How The “Contrast Effect” Makes Ads Almost Impossible To Ignore

We live in an attention-deficit world.

For the last few years, I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to figure out the answer to the question — “What is the best way to capture and keep attention in the age of distraction?

Here’s what we’re battling against..

  • Comscore measures average ad viewing times at a low of 1.7 seconds.
  • Hubspot reports 55% of visitors spend fewer than 15 seconds on a webpage.
  • Time magazine tells us we have attention spans worse than a goldfish.

..It can almost make you believe you’re playing a game you can’t win.

But just this year I finally realised, after years of creating ads, there is something you can do, that almost always cuts through the clutter.

It’s called the “Contrast Effect”.

The contrast effect is the perception of an intensified difference between two things or sensations when they are juxtaposed or when one immediately follows the other to capture attention.

Used right it’s masterful at buying the attention you need to deliver your big idea.

Let me show you how it works in two of the most critical elements in advertising…

The Headline

The headline is critical, an ad without a great headline is like playing tennis with a cricket bat – defeated before you start.

David Ogilvy said “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Which is why using the contrast effect here is so powerful.

Contrasting two points with a sprinkle of self-interest is a recipe for a high-performance headline.

Take a look at these 3 doing this…

The first headline on the left is one of the most ripped off and respected in advertising history. Written by John Caples in 1927 it shows a very real contrast between the expected embarrassment of a new piano player and a snap-change of the player stunning the room.

The middle headline shows a stark contrast between betting, automatically thought of as a loser’s game, with the promise of consistently winning bets – enough so to turn it into a business.

The third headline is from one of the hottest VSL’s of the past few years (which runs over 50 minutes long) which starts with a proclamation in contrast to a previously held belief about tomatoes being good for us.


Movies are a brilliant place to see the contrast effect in action.

Take Rocky 4 which uses the contrast effect to perfection throughout the storyline.

There is the contrast in fighters entrance music, a contrast in fighting styles, further contrast in the motivation of the fighters, and even contrast in what the Rocky and Drago’s cornermen are saying to motivate the fighters.

You can use these same Hollywood secrets in your body copy to produce wickedly effective results.

The Best Example I’ve Ever Seen

There is a legendary ad called The Tale Of Two Young Men written for the Wall Street Journal by Martin Conroy.

It ran for 28 years straight from 1975 to 2003 with minor changes and totalled over $2bn of new subscriptions.

Check out the lead…

(Full Ad Found Here)

By contrasting the end result of two individuals that have done almost everything identically, except one thing, and placing the WSJ as that difference that made the difference, Martin wonderfully creates the contrast effect.

Putting It In Action

Today, see if you can test out the contrast effect in your advertising.

To do it first put yourself in the shoes of the prospect who is going to be reading the final piece.

Then ask yourself, “What contrast would I need to get a brain desensitised to advertising to engage?”

After that be an “I already know that” sceptic when you read it back, see what you can change to make your appeal almost impossible not to be drawn in.

If the objections you raise expose bullet holes in the ad, push for better contrast.

If you don’t, your prospects will do it for you and scroll on to the next piece of content.

Because they can’t help it.

It is an automatic response in a world suffering from information obesity.

But if you can achieve a magnetic juxtaposition, you will be startled at how powerfully and consistently you will be able to capture the attention you need long enough to drive a response.

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