Where to position rational vs emotional messages

Rational messages work better if they are placed high in a vertical space, while emotional messages connect better if placed low.

From The Wizard of Oz to Shakespeare, our whole lives we’re ingrained with the concept that “up” or “higher” - where our brain is - is associated with rationality, while “down” or “lower” - where our heart is - with emotion.

This metaphorical link is much more deeply ingrained and powerful than we would think.

Fun fact: in one of the experiments, the researchers told participants that random Chinese characters were ‘logos’ for imaginary dating or statistics websites (representing emotional vs rational) and asked them to position them on a vertical axis. The participants had no Chinese knowledge. The statistics website was placed high up, and the dating site low.

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Previous tip: People want to hear what your product sounds like (All tips here)

Position rational messages up and emotional messages down

Impacted metrics: Customer acquisition
Channels: Any channel

Recommendation

In a visual layout (e.g. ads, websites, business cards), position rational messages (e.g. “The car with the best safety rating”) high on the vertical axis, and emotional messages lower (e.g. “The car of your dreams”).

Effects

  • Where a message is placed along a vertical axis (e.g. the top or bottom of a screen or a flyer) affects how well it works, including how much we will like it and our intention to buy if it’s an ad for a product.

  • A rational message (e.g. “The healthy choice”) is more effective if it’s placed higher compared to lower in a layout. The opposite is true for an emotional message (e.g. “The tasty choice”), which should be placed lower in the layout for maximum effectiveness.

  • The effect is much reduced if we are already familiar with a brand or if we are made aware of this subconscious metaphor beforehand.

Why it works

  • We’re conditioned since childhood to associate higher (where the brain is) with rationality, and lower (where the heart is) with emotions.

  • When a message’s content matches where we metaphorically and subconsciously expect it to be, it’s easier for us to process so we like it more.

Limitations

  • The study didn’t take into consideration instances where we would need to scroll down to see lower parts of a page (e.g. websites on a mobile phone) or where there is imperfect visibility (e.g. parts of a billboard may be more visible from a certain angle). These would probably change or eliminate the verticality effect.

Companies using this

  • Marketers and designers don’t appear to be consciously using this effect to improve their messages.

  • Shepard Fairey’s iconic HOPE poster for the 2008 Obama campaign, would likely have been less effective with people not already familiar with Obama if ‘Hope’ had been placed at the top of the poster instead of at the bottom.

Steps to implement

  • Whenever the medium allows it, design your visual messages with rational messages placed higher and emotional messages placed lower.

Study type

Lab and online experiments, United States

Source

Cian, L., Krishna, A., & Schwarz, N. (September 2015). Positioning rationality and emotion: Rationality is up and emotion is down. Journal of Consumer Research, 42(4), 632-651.

[Link to paper]

Affiliations

Darden School of Business, University of Virginia; Ross School of Business, University of Michigan; and Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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