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The Role of Memory In
Website Content and Advertising

By Jerry Bader (c) 2007

The primary goal of all advertising, including website content is to be remembered. No matter what other marketing goal you want to achieve, if your audience doesn't remember your presentation, it is a wasted effort and lost opportunity. All the money spent on attracting people to your website goes right down the drain if your content is instantly forgettable. With that in mind it is hard to believe how little thought is put into creating content that people will remember.

In order to create content or advertising that people will remember, we have to understand a little about how memory works. Professor Daniel Schacter of Harvard University is an expert in the study of human memory and has written numerous books on the subject, including 'The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers'. In this book Schacter describes seven characteristics of human memory that all marketing people need to be aware of in order to construct content and advertising that website audiences will retain.

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Transience refers to the fact that memory degrades over time, our recollections become generic and what we are left with is a sense of expectation rather than specific features.

If you overload your website visitors with a shopping list of features or a series of b-school banalities, you are giving up the opportunity to make a singular impression on your audience, especially if the features you are so proud of are mere duplicates of features offered by your competitors.

You may not remember the specifics of the latest Volvo automobile advertising campaign but you most likely regard Volvos to be safe, the primary focus of their long-term marketing efforts. What Volvo has done is position itself as the manufacturer of safe cars. This is the position they hold in the minds of the car buying public. As an advertiser this should be the focus of their campaigns. If they for some reason decide to change their approach, they stand to confuse and alienate their audience.

Whether you are dealing with website content or webmedia presentations the focus should be on establishing your primary marketing message in your audience's minds. If that singular message gets lost in a jungle of corporate platitudes and extraneous specifications then the chance of your audience retaining your message is greatly reduced.

To deal with this problem, we suggest clients think in terms of advertising campaigns rather than just an ad, and program-style linear narrative presentations rather than feature and specification-based information. In our own recent marketing campaign we were able to present eighteen different issues, each in an individual presentation, but all with a central unifying theme. People may not remember the individual issues, but they will remember the central unifying theme of the campaign; most importantly they'll remember who we are and what we stand for.

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Absent-mindedness is the failure to pay attention when receiving information resulting in no memory, or the inability to recall information buried deep in memory because of missing contextual references.

The sheer volume of demand for attention and information that people deal with on a daily basis, what author and information architect, Saul Wurman refers to as "Information Anxiety," makes it impossible for people to absorb everything they think they should, or even want to, retain. Our brains automatically filter-out extraneous data and retain only what is important or relevant. As a result people are more likely to develop a general familiarity with a brand rather than an in-depth recollection of details.

Recognizing that your audience is only going to retain the core message you are delivering if it is relevant and meaningful requires that you give up the immaterial and concentrate on the essence of what you need to say.

You also must find ways to break through the mental barriers people erect in order to block-out useless content. A website dominated by large amounts of text requires a huge commitment of interest in order for someone to pay attention and commit your content to memory. The use of web-audio and web-video requires less of a mental commitment from your audience and at the same time provides the sensory, emotional, and contextual references that aid in memory recall.


Blocking is a familiar phenomenon most people have experienced. We recognize a person and can tell you almost everything about that individual except his or her name. Unlike transience where the name has faded from memory, blocking refers to a situation where the knowledge is in memory but the appropriate reference or association has not been accessed to stimulate recall.

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To overcome blocking people must access mental associations that are emotional, contextual, or sensory. Emotional triggers are an adaptive imperative for our survival as a species and advertisements and presentations that reflect common emotional experiences will leave indelible impressions. By framing your presentation in some familiar context, you will provide viewers with an association that aids in memory recall. The addition of sensory mnemonics like a distinctive voice-over and an on-screen visual character, provide assistance in memory recall.


We often remember some information or experience but attribute it to the wrong source. This 'unconscious transference' occurs when a feature or benefit is too similar to a competitor's, or when the presentation lacks any distinctive association, reference, mnemonic, or emotional impact.

Sometimes the presentation of information is highly relevant and is therefore embedded in memory but the source of that information is considered extraneous and is therefore dismissed as inconsequential. When delivering information to a website audience, it is important to create presence, and establish credibility, in order to link the message to the messenger.

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By using web-video and web-audio to present information, you create the opportunity to establish a memorable personality for your organization. Presenting information as 'programming' rather than just information provides context and character, both of which help build a memory inducing corporate personality.


Suggestibility occurs when information learned from an outside source is attributed to personal experience. Vivid mental images, intense emotional reactions, or suggestive questions that target emotional soft spots can trigger this type of false memory.

Research suggests that suggestibility for false memories can be enhanced if an audience is instructed to expect results that are plausible. The combination of suggestibility and misattribution can result in people having memories of things that never took place.

In a research paper entitled, 'Make My Memory: How Advertising Can Change Our Memories of the Past,' Kathryn A. Braun of Harvard Business School, Rhiannon Ellis of the University of Pittsburgh, and Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of Washington, present evidence that certain types of suggestive advertising can create false memories.

As a basis for the research they used a Disney advertising campaign, 'Remember the Magic,' that featured a family enjoying themselves at Disney World and included a scene of a child shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. The researchers wanted to know if such an autobiographical ad could create a false memory of shaking hands with Mickey Mouse, when in fact it never happened.

In order to test the validity of their theory, they created an ad that prompted people to remember shaking hands with Bugs Bunny on a childhood trip to Disneyland, an event that could never have occurred since Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. character and would not have been seen at a Disney theme park. Despite the fact that this event could never have taken place, a significant number of participants in the study were able to recall the experience of shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.


New experiences are filtered through past experiences and pre-existing belief systems. Often when people with opposing political points-of-view watch the same political debate on television, they will come away with totally different opinions on who won the debate based on their pre-existing bias.

New experiences are filtered through our past experiences and color our interpretation of current events. Advertisers often use images and nostalgic icons of the past in order to create a positive context for interpreting new product offerings. On the other hand, political campaigns often use the same kind of technique in reverse to generate negative attitudes toward an opponent or a divisive polarizing issue.

Memories are not static imprints of the past, but rather reconstituted constructs filtered through an ever-evolving personal history of learned knowledge and emotional experiences.


Emotionally intense experiences, especially negative ones, will leave longer-lasting impressions than emotionally neutral experiences. It is important for us to remember traumatic events so that we learn from them and don't repeat them; it is an innate survival mechanism.

Advertisers can use this to their advantage by reminding people of negative situations that could be avoided with the use of their product. These types of advertisements can be used for health care, personal grooming, and financial services and products.

On the positive side, we can see from the previously mentioned Disney 'Remember the Magic' campaign that positive emotional experiences can also be used to create positive attitudes in a properly constructed campaign.

The main difference between positive and negative persistent memory is the recall of details. Persistent negative memories tend to be richer in detail whereas positive persistent memories tend to be more generic, a fact that can be used as we have discussed previously to create false memories or what is more euphemistically referred to as 'imagination inflation.'


The more we know about how human beings process and recall information, the better we become at communicating our marketing messages to website audiences that are decidedly more complex, and emotionally motivated, than can be determined by mere demographic profiling or statistical Web-visitor analytics.

About The Author
Jerry Bader is Senior Partner at MRPwebmedia, a website design firm that specializes in Web-audio and Web-video. Visit www.mrpwebmedia.com/ads, www.136words.com and www.sonicpersonality.com. Contact at info@mrpwebmedia.com or telephone (905) 764-1246.

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