Learning Theories

9 Memory and Retrieval

The most exciting advertisement is worthless if it doesn’t make a reasonably lasting impact on the receiver. So, advertisers need to understand how our brains encode, or mentally program, the information we encounter that helps to determine how we will remember it (if we do at all). In general, we have a better chance of retaining incoming data we associate with other information already in memory.

Types of Memory

Psychologists distinguish among three distinct types of memory systems, each of which plays a role in processing brand-related information:

  1. Sensory Memory permits storage of the information we receive from our senses. This storage is very temporary; it lasts a couple of seconds at most. For example, when walking to work you pass by a French bistro cafe and you get a quick, aromatic whiff of espresso and fresh croissants. Although this sensation lasts only a few seconds, it is sufficient to allow you to consider whether you should investigate further. If you retain this information for further processing, it passes into short-term memory.
  2. Short-Term Memory (“STM”) also stores information for a limited period of time, and it has limited capacity. This is similar to working memory in a computer; it holds the information we are currently processing. Our memories can store verbal input acoustically (in terms of how it sounds) or semantically (in terms of what it means). We store it when we combine small pieces of data into larger chunks. A chunk is a configuration that is familiar to the person and that they can think about as a unit. For example, a brand name like Beats by Dre can be a chunk that summarizes a great deal of detailed information about the product.
  3. Long-Term Memory (“LTM”) is the system that allows us to retain information for a long period of time. Information passes from STM into LTM via the process of elaborative rehearsal. This means we actively think about the chunk’s meaning and relate it to other information already in memory. Advertisers sometimes assist in the process when they devise catchy slogans or jingles that consumers repeat on their own and retain in their LTM. In her article, “26 Companies With Really Catchy Slogans & Brand Taglines”, Lindsay Kolowich Cox explains that a great slogan is memorable, includes a key benefit, differentiates the brand, and imparts positive feelings about the brand (Cox, n.d.).

How well can you recall brand names are their slogans? Explore some of the most popular global brands and their slogans below in this interactive piece of content.

Brands and Their Slogans:

Nike: “Just do it”

McDonalds: “I’m lovin’ it”

VANS: “Off the wall”

Cineplex Theatres: “See the big screen”

Disneyland: “Happiest place on earth”

Maybelline: “Maybe she’s born with it…maybe it’s Maybelline”

Rice Krispies: “Snap, crackle, pop! Rice Krispies”

Skittles: “Taste the rainbow”

Red Bull: “Red Bull gives you wings”

Ikea: “Swedish for common sense”


Encoding is the process by which we place the things that we experience into memory. Unless information is encoded, it cannot be remembered. I’m sure you’ve been to a party where you’ve been introduced to someone and then — maybe only seconds later — you realize that you do not remember the person’s name. Of course it’s not really surprising that you can’t remember the name, because you probably were distracted and you never encoded the name to begin with. At a very basic level, memory encoding is like hitting “Save” on a computer file. Once a file is saved, it can be retrieved as long as the hard drive is undamaged.


Even when information has been adequately encoded and stored (“saved”), it does not do us any good if we cannot retrieve it. Retrieval refers to the process of reactivating information that has been stored in memory. We are more likely to be able to retrieve items from memory when conditions at retrieval are similar to the conditions under which we encoded them. Context-dependent learning refers to an increase in retrieval when the external situation in which information is learned matches the situation in which it is remembered. (Fun fact: my colleague swears that playing the same music while studying something learned in class will help with retention!)

Storing Memories

It’s important to understand how we store all of the massive amounts of information we retain in our minds. Just like a really disorganized “filing cabinet from hell,” our memories about brands (not to mention everything else we know) are useless if we don’t know where to find them. Advertisers can structure their communication to make it more likely that subsequent messages will call up the knowledge of a brand we’ve already retained.

Memories that are stored in long-term memory (LTM) are not actually isolated from one another; they are linked together into categories— networks of associated memories that have features in common with each other. Forming categories, and using categories to guide behaviour, is a fundamental part of human nature. Mental categories are sometimes referred to as schemas — patterns of knowledge in LTM that help us organize information. We have schemas about objects (that a triangle has three sides and may take on different angles), about people (that Sam is friendly, likes to golf, and always wears sandals), about events (the particular steps involved in ordering a meal at a restaurant), and about social groups (we call these group schemas stereotypes). Schemas are important in part because they help us remember new information by providing an organizational structure for it.

Ad Schemas & Consumers

Since the advertising landscape is a noisy and cluttered one, most consumers are not interested in paying attention to every single marketing message or advertisement they come in contact with (Ferris, 2004). Advertising schemas, therefore, allow consumers to sort and filter through the messages more efficiently: these structures and patterns of knowledge provide short-cuts in evaluating an ad we see on TV, online, or in a magazine within seconds. Ad schemas explain why we “skip” some commercials and focus on others.

Ferris (2004) states that, “[s]chemas develop when exposure to a knowledge structure is repeated and consistent”, which is generally what advertisements are, communications we are exposed to both consistently and repeatedly. Goodstein (1993) argues that while several different types of ad schemas likely exist, consumers will often create schemas that are structured around product classes (e.g., alcohol, cars, insurance, and toys). Most product and service categories advertise in similar ways (I’m looking at you, realtors) which means their advertisements are shown “frequently and employ similar semantic, physical, and structural features” (Stoltman, 1991) enabling consumers to activate their schema (they know if they’re going to want to see the ad or not based on its similarity to other brands’ ads).

Advertising schemas, therefore, show us how generalization is being applied and helping us to organize, store, and act on information in a short period of time.

Accessing Memories

Not surprisingly, recall is enhanced when we pay more attention to the message in the first place. Some evidence indicates that we can retrieve information about a pioneering brand (the first brand to enter a market) more easily from memory than we can for follower brands, because the first product’s introduction is likely to be distinctive and, for the time being, has no competitors to divert our attention (Kardes, Kalyanaram, Chandrashekaran & Dornoff, 1992). In addition, we are more likely to recall descriptive brand names than those that do not provide adequate cues as to what the product is (Zaichkowsky & Vipat, 1992).

Of course, the nature of the ad itself also plays a big role in determining whether we’ll remember it. We’re far more likely to remember spectacular magazine ads, including multi-page spreads, three-dimensional pop-ups, scented ads, and ads with audio components (Sass, 2007).

Here are some other factors advertisers need to remember:

  • State-dependent retrieval. We are better able to access information if our internal state (for example, our mood at the time) is the same at the time of recall as when we learned the information. If, for example, we recreate the cues that were present when the information was first presented, we can enhance recall. That’s why Life cereal uses a picture of “Mikey” from its commercial on the cereal box, which facilitates recall of brand claims and favorable brand evaluations (Keller, 1987).
  • Familiarity. Familiarity enhances recall. Indeed, this is one of the basic goals of marketers who try to create and maintain awareness of their products. However, this sword can cut both ways: Extreme familiarity can result in inferior learning and recall. When consumers are highly familiar with a brand or an advertisement, they may pay less attention to the message because they do not believe that any additional effort will yield a gain in knowledge (Johnson & Russo, 1981; Lynch & Srull, 1982).
  • Salience. The salience of a brand refers to its prominence or level of activation in memory. As we have already noted, stimuli that stand out in contrast to their environments are more likely to command attention which, in turn, increases the likelihood that we will recall them. This explains why unusual advertising (think Red Bull) or distinctive packaging (Tiffany’s) tends to facilitate brand recall (Alba & Chattopadhyay, 1986; Hirschman & Solomon, 1984).
  • Novelty. Introducing a surprise element in an ad can be particularly effective in aiding recall, even if it is not relevant to the factual information the ad presents (Heckler & Childers, 1992). In addition, mystery ads, in which the ad doesn’t identify the brand until the end, are more effective at building associations in memory between the product category and that brand—especially in the case of relatively unknown brands (Fazio, Herr, & Powell, 1992).
  • Pictorial versus verbal cues. Is a picture worth a thousand words? Indeed, we are more likely to recognize information presented in picture form at a later time (Childers & Houston, 1984; Childers, Heckler, & Houston, 1986). Certainly, visual aspects of an ad are more likely to grab a consumer’s attention. In fact, eye-movement studies indicate that about 90 per cent of viewers look at the dominant picture in an ad before they bother to view the copy (Krober-Riel, 1984). But, while ads with vivid images may enhance recall, they do not necessarily improve comprehension. One study found that television news items presented with illustrations (still pictures) as a backdrop result in improved recall for details of the news story, even though understanding of the story’s content did not improve (Brosius, 1989).

Creating Memories Through Story, Symbolism, & Semantics

The encoding process is influenced by the type of meaning we experience from a stimulus. Sometimes we process a stimulus simply in terms of its sensory meaning, such as the literal color or shape of a package. We may experience a feeling of familiarity when, for example, we see an ad for a new snack food we have recently tasted. In many cases, though, we encode meanings at a more abstract level. Semantic meaning refers to symbolic associations, such as the idea that minimalists avoid plastic bags or that athletes drink Gatorade.

Advertisers often communicate these kinds of meanings through a narrative, or story. For example, in 2006 New York-based creative agency SS+K developed television spots for the New York Knicks basketball team that featured some of the biggest Knicks fans, including film director Spike Lee, talking about the current state of the team, as well as lifelong Knicks fans who share fond memories of past glories. Starting in 2014, Procter & Gamble began airing commercials entitled, “Thank you mom” – an ad campaign featuring a heartfelt narrative about mom’s supporting their future Olympians starting at a young age.

Much of the social information we acquire gets represented in memory in story form, so constructing ads in the form of a narrative can be a very effective technique to connect with consumers. Narratives persuade people to construct mental representations of the information they view. Pictures aid in this construction and allow for a more developed and detailed mental representation (Escalas, 2004; Adaval & Wyer, 1998).

Semantic advertising, on the other hand, applies semantic analysis techniques to web pages. The process is meant to accurately interpret and classify the meaning and/or main subject of the page and then populate it with targeted advertising spots. By closely linking content to advertising, it is assumed that the viewer will be more likely to show an interest (i.e., through engagement) in the advertised product or service.

Assorted selection of colour face masks laying on a dark surface.
Previous to the Coronavirus, public mask-wearing in most western cultures was rarely ever seen. Since the pandemic, mask-wearing is mandatory in most public spaces around the world. From fashion statement to political statement, masks have many layers of meaning for different people.

Finally, perhaps there is no better symbol that represents the times, struggles, and stories of what living through the  Coronavirus pandemic has been like, than the face mask. From journalists to cultural psychologists, many have published articles on how the symbol of the mask has evolved to carry different layers of meaning. In most western cultures, mask wearing in public was rare, to say the least. Since the pandemic, mask-wearing has proven to be life saving, prompting even the biggest critic to reevaluate the science and shift from prioritizing one’s own health to the health of the collective. And while some people still see the mask as an invasive detractor of their personal rights and freedoms, many others have adopted it as a symbol of respect, care, and a new reality.


Perhaps one of the best ways marketers connect with consumers is through the use of nostalgia. Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines nostalgia as, “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” For some, nostalgia conjures up both happy and sad emotions and takes us back to a time that often felt simpler and less complicated.

In 2013, Microsoft released a television ad called, “Child of the 90’s” that struck an emotional chord with many members of Generation Y. The ad featured Pogs, Trolls, Hungry-Hungry Hippos, Tamagotchis, bowl-style haircuts, and the Oregon Trail PC game. (I used to play this ad in my class and always enjoyed the giggles, long sighs, and quiet, smiling head nods of my students.) Unsurprisingly, nostalgia has great appeal to consumers in revitalizing distant memories and warm sentiments of the past: taking Polaroid pictures; making mixed tapes for a friend; and checking pay phones for forgotten quarters (note: the author is aware that she is dating herself, rather severely, with these references).

Student Op-Ed: The Art of Bittersweet Advertising

What began as a brain tonic in a small pharmaceutical shop, has now become a multinational soda company widely regarded as the most recognizable brand in the world. Coca-Cola, now approaching its 128th year of business, has seen a lot of change over the years, most notably during “The Cola Wars” (Angelico, The Cola Conquest Episode 01 – The Big Sell, 1998). Coca-Cola’s ability to successfully use nostalgia and salience tactics, help them differentiate themselves from other cola brands (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015). Salience refers to the level of activation or prominence something may have in memory, whereas “the term Nostalgia is described as a bittersweet emotion in which the past is viewed with both sadness and longing” (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015). This presents an opportunity for companies to draw on those feelings to stand out.

For many years, Coca-Cola was instructed to avoid directly targeting children with their advertisement. No product wants to be perceived as the root cause of health issues in the younger generation. In 1984 when Pepsi aired their hit commercial, with a cast full of very youthful looking children featuring Michael Jackson, they showed little regard for what Coca-Cola had been trying to avoid all this time. Coke had already taken a big hit before the advertisement, and then had to quickly figure out a way to bounce back. “Coca-Cola’s response was a middle-aged version of its most successful advertisement ever, ‘Hilltop, I’d like to buy the world a Coke (1971)’. It may not have been as cool as Michael Jackson but, it sold” (Angelico, 1998). By using a memory marker, such as the 1971 advertisement, Coke understood that the ad would appeal to consumers because of the emotional effects associated with nostalgia (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015). Consumers who grew up on Coke were eager to relive all those feelings alongside their own families (Angelico, 1998) (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015).

After hastily changing the Coca-Cola formula and receiving immense backlash, they released “Coke Classic” using the original formula only three months later (Angelico, The Cola Conquest Episode 02 – Cola War And Peace, 1998). Although the original Coke formula was only gone for a few months, the return triggered an effect similar to that of a retro band. There happens to be a large niche of consumers who prefer nostalgic brands and according to research, that feeling is boiled down to the need for “belongingness” (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015). The return of the formula brought all of Coca-Cola’s history with it creating a path for new consumers to follow. Working hand in hand with nostalgia is salience (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015). Coca- Cola happens to have a very high salience due to its distinctive red packaging that has remained the same over the years. This is known as the Von Restorff effect. Because the packaging endured for over 128 years, this prompts consumers not only in brand recall, but it also creates a sense of nostalgia with regards to anything they may have done with Coca-Cola in their lives. A prominent colour such as red, their brand image, causes consumers’ visual memory to think of Coca-Cola throughout the day (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015).

I believe that Coca-Cola has utilized nostalgia and salience in a way that no other brand has ever been able to do. It is the most efficient and powerful method to attract consumers, old or new. Solomon, White and Dahl explained that an indirect effect of memory markers is that retro happened to be very cool with younger audiences who were going through self-identification periods and were looking to differentiate themselves from others (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015). All it took was a little competition for Coca-Cola to demonstrate the power of memories in the world of advertisement. With the help of memory markers, retro band, and the Von Restorff effect, salience and nostalgia tactics truly did help Coke stand-alone from the competition (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015).

Media Attributions

Text Attributions

  • The opening paragraph; the section under “Types of Memory”; the sections under “Encoding”, “Retrieval”, “Storing Memories”,  “Accessing Memories”; and the first three paragraphs under “Creating Memories Through Story, Symbolism, & Semantics” are adapted from Launch! Advertising and Promotion in Real Time [PDF] by Saylor Academy which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
  • The “Student Op-Ed: The Art of Bittersweet Advertising” is by Richard, A.M. (2019) which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.
  • The fourth paragraph under “Creating Memories Through Story, Symbolism, & Semantics” is adapted from “Intellectual Property and the Internet/Online advertising” (2018, January 4), in Wikibooks, which is licensed under CC BY.


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