

There is q line, however, and Wood thinks the zero-moment advertising goal might cross it. If Google’s and Facebook’s advertising techniques become even more sophisticated, consumers might need to be alerted, says Wood. He doesn’t mean to say these advertising efforts should be stopped altogether — only that consumers need to be aware.

“When technology keeps advancing, we do have to say at some point ‘that’s a little too much,’” says Wood. “‘You are targeting me just a little too early and just a little too much.’”

We’re not there yet, at least not as far as the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection is concerned, as they still have yet to receive a formalized complaint about targeted or social advertising tactics. “While we may not receive individual consumer complaints, we are aware of tons of different consumer surveys that express concern about behavioral tracking or collection of behavioral data,” says Christopher Olsen, director of the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection at the FTC.

“The whole idea of social consumers essentially becoming advertising partners — we have to educate people in this new online ecosystem,” says Mary K. Engle, director of the Division of Advertising Practices at the FTC. “People need to know what the rules of the road are.”

But the “rules of the road” in advertising aren’t always clear, especially when they’re constantly changing and improving. The zero moment hints a future where it might not be as easy to say, “I am aware of and immune to all advertising techniques.” It’s not really clear which — Google or Facebook (or either of them) — is likely to come out of this as the “winner.” In the end, the winner is always advertisers; there will always be advertising because the web as we know it is built around a model of advertising.

The question is not whether or not Google or Facebook will crack the zero-moment code first, but whether or not we are prepared for another, deeper layer of advertising. We will always have to encode, store, and retrieve information — these brain processes won’t change — but over time it might become more difficult to do these processes while recognizing that the information is an advertisement. “We know how the brain works,” says Nass, “but we don’t know the details of how advertising will work in the future.”

Graphics by Chris Ritter

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