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The Power of Images in Advertising: How Our Brains Process People Images

“Our language culture is in a rapid transition to a visual culture”
(Franke, 1997, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 17).

Given the quote’s age, we already live in visual culture. How do our brains process images of the ideal body, and what tools and biologically programmed patterns does advertising use to make their images more effective? We will discuss these questions in the following sections.

Credibility of images

In addition to the impressive effect of images, there is another dimension – credibility. From the start, photography has created an impression of being objective and authentic; in other words, of capturing the real world (Schied, 2003, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 18). This objectivity is associated with credibility. Similarly, images, particularly striking photographs, are more credible than linguistic information (Weinbub, 2012, p. 47). However, the effect of images is not only due to the promise of being authentic but also to the human perception system (Gläßel, 2010, p. 18), which we will further discuss in the following section.

Perceptual processes

Visual perception is most important to humans because it communicates about 90% of all sensory information (Mayer, Däumer & Rühle, 1982, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 20). Visual perception is defined as a process that begins with the absorption and automatic selection of visual stimuli from the outside world of an individual. It also involves further processing and stimuli storage (Gläßel, 2010, p. 20). Why pictures are particularly suitable for commercial use and how the perception process can justify this is shown in the following section.

Def. Stimuli
The word stimuli refers to physical or sensory input that can elicit a reaction or response from an organism or a system. Stimuli can be anything from light, sound, touch, or temperature changes to more complex inputs such as thoughts, emotions, or social cues. The response to a stimulus can be automatic or learned, and it can vary in intensity depending on the nature and strength of the stimulus. In psychology and neuroscience, stimuli are often used to study the behavior and brain activity of humans and other animals in response to different types of inputs.


Today’s society has an ever-increasing amount of information that is mediated through the media. This has already led to a kind of efficiency increase when it comes to recording visual stimuli: the information offered is more superficially and selectively absorbed. In this context, one also speaks of low-involvement situations. These are situations where recipients are not interested in advertising, they ignore it, or they only perceive it incidentally (Brosius & Fahr, 1998, RöU, 1995, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 14).

This increases the competitive pressure and the pressure to use more and more intrusive forms for advertising purposes – those that stand out and that can be picked up and processed as quickly as possible (KroeberRiel, 1996, quoted in Weinbub, 2012, p. 35) or forced advertising which you can only escape by making payments. Due to the short contact time between advertising and the recipients of 1.7 seconds (Dorer & Marschik, 2002, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 14), a form of communication of the content must be used that works quickly.

Pictures can be processed with little cognitive involvement (Weinbub, 2012, p. 45). The process of viewing images is comparable to the usual visual consumption of communication content in our daily lives (Hunziker, 1996, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 7). It only takes a few moments to understand the theme of an image. An average time of 1.5 to 2.5 seconds is needed to capture a picture of medium complexity so that it can be recognized later (KroeberRiel, 1990, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 19). That’s why it is not surprising that images are called “quick shots into the brain” (KroeberRiel, 1990, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 19).

Hemisphere theory

The hemisphere theory describes how the two halves of the brain process different types of information. The left half processes text in a logical and analytical way, while the right half processes images and emotions unconsciously (KroeberRiel, 1996, cited from Weinbub, 2012, pp. 46-47). When people view an advertisement that contains both text and images, the images tend to hold their attention for longer, as they require less processing time than text (KroeberRiel, 1993, cited from Gläßel, 2010, p. 20). This means that people unconsciously perceive and process images, which can influence their response to advertisements, particularly those that contain images of attractive women.

Image processing and evoked emotions

The processing of images and emotions is related because they are both processed in the right half of the brain (KroeberRiel, 1990, cited by Weinbub, 2012, pp. 46-47). Advertising images often aim to evoke emotions in the viewer, especially through the use of faces, which are particularly effective at eliciting emotional responses (Doelker, 2002, quoted in Weinbub, 2012, p. 46).

Emotional trigger

Attractive images of women are particularly well-suited for emotional conditioning, and erotic or family-oriented images can also trigger emotional reactions (Weinbub, 2012, p. 41).


Schemes are the basis for the rapid perception of images. If an image is similar to a stored idea, it is quickly recognized and classified.

Scheme of eyes

The scheme of eyes is particularly important because it triggers emotions automatically and is one of the strongest biological schemes (Weinbub, 2012, p. 47). The eyes of the depicted model are the first focal point that attracts the attention of the viewer (Schweiger & Schrattenecker, 2005, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 31).

Scheme of secondary sexual characteristics

Similarly, the scheme of secondary sexual characteristics, such as a slim waist, red cheeks and lips, breasts, and buttocks, is relevant and is triggered involuntarily and automatically through the biologically innate sexual motives of humans (see Brosius & Fahr, 1998; Schweiger & Schrattenecker, 2005, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p.32).
Not only male recipients are not opposed to female sexiness on advertising images, but they also affect women. However, these prefer more subtle images (Gläßel, 2010, p. 32).

In advertising, it is a commonly used image scheme, while women are displayed much more often in this way. For example, Reichert & Carpenter (2004) assume that about half of all ads (Gläßel, 2010, p. 32) use this scheme, while Jäckel et al. (2009) already imply more than 70% of the cases in which female bodies are presented naked and uncovered (Jäckel et al., 2009, p. 38).

In addition to the emotional use of the scheme, such an advertising image should show how attractive, beautiful, and popular a woman can be if she carries/ uses/ owns the product (Moser, 1997, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 32).

Image perception: People

People are the most important emotional key stimuli, as human communication is vital for survival (Weinbub, 2012, p. 50). When advertisements combine people and products, the “friend” scheme becomes active (Gläßel, 2010, p. 31), where the friend in the image is given more positive traits and abilities than others. The observer imitates the friend and builds a sense of group affiliation (KroeberRiel, 1998, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 31). To be effective, the advertiser must take into account the social interactions and behavior between people, which is defined by social techniques (KroeberRiel, 1993, cited by Gläßel, 2010, p. 30).

Halo effect

Another effect from the attractiveness research is used subliminally in advertisements: The halo effect. This occurs as soon as above-average beautiful representations of women are seen (Klaus, 2005, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 36).
The halo effect has the consequence that a depicted beautiful person is assessed in all respects more positively than comparatively unattractive people (EbnerGathmann & Wiedermann, 2002, quoted after Gläßel, 2010, p. 30; Davids 2007, cited after Weinbub, 2012, p. 23; Schemer, 2003, p. 525). They seem more sympathetic, intelligent, morally correct, and seem to be better acquainted with the advertised product (see Hanko, 2002, p. 145, quoted in Gläßel, 2010, p. 30). Their observers, with sufficient similarity, are more willing to imitate the behavior and to buy the product (BerglerPörzgen & Harich, 1992).

Since the model on the advertising image and the advertised product are side by side, the characteristics and emotions attributed to the model transfers to the product (Gläßel, 2010, p. 28) and is taken into consideration for the product evaluation. Even though both elements seem to have nothing to do with each other, the pattern of the spatial linkage gives rise to a transfer of objective or emotional qualities (Weinbub, 2012, pp. 49-50).

Advertising principle: Young age

A cult of youthfulness characterizes the aesthetic ideal of our time and culture (Weinbub, 2012, p. 14). People who are young, sporty, and attractive are portrayed and recruited, regardless of the media.
The aging human being, despite the demographic change, medially excluded. This confirms the advertising principle that advertising protagonists should, as a rule, be 15 years younger than the target audience mentioned since this corresponds to the approximate desired age (Kaupp, 1997, cited by Jäckel et al., 2009, p. 75).




  • Weinbub, A. (2012). Die Macht der Schönheit. Psychologische Auswirkungen von weiblicher Attraktivität in der Anzeigenwerbung auf jugendliche Rezipientinnen (Magisterarbeit). Universität Wien, Wien.

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