Using Emotional Triggers in Digital Signage Message Design

So, you’ve written the text for your digital signage message design, decided on the layout, figured out which contrasts and colors to use for readability, and even varied font size or type to draw the eye to certain key words that you want your audience to notice. You’ve scheduled it to your playlist and are all set to publish the message and get it out there onto your screens. But not so fast – this is all good stuff, the kind of thing you should be doing – but what are you forgetting? What about an emotional appeal to your audience?

We’re not talking about lots of exclamation points and emoticons; we’re not even talking about the tone of voice you’re writing in, though that’s also something to consider. What we’re talking about is something much more subtle.

The Science

Modern cognitive science recognizes two main systems of thought in the human brain:

  • System 1 is intuitive, creative, instantaneous, and emotional. You might call it Gut or Feeling or Right-Brain.
  • System 2 two is more analytical, linear, critical, and slower. It could be called Head or Reason or Left-Brain.

System 1 processes are lightning-quick and occur before the more rational System 2 processes can intervene. This results in people “feeling” that something is “right” even when they are confronted by facts that show the opposite. Confidence is a by-product of System 1, or gut, thinking. System 2 is often only partially successful at overriding these “gut feelings.”

The History

For many years, advertisers have appealed to “gut” snap-judgments by using classically positive or negative colors and images to reinforce their messages.

To get a positive feeling from people, you might show children playing in the sunlight, a warm meadow covered in yellow flowers or a blazing red and orange sunset on the sea. To push the audience toward negative reactions, you might use images of violence or decay, off-kilter angles, or black and white or clashing colors.

Audio also affects emotional reactions. Usually, to evoke a positive reaction, people have used cheerful, upbeat music and positive sounds such as laughter, children playing, and soft speaking tones. If the desire was to get a negative reaction, images were paired with discordant noise, gun shots, squealing car tires, crying, metallic clashes, and so on.

Using dynamic images, like video or animation, just increases the chances to manipulate emotional reactions by using slow dissolves or quick cuts; standard angles and slow close-ups; or skewed, fast moving, frantic camera movements.

The conventional wisdom of spin doctors and advertisers has been that people who are better informed about a topic will autocorrect their gut reactions with analytical rationality, while people who are less knowledgeable about a subject will be totally swayed by the emotional content alone. This assumption has been proven wrong. 

The Experiment

Ted Brader, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, conducted an interesting experiment during a rather uninspiring gubernatorial race in Massachusetts. Volunteers watched tapes of news broadcasts interspersed with fake political ads – two positive and two negative. All of the four ads used an enthusiastic voiceover espousing either positive or negative views, each paired with different images:

  • Positive ad #1 – dull images and music
  • Positive ad #2 – “happy” images of smiling children and sun-filled skies
  • Negative ad #1 – dull images and music
  • Negative ad #2 – harsh images and frightening music

Everyone who saw the more positive ad (Positive ad #2) said they would be more likely to get involved in a campaign, to vote, and to otherwise participate in the election. The other three ads fared less well in generating enthusiasm. In addition, the really negative ad (Negative ad #2) influenced those who knew about the subject matter more than it did those who didn’t have any prior knowledge.

So, the more informed about a subject someone is, the more easily influenced they are by fear-based messages, and everyone is influenced by positive emotional appeals.

The Point

What does this have to do with you and your digital signage content? Well, knowledge of emotional triggers is another powerful tool in your design kit for creating messages that resonate and inspire people to act.

Combining your message with the appropriate emotional cues could increase your audience’s receptivity and really get your message across. Consider the reaction you want from your audience – both what they may think and feel when they view it, and what you want them to take away from the experience.

Also, consider the fact that your messages will be displayed repeatedly – the people in the experiment above were affected by the emotional triggers and inspired to take action after only a single viewing. Imagine what the reaction to repeated viewings may be.

One last consideration is the impact of certain colors as emotional triggers. (We’ve all heard that fast-food chains often use red and yellow because they are supposed to trigger appetite.) There is far too much data on this topic for us to go into here, but a Google search using “color emotions” will yield a vast array of web pages you can explore.

No matter what triggers you choose – images, color or audio – skillfully using the non-verbal language of emotion will result in your messages making a more lasting, deeper impact.  Further reading:

  • The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, Daniel L. Schachter, 2001
  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell, 2005
  • Campaigning For Hearts and Minds, Ted Brader, 2006
  • The Construction of Preference, ed. By Sarah Lichtenstien and Paul Slovic, 2006
  • Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Dan Gardner, 2008