Are there nonverbal cues in advertising? Yes, of course there are!

Advertising and marketing are all about nonverbal and body language cues because you have to put your brand and messaging into every aspect of your promotion. And guess what? You only have 0.05 seconds for your promotion to make a good first impression to online consumers. 

What this means is, your online first impression has made its impression before the user has even had a chance to read any of your content. 

Have you been plagued by low conversions, high bounce rates, short average visit duration, low sales, or slow traffic? You need to capture your online audience’s attention with your website’s nonverbal cues and optimize your virtual first impression! With the help of these studies about nonverbal behavior and advertising, you’ll be able to see how you can use body language to increase your income, influence and impact.

Nonverbal in Advertising

1. Show People Where to Look

Usually in an advertisement there is a central focus — an action step, like “Click Here”, or a product, and this is where a customer’s attention should ideally be. There is actually a nonverbal trick to getting your customer to focus on your target: have someone in the advertisement looking at the target. Humans instinctively want to look at what someone else is looking at, so if you have a “Buy Now” button on an advertisement or are selling a shoe in a commercial, you want to have a model looking right at that target or main message. Here is an example:

body language, advertising

Your eyes want to follow where his eyes are looking… towards a logo, slogan or call-to-action.

2. Focus Their Focus

Where are your readers looking? There are certain features on your website where you tend to draw the most attention, but often only one or two are used effectively:

  1. Logo
  2. Main navigation menu
  3. Search box
  4. Social networking links
  5. Primary image (whatever image was at the top of the repeating header or page)
  6. Written content
  7. Website footer

Why is this information essential to hone in on? Dr. Hong Sheng at Missouri University lead an experiment using eye-tracking software on students as they scanned certain websites. She found that people’s eyes are drawn most to those 7 website features, time and time again! As a creator and online marketer, if you’ve found yourself lost on where to focus your efforts, those key features will give you the most success on helping your consumers decide what they think of your website and product. 

Additionally, The Poynter Institute also did an eye tracking study on consumers, but this time they tracked the eye behavior as users read web pages. The results of this study indicated that virtual readers’ eyes follow an F-shaped pattern on a website. First glance begins in the upper left hand side of the page, and then moves across then down, then across and down again. 

To mmimick this, think about adding headings and buttons in the F pattern of your website! You want to follow where people’s eyes naturaly flow. 

3. Eyes As Cues

Having a picture like this in your ads or website is a great way to control the gaze direction of your customer. Look at this picture of an eye map. This is where most people look when seeing a picture for the first time. As you can see we typically look at people’s eyes, so if their eyes are pointed somewhere else, we tend to follow.

How the eyes view the face

Take a look at how marketing and advertising guru Seth Godin uses this principle on his website. He wants you to take action so he is looking at the sidebar panel with all of the cool areas of his website.

seth godin

4. Show Your Hands

With each new user exploring your site, your number one priority is to give them a positive first impression and then have them take action. How do you tick both of these boxes in one fell swoop? Hand gestures! Using your hands to gesture or point to where you want people to look or what you want them to do is simple. There are tons of stock images out there that you can use of people looking, gesturing, or pointing in whatever direction you desire. 

An image of someone pointing at your product or action button is a great, easy way to start getting more conversions and sales! 

Now, it isn’t all just about pointing. Research has found that our hands are our biggest trust indicators. When people can see our hands, they feel that they can trust us. When you choose your photos for the website, even if they’re not pointing, try picking ones that show your hands as much as possible. 

Trust is a huge part of your online first impression. Get off on the right foot, or hand, by showing them (and ultimately, showing that you’re a trustworthy brand).

5. Happy Faces

It’s imperative in online marketing that we understand the seven basic, but universal, facial expressions. The faces and the photos that you choose to display on your site need to convey the perfect message to your audience. Unfortunately, one of the biggest mistakes websites make are using photos of people smirking. A smirk, or one-sided mouth raise, is actually the universal signal of contempt, or hatred.

Why do we need to know this? We have mirror neurons that encourage us to mimic or mirror the person we are looking at. We do this to feel empathy. When we make a face we tend to feel the emotion. This is called the Facial Feedback Hypothesis — where the face you make also makes you feel that emotion. This is why the best face to use in an ad is a happy face! If we see a confused, frustrated or contempt-ridden face in an ad, we tend to copy the face and therefore feel more confused, frustrated, or resentment ourselves. Hopefully, your product or service is solving a pain point, so show the end emotion of success not the frustrated starting place.

6. Babies

Our brains love looking at babies. So, if your product could have a baby in the ad, include it! See this iconic ad from Cola:

baby, body language advertising, nonverbal studies

Babies engage a different area of our brains — especially for women. It instantly puts us in a warm, caring, compassionate mood. And this of course, makes us want to buy more.

7. Dilate Pupils

Back in the 1870’s Charles Darwin found that when we feel fear, our pupils expand to help us take in more of our surroundings — this helps with fight or flight response. When we can see more, we are more likely to survive. Interestingly, our pupils also expand when we see something we like.

In 1965 a psychologist named Eckhard Hess performed an experiment where he showed his research assistant, James Polt, a series of photographs while tracking the diameter of Polt’s pupil size. When Hess showed Polt a picture of a nude woman, his pupils enlarged immediately. Further experimentation found that, in fact, our pupils do dilate when aroused — to take in more of the pleasant surroundings. Additionally, researchers found that people also find faces with dilated pupils as more attractive. If you really want to up the attractiveness of your product and your ad, try increasing the pupil size with photoshop. When you look closely, you will notice most major advertisers already do this.

8. Use Color Psychology

Research has found that colors can greatly affect our moods and perceptions. No surprise here, but another amazing study out of Missouri University has found that color has a large effect on how much consumers like or trust a website. This is HUGE! Your nonverbal brand needs to match your mission and your products. What can you give, what are you trying to sell, how are you trying to change someone’s life? 

Buffer’s own Leo Wildrich has crafted an incredible post on the science of color psychology and what each color represents when used for online branding. Here are some examples for you to take away:

  • Blue: loyalty, stability, tranquility
  • Yellow: happiness, optimism, youth
  • Green: healing, success, hope
  • Black: power, mystery, professionalism
  • White: purity, cleanliness, innocence
  • Red: passion, sexuality, intensity
  • Purple: royalty, spirituality, luxury
  • Orange: energy, fun, warmth

Can’t get enough on color psychology? Check out our Color Psychology 101 guide, or this helpful guide to how advertisers can use color psychology.

9. Money!

If you use dollar amounts in your advertisements there are two nonverbal ways to increase sales:

  • Researchers have found that removing the $ sign in front of numbers helps take the sting off of the price for customers.
  • If possible, prime with a higher number before listing your price. For example, there is a reason infomercials always say, “Most products like these cost thousands of dollars, we are only offering this today for 199!” They are priming you to think that thousands is high, so $199 isn’t high comparatively.

10. Trust Action, Not Focus Groups

Many people put together focus groups or ask friends or family what they think of their ads, but this is actually not a good idea. Our logical brain often makes different decisions than our emotional brain — and our emotional brain is what dictates our buying behavior.

Take this study for example: Researchers had 30 smokers who were trying to quit watch television commercials from three advertising campaigns, which all ended by showing the phone number of the National Cancer Institute’s smoking-cessation hotline. They had to choose which campaign, “A”  “B” or “C” would be the best. The smokers chose A and B as the best and C as the least effective. The researchers also asked experts in the anti-smoking field which ads would work and which wouldn’t. They also thought A and B were the best with C in last place.

Then the researchers had the smokers watch the ads in fMRI machines and saw that the medial prefrontal cortex had higher activity during advertising campaign C than it did during A and B. It turns out their brain knew which ad was best, even if their logic didn’t. When the ads aired, the C campaign caused a thirty-fold increase in call volume while A and B had less than half of that. So, don’t ask people what they think, ask a small group of your target demo to actually take action.

11. Position for Readiness

Nonverbally, you want your advertisement to signal “readiness.” What I mean is that if you have a picture of a food product you want that product to look like it is easy to pick up and eat. This triggers to the brain that it is about to have a snack — hence increasing cravings. For example, which ad do you think will perform better:

A.

yogurt good, body language advertising, nonverbal studies

B.

yogurt bad, body language advertising, nonverbal studies

If you guessed A, you would be right. This is called the Visual Depiction Effect. Nonverbally this signals to a customer that it is ready to buy or eat simply by changing the product’s orientation. Researchers have found that if you orient a product toward a person’s dominant hand in a visual campaign, it increases the imagined product use. 

Researchers Ryan Elder and Aradhna Krishna experimented with images of bowls, cups, sandwiches, coffee and yogurt to test how nonverbal orientation could change purchasing and product desirability. They found that it is best to appeal to the right hand side (sorry lefties!).

Remember that the nonverbal messaging in your advertisements can greatly increase your sales and impact. Don’t forget about body language, orientation and color messaging!

12. Less is More 

White space is good. Simplicity is key. The basics are best. We never want to overload our audience by trying to engage every sense they have at once! A recent Harvard study actually found that as website complexity increased, the less appealing the website became to visitors. If there are too many colors, fonts, ads, pop-ups, banners, sidebar options, buttons, or more, the more confusing it can be to take in for your visitor, and the more likely they are to leave your brand with a bitter taste in their mouth. 

For example, I’d like you to visit and compare The World’s Worst Website with a company website aptly named Simple. As you can see, both convey the exact message the name is sending, but you want to stay and explore Simple more, don’t you? 

Another important mind to keep in mind when building your website and marketing your brand is that users prefer “prototypical websites” — ones that fit into their expectations of that category. For example, creative marketing agency websites shouldn’t look too different from other creative marketing agency’s sites. Banks don’t stray too far from other banks, et cetera. 

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Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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