Blog Post Series 1

Here’s how Gestalt principles make you pay attention to ads (whether you like it or not)

In a contemporary world, we are constantly bombarded with different advertisements through our mobile devices and television screens. Personally, I usually encounter ads when watching videos on YouTube or scrolling through my Facebook feed. Some ads I can’t help but watch while some unfortunately are ignored through the ever useful ‘Skip’ button.

So, why do some advertisements catch our attention and some do not? Here, Gestalt laws of perception may be able to provide an explanation.

When we view an object, say the picture below, our senses take in information about its color, angles, shape and many other stimuli. However, we don’t identify that object as a mere sum of the dots and lines that it is made of. Instead, we perceive it as a dog. Gestalt psychology is an attempt to understand how we make those meaningful perceptions.



A fundamental aspect of Gestalt psychology is that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. This “whole” is organized through different grouping laws. Usually, the “parts” are perceptually grouped together if they are near each other (Law of Proximity), alike in many ways (Law of Similarity), aligned within the object (Law of Continuity), form familiar and simple patterns (Law of Pragnanz) and share a common orientation or movement (Law of Common Fate). 

A descriptive visual analysis of the websites of top companies like Apple, Microsoft and IBM show Gestalt in action, with the law of similarity and proximity having the most application. Rather than a chaotic mess of too many pictures or links, these website designs make use of minimalism and organize visual elements to “ensure the accessibility and capability to use website for hasty users” (Sani & Shokooh, 2016). Similarly, movie posters also make use Gestalt principles. For instance, a visual communication article shows that movie posters like “Shattered” and “Trance” the employ  Law of Pragnanz (O’Connor, 2015).


Despite the intervening abstracted shapes, the color realism and Law of Pragnanz still allow us to perceive faces. These examples in websites and movie poster show that Gestalt principles are commonly used in visual communication design in the 21st century. But how do these exactly affect our attention and attitudes toward online advertisement?

Large, pop-up advertisements usually get in the way of browsing through a web page. Instead of paying attention to those ads, we find ourselves clicking that ‘x’ button faster than we can say “Skip”. This behavior is called ‘advertising avoidance’ and consumers engage in it far more than advertisers wish. Even more unfortunate, people tend to have more negative attitudes toward the brands that appeared as distractor ads (Duff & Faber, 2011).

To get around this advertising avoidance behavior, a group of researchers thought, “What if advertisements weren’t obnoxious, different colored pop-ups but instead almost similar in color to actual content the reader was looking for? I bet that would make them pay more attention to it”. I mean, common sense right? Initially, I thought it was counter-intuitive. However, their study on fixation time, count and brand attitude showed otherwise.

People tend to look more often and fixate on ads for a longer time if they are similar to actual web page content (Chiu, Lo & Hsieh, A. 2016). Consequently, their brand attitudes also differed from those who ignored it because it was a different color. They preferred and experienced more positive emotions towards the brands the advertisements featured. The explanation?

When we open a webpage, we unintentionally scan the media content during the pre-attention stage. The pre-attention stage is where you fixate on stimuli without consciously doing it. At this point, the Gestalt laws of perception assist in the way we view content as a whole.

Based on the Gestalt law of similarity, we know that similarly colored content are grouped together and regarded as a Gestalt. Thus, the boundary between banner advertisement and the content you are looking for are basically “blurred” when they are the same color. In short, color similarity will make you look at the ad even before you even consciously know that it’s an ad!

Chiu and colleagues study (2016) features only the Gestalt law of similarity. What about if we put more Gestalt principles in action. Is it more, the merrier? According to an eye-tracking study, by Pilelienė and Grigaliūnaitė, (2016), it depends on whether we it is the advertisement itself or brand within the ad.

In the eye-tracking study they conducted, people tend to look more and pay attention longer to more complex ads or those that made use of more Gestalt principles. However, the more complex the ad, the less people paid attention to the brand the advertisement actually features. Sure, people stop to look but we also have to bear in mind that our visual attention is also limited (Hommel and Schneider 2002, as cited in Pilelienė and Grigaliūnaitė, 2016). Our attention is divided because we have to pay attention to more elements in the advertisement. In a way, the brand name receives less visual attention if the layout is uses more Gestalt principles.

When we aren’t aware of the brand, a low-level layout complexity might be more effective to making the brand known because there is less distracting elements. On the other hand, if we already know the brand and it’s our attitudes that matter to advertisers, more Gestalt principles in action may be more effective.

Whether it is in scrolling through ads or viewing complex layouts, context and Gestalt principles work together to influence the way we make sense of the many stimuli around us.  


Featured studies:

Chiu, Y., Lo, S., & Hsieh, A. (2016). How colour similarity can make banner advertising effective: insights from Gestalt theory. Behaviour & Information Technology, 1-14. doi:10.1080/0144929x.2016.1267264

Pilelienė, L., & Grigaliūnaitė, V. (2016). Influence of print advertising layout complexity on visual attention. Eurasian Business Review,6(2), 237-251. doi:10.1007/s40821-015-0040-2

Supporting references:

Duff, B., & Faber, R. (2011). Missing the mark: Advertising avoidance and distractor devaluation. Journal of Advertising, 40(2), 51-62. DOI: 10.2753/JOA0091-3367400204

O’Connor, Z. (2015). Colour, Contrast and Gestalt Theories of Perception: The Impact in Contemporary Visual Communications Design. Color Research and Application,40(1), 85-92. doi: 10.1002/col.21858

Sani, S. M., & Shokooh, Y. K. (2016). Minimalism in designing user interface of commercial websites based on Gestalt visual perception laws (Case study of three top brands in technology scope). 2016 Second International Conference on Web Research (ICWR). doi:10.1109/icwr.2016.749845


One thought on “Here’s how Gestalt principles make you pay attention to ads (whether you like it or not)

  1. Pingback: Blog Post Series 1: Art and Visual Communication | Shookt

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