Ricocheting Off The Schema

Ever wonder why some commercial messages seem to bounce off of people without having any sort of effect?

Americans are assaulted by thousands of commercial messages every day of their lives. It’s unavoidable, even if you work from the relative safety of your home. Yet, not every commercial message is successful at prompting consideration of a product or service. Your brain simply can’t consider each and every product advertisement it encounters. If it did, you would be mentally exhausted by the time you got to work in the morning.

But if we don’t consider each and every thing that is communicated to us, how do we decide what gets considered and what doesn’t? One of the factors contributing to this selection is an individual’s schema.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a schema is “a mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli.” But when we discuss the idea of a schema in the context of advertising, it’s probably better to think of a schema as a screening mechanism – a last line of defense for the brain. All stimuli, including advertising messages, are evaluated against a person’s schema in order to determine whether they merit additional thought or consideration. It’s important to note that the schema is a construct based on a person’s experiences, ideals and beliefs.



A message that conflicts with the schema is often rejected quickly and without much conscious thought. If I dislike modern art and I see an ad for the Museum of Modern Art on the side of a bus on my way to work, the message never makes it past my schema and I don’t consider visiting the museum. Under normal circumstances, my brain doesn’t need to process every element of the ad. I simply have to see the words “Modern Art” and everything contained in the ad bounces off my schema.

So if we think of the schema as a sort of deflector shield for the brain, we realize that the messages that prompt consideration need to make it past a prospect’s schema to have any significant impact. All sorts of things have bearing on whether an ad message makes it past the schema, including the creative messaging, media placement and the timing of the message.

For instance, a prospect might reject an ad for ketchup without considering whether they have any in the fridge if the ad comes to them in the form of a pop-up. If the prospect has been conditioned to believe that anything communicated by pop-up ads is a rip-off, even an otherwise good piece of creative delivered in this format doesn’t stand a chance of prompting consideration. However, if the same ad comes in the form of a rectangular IMU, it might more easily bypass the schema. We might be inclined to think that getting past a prospect’s schema is a job for the creative folks, but placement is also a factor.

We have to consider holistically the time, place and manner of ad placements, as well as the message they convey, in order to avoid the situation of having the deeper meaning of our ads bounce off our prospects’ schemas like meteors off the deflector shields of the Starship Enterprise. This is best done by first knowing one’s target audience. Media planners are particularly good at this, usually doing plenty of research and immersing themselves in the habits of the target before developing a plan. We simply need to apply this research information in a different fashion in order to present the message in a schema-compatible way.

For instance, if an agency planning group determines that a given target tends to be distrustful of corporate America, the creative folks will likely avoid presenting the message in a way that leverages overtly corporate images. Similarly, the media planners need to realize that smaller, independent publishers might provide a better venue for the ad, as opposed to larger publishers that might be part of large media conglomerates. Such a campaign would have a better chance at getting the message through.

Consider this the next time your advertising isn’t achieving what you would like it to. And ask yourself the question, “Are my ads ricocheting off my target’s schema?”

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