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Commentary & Analysis

What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Why Magazine Ads (and All Good Print Marketing) Work

Highlights from the white paper “What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Why Magazine Advertising Works?” Published by the Magazine Publishers Association, the white paper synthesizes years of neuroscience studies on why people understand, recall, and are better motivated by information provided in print rather than digital.

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: August 8, 2019

You know what makes the neuroscience of print so great? The results don’t change. The fads of marketing do, but the way the brain works doesn’t.

That’s what makes neuroscience research so important. This is why the white paper “What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Why Magazine Advertising Works?” is worth the read. Although written several years ago, the paper contains perennial insights into the inner workings of the brain as it relates to the relationship between print and digital communications that every printer and marketer should know. 

There have been a quite a few neuroscience papers written specific to marketing and advertising. However, this one escaped my notice until recently. Written for the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA), it is a synthesis of 150+ neuroscience studies showing the impact of print communications in relation to digital channels. It includes not just studies related to advertising, but also those related to general reading, including magazines, and education.

A summation of the results puts it this way:

What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Why Print Magazine Advertising Works?” explores the possibility that our brains may process paper-based information differently from information transmitted on screens...While the evidence is still accumulating, the existing body of research supports a reasonable contention that the print paper platform itself is responsible for much of the consistent high performance of magazine media in advertiser-sponsored market mix models, particularly on cognitively complex dimensions such as recall, brand consideration and persuasion.

The white paper highlights the key findings and literature associated with the neuroscience of reading in print. It discusses topics such as scanning vs. deep reading and print’s impact on comprehension and recall, multitasking and cognitive load, and emotional and memory retrieval, among others.

Here are some highlights:  

  • Reading on paper is slower and deeper (associated with analysis, inference, and reflection), while reading on screen is faster and more in a scanning mode.
  • Paper-based reading benefits from more focused attention, less distraction, and less anxiety related to interruption, multitasking, and cognitive load.
  • Paper-based reading is widely associated with better transfer of information to long-term memory and clearer comprehension of that information.
  • Memory and comprehension from paper-based reading are likely enriched by the multisensory experience of holding and manipulating paper (a phenomenon called “haptics,” a topic discussed in detail in “The Neuroscience of Touch” published by SAPPI Fine Papers) and the sense of position effected by the physicality of print.
  • In the case of advertising, print advertising activates neural activity associated with desirability and reward.

Such findings explain why print generates significant lifts over digital channels. In the MPA’s “The Print Campaign Analysis,” for example, a metadata analysis of 100+ advertising studies, researchers found that magazine ads resulted in lifts 7 percentage points higher than those for online and 3 points higher than those for TV. When it comes to improved brand favorability and purchase intent, they found that magazine ads resulted in 11% lift, compared to 58% for TV and 4% for online.

The takeaway, as in all neuroscience research, is that print and digital aren’t interchangeable. They each play different roles, both in a marketing campaign and in the customer journey. While the MPA’s white paper isn’t primary research, its synthesis of a vast number of research studies is infinitely valuable, providing us with a comprehensive presentation of this really important topic.

Access your copy here

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Jack Noonan on Aug 08, 2019

Thanks for another valuable summary of market research and reference materials regarding the true value of Print in an omni-channel world! We appreciate it.


By Robert Arena on Aug 08, 2019

Unsure of how to read the data but this seems to indicate TV very good. Or perhaps the 58% was an error.

The Print Campaign Analysis found:
• Print advertising led to the greatest increases in the metrics closest to purchasing behavior: brand favorability
and purchase intent. Print ad exposures generated lifts that were 7% points higher than those for Online
and 3% points higher than those for TV.

None the less, thank you for the article and the references.


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