Should the image be on the left or right?

Ever seen banner or print ads with before and after photos? On which side should the pictures be placed, right or left? Some recent research gives us the answer.

In another cool study on consumer behaviour researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada looked into how consumers conceptualise time when it comes to looking at print ads or websites, and whether having an image on the left or right was better.

It’s all about “flow”

Based on prior studies that have found that people in left to right reading cultures like Australia generally conceive of the past as being on the left and the future on the right, the researchers hypothesised that ads that had images to do with the past on the left and future on the right would be easier to process for the participants, and therefore result in more favourable attitudes to whatever product was being sold. It’s all about flow.

In essence they expected congruence – or flow – between the concepts of time and spatial positioning to play a significant role, and it did.

Across four studies the subjects were asked to look at weight-loss before and after images as well as home decorating ads and were quizzed on how well they regarded the product offer.

In summary the researchers found:

  • People naturally relied on the past-left, future-right representation and used the horizontal position of the images in their evaluation of the products.
  • For self-improvement products like weight loss (and services like cosmetic procedures), participants had a more positive attitude toward the product when the advertisement displayed before images on the left and after images on the right.
  • When participants were primed to want a modern product for home decoration, they were more favourable when it appeared on the right side of the advertisement whereas when they were primed to desire an antique, they were more favourable when the product appeared on the left.
  • When there was no shopping goal (i.e. not primed for modern or antique), and therefore time was not relevant, the position of the image didn’t impact judgment.
  • Further evidence that the effect of the horizontal position of images in ads is related to how we read. For people who read left to right, past-left and future-right was important whereas those who read right to left (e.g. Hebrew) the pattern was reversed.

Two principles to use in your ad design

There are a couple of key behavioural principles to pull out from this research and consider when constructing your customer interactions.

Processing fluency: The easier it is for people to process and generate information the more likely it is they will like it. When we get ground down and have to scratch around for reasons we like something, subconsciously it makes us feel that we mustn’t like it that much. In market research or satisfaction surveys, be careful how many points you ask people to list about why they like you – as soon as it doesn’t come easily (say over five) they will start to question their feelings.

Congruence: Having things make sense with our understanding of the world is important to how we feel about it. As soon as some information doesn’t gel with what we expect it interrupts our flow and, like any interruption, it can be more annoying than helpful. When designing your ads or webpage, consider whether your key messages are congruent. Is the image supporting or undermining the text? Should you place it on the left or right? Is your proposition past or future oriented?

I hope this has given you a sense that the answers you need for influencing the behaviour of your customers are available – there’s a lot of smart people researching every day the best ways of doing things. My role is to bring the answers to you and embed them into your business so you get maximum return without it costing more. I guess that means my image should be on the right!

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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