Advertisers Exploit Time Illusions to Sell Products

Marketing illusions that make time fly

If Mad Men (and Women) intuited that obliquely oriented lines are attention getters, people in other fields may have arrived at similar conclusions. We looked for prominently featured clocks in fine art paintings and—violà!—Marc Chagall used the time 10:10 in his famous series of clock paintings dating as far back as 1914, before the watch industry's own 10:10 preference.

Time's Arrow

Watch manufacturers are not the only companies that have toyed with the interaction of time and illusion in commercial advertising. When you use FedEx courier services to buy yourself some time, you may overlook the clever illusion hidden in the company's iconic logo: time's arrow, pointing toward the future. You can see either the white arrow or the FedEx letters, but not both at once, because one is always the background to the other.

The current FedEx logo was shortened from the earlier company name Federal Express and given a new snazzy illusory design element, the background arrow between the “E” and the “x.” Did the company shorten the name to reduce the amount of paint needed for signage on its planes and trucks? That explanation makes no sense, unless the painters could use only one font size. Once the name was shorter, they could just paint the letters larger to take up the same space and use about the same amount of paint. In fact, according to Linden Leader, the graphic artist who designed the new logo, the FedEx CEO specifically requested that the logo be easily legible on every truck from five blocks away.

Instead the change resulted from a thorough analysis of the company's name recognition in the market. Why might the new logo be more effective? One reason is that the arrow, a symbol that has special meaning to our cognitive system, helps to draw attention to the logo as a whole. Arrows indicate what scientists call “implied motion.” Visual neuroscientists Anja Schlack and Thomas Albright of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have shown that neurons that respond preferentially to specific directions of motion in the world are also activated by arrows pointing in the corresponding direction, even though the arrows are not themselves moving but just represent the concept of motion.

The FedEx arrow pointing to the right signifies motion toward the future for those who write in English and other left-to-right languages. Moreover, because our motion areas also have more neurons that prefer cardinal rather than oblique directions, here the arrow invokes a powerful competition with the FedEx name itself, so our perception vacillates between “FedEx” and forward momentum. In languages read right to left, the FedEx arrow points toward the left, such as in the Arabic version of the logo, consistent with the corresponding cognitive representation of time's arrow.

This same left-to-right effect works to express temporal order of pictograms grouped in sequences, such as in the famous representation of human evolution from prehominin to Homo sapiens. The direction of the sequence is fundamentally arbitrary, yet if you grouped it the wrong way, it would look like a time reversal.

So time may fly like an arrow, but it is your attention to time that advertisers care about.

(Further Reading)

When Sustained Attention Impairs Perception. S. Ling and M. Carrasco in Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 9, No. 10, pages 1243–1245; October 2006.

Unequal Representation of Cardinal vs. Oblique Orientations in the Middle Temporal Visual Area. X. Xu, C. E. Collins, I. Khaytin, J. H. Kaas and V. A. Casagrande in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 103, No. 46, pages 17,490–17,495; November 14, 2006.

Remembering Visual Motion: Neural Correlates of Associative Plasticity and Motion Recall in Cortical Area MT. A. Schlack and T. D. Albright in Neuron, Vol. 53, No. 6, pages 881–890; March 15, 2007.

Arte e Espressione: Studi e Ricerche di Psicologia Dell'arte. Alberto Argenton. Il Poligrafo, Padua, 2008.

Task Difficulty Modulates the Activity of Specific Neuronal Populations in Primary Visual Cortex. Y. Chen, S. Martinez-Conde, S. L. Macknik, Y. Bereshpolova, H. A. Swadlow and J.-M. Alonso in Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 11, No. 8, pages 974–982; August 2008.

Why Time Stands Still for Watchmakers. Andrew Adam Newman in New York Times Media & Advertising section; November 27, 2008.

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This article was originally published with the title "Perfectly Timed Advertising."

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