9.5 Positioning Approaches: Dual Coding Theory

Jan 15, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch9 Knowledge Processes & Models

Is it words or pictures that make an advertising message more memorable, or is it a combination of both? In this lesson, we’ll discuss dual coding theory in marketing positioning and the best ways to get a message across to an audience.

Words or Pictures?

Say you’re a junior ad executive assigned to a new car company campaign. The car has some very compelling technical features, but is also very striking from a looks standpoint. So in your ad, do you tell the story with words or rely on pictures? What’s the best way to go?

As an advertiser, you’re interested in the best way for the audience to remember your message, and even better, take action (buy something). So, as the old saying goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, what is the best combination of visual imagery and words to get your message across?

Dual Coding Theory In Marketing

A psychology professor named Allan Paivio created the Dual Coding Theory (DCT), which states that humans represent things in our minds with words and images, and have two separate systems for them.

The two systems can interact, however, so we recall things more effectively when a word also has an associated image. Why? Because the memory is stored in more than one place – in our word bank and our image bank. Images will always be stored in two places (there will always be an associated word or descriptor).

So where does this leave you as a junior ad executive – do you use words, pictures or some of both to send the car’s message? The answer depends on the medium we choose to send the message.

This car definitely needs some words to help the visual


Integrated Marketing

Messages that are conceptually integrated in the viewer’s mind are more likely to be retained in memory. So the idea of using verbal and visual content together, across different media, would seem to lead to the best result.

Integrated marketing communication (IMC) means coordinating your messages across different media (broadcast, print, billboards, etc.) to get the maximum effect. The idea is that linking messages in the viewer’s mind is more powerful than any one of the messages on their own.

Words in an ad tend to convey the meaning of the message, while visuals help portray an attitude about the product or brand. Research shows that consumers remember better when the brand name is integrated into the visual, in other words, made interactive with each other. Recollection is lower if the words and pictures don’t make sense together. We’ve all seen ads that made us go ‘Huh?’.

Our junior ad executive would be well-served to develop a campaign with high-impact visuals and vivid wording, but which types of media will give us the best return?

Most Effective Outlets

Did you ever wonder why companies (especially car manufacturers) spend so much money on TV ads? If pictures are the best way to get us to remember something, TV is the ultimate pictorial tool – every commercial can show us a multitude of pictures. For many years TV ads have been thought to be more effective than print and radio in moving the needle on consumer preferences.

Symbolism can also be used to represent a brand or product or to convey complex ideas. Many car companies use ads where they show a car moving down a long open road, which implies freedom or exploration.

Symbolism in visuals can also be created through the use of colors in an ad – red for romance, black for seduction, etc. And oftentimes you’ll see an ad with plenty of symbolism where the announcer will lead off a sentence with ‘Imagine…’ to help guide your perception of the message.

Consumers’ appetite for visual images is confirmed today by the popularity of social media platforms like Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat. In online advertising, normal banner ads aren’t as effective as before because we’ve become accustomed to more compelling visual imagery. More than words may be needed to engage our attention and hold it while the message is sent.

Lesson Summary

Allan Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory (DCT) states that we store words and pictures in different memory systems and that pictures are easier to recall because we have a verbal label as well as the image in our brains. An ad’s visual imagery is more effective if it is closely integrated with any text messages.

Integrated marketing communications (IMC) is the practice of orchestrating your messages across different media (like broadcast and print) to gain the maximum bang for the buck. Compelling TV and social media ads tend to be more effective than old banner ads, as is the use of symbolism, or using something as a representation of an idea, like an open road in a car ad representing freedom.

9.6 Mental Imagery as an Epiphenomena of Cognitive Processes
9.4 Jerome Bruner's Theory of Development: Discovery Learning & Representation