The Seven Sins of Memory and Their Implications For Advertising


Larry Percy (2003) ,"The Seven Sins of Memory and Their Implications For Advertising", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 212-214.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 212-214


Larry Percy, Consultant, USA

Daniel Schacter (2001) reminds us that psychologists and neuroscientists have provided a vast literature on various aspects of forgetting and memory distortions, but no unifying framework within which we can think about the many problems that memory can create. In his recent book, The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers), Schacter looks at the problem of memory, and suggests that these 'imperfections’ may be classified into seven fundamental areas, the 'seven sins of memory’: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.

A review of the seven 'sins’ suggests that each of these memory "malfunctions" raises a number of concerns over how they could affect the processing of advertising and other marketing communications utilizing his framework. In this paper we will be looking at what the likely impact of these memory problems might be.


Transience is the name Schacter gives to the forgetting that naturally occurs over time. More particularly, it is the realization that while memory of what you did yesterday may be all but perfect, after a week or so our memory for events tends to be more of a generic description of what generally occurs during such an event. Specifically, memory experiences a "general switch from reproductive and specific recollections to reconstructive and more general descriptions" (Schacter, 2001, p. 16).

This problem of transience is aggravated in older adults, those over fifty years of age. While they are quite capable of remembering just as well as younger people over the course of a few minutes, forgetting occurs much more rapidly over time. With the passage of time, older adults tend to lose recall of specific details, and tend to rely even more than younger people on a general descriptive sense of what they remember.

* The sin of transience implies that 'recall’ of advertising is much more likely to reflect a generic description of what is expected about the brand rather than specific benefits included in the message. This has clear implications for interpreting measures of advertising message recall. But, more importantly, it underscores the need to develop unique brand benefit associations that become a part of the generic understanding of the brand. It also suggests that the specific content of marketing communication should be consistent with, or carefully integrated with, prior understandings of the brand.

The problem of memory transience can be mediated by more elaborative encoding, essentially by stimulating the lower left frontal cortex. Anything that can help control what occurs in the earliest moments of memory formation can potentially minimize transience. There is a long history, dating back to the early Greeks, of using visual imagery mnemonics to facilitate memory. Unfortunately for marketing communication, not only do such techniques require a great deal of concentration and effort (and there is no easy way to encourage such effort), but for most people there really is very little evidence of general memory improvement using such techniques.

* However, one way to help reduce transience is to encourage elaborations that relate information that someone is interested in remembering with something they already know. With advertising this could be encouraged with questions in the copy which stimulate elaboration: for example, with an arthritis pain remedy one might ask "What would you do with a pain free day?"


Absent-mindedness results when we fail to pay proper attention to something and therefore do not encode it properly, or when the information is actually in memory, but overlooked when we need to retrieve it. The consequence of the sin of absent-mindedness manifests itself both in failing to remember past experiences as well as failing to remember to do something in the future. Both, of course, can prove troublesome for marketing communication. Also, the fact that absent-mindedness is more likely for routine experiences that do not in and of themselves require elaborative encoding (e.g. exposure to advertising) adds to the problem.

Memories for past experiences are generally classified as either recollections or familiarity. Recollections are when we recall specific details from memory (e.g. remembering specific benefit claims from an advert), while familiarity reflects a more 'primitive’ sense of simply being aware of something without recalling specific details (e.g. remembering 'seeing’ an advert, but not particular content). Interestingly, when there is divided attention during exposure, there is a significant effect upon recollection, but little or no effect upon familiarity (cf. studies by Craik et al., 1996).

* Given that divided attention rather than full attention is likely to be the norm for exposure to advertising, memory for specifics is unlikely. This underscores the importance of maintaining a consistent 'look and feel’ over time (Percy, Rossiter, and Elliott, 2001), encouraging familiarity, and utilizing imagery that will elicit a positive benefit (associated with the brand) even at low or even sub-cognitive levels of attention. Additionally, too much exposure, especially massed exposure, could lead to lower levels of specific 'recollection’ (as we understand from as long ago as Ebbinghaus, 1885). Spaced exposures generally results in better memory, a finding demonstrated in Strong’s (1974) simulations of various media schedules based upon Zielske’s work, and more recently in fMRI studies conducted by Wagner, et al. (1998).

Remembering to do something in the future (e.g. buying an advertised brand the next time you are shopping) is described by psychologists as 'prospective memory.’ Einstein and McDaniel (1990, 1997) have offered a useful way of looking at this idea of prospective memory, distinguishing between what they call 'event-based’ and 'time-based’ prospective memory. Event-based prospective memory is when we want to remember to do something at the time of a specific event; for example, the next time you are at the store you want to buy a new brand. Time-based prospective memory is when you wish to remember to do something at a specific time in the future; for example, to put the roast in the oven at four o’clock so it will be ready for dinner.

Prospective memory failure occurs largely because we are so preoccupied with other things in our lives that when the event occurs or the time arrives to act upon it, we are so involved with other things that the memory links are not activated.

* To minimize prospective memory failure, marketing communication should utilize distinctive cues that are unlikely to be associated with other long-term memories (especially for competitive brands). We need to establish links in memory to the appropriate category in such a way that the event or specific time spontaneously triggers memory of the intention to act. This is especially true for recognition driven band awareness, suggesting that point-of-purchase material as well as packaging must be both sufficiently informative to trigger the associative memory as well as distinctive enough to minimize confusion with other brand memories. Especially with fmcg brands, shoppers are likely to be in a hurry and pre-occupied with other attention consuming behaviour, adding to the difficulty in gaining attention to the appropriate prospective memory cue. (This idea, in fact, is one of the techniques associated with compliant behaviour capitalized on by successful salesmen distracting your attention, minimizing the likelihood you will remember your initial good intentions to not be influenced by the salesmen: cf Cialdini, 2001.)


Blocking is typified by the all-too-familiar experience of recognizing someone but not being able to remember their name. According to Schacter, the sin of blocking involves a different kind of forgetting from absent-mindedness and transience. Unlike absent-mindedness, the memory has been encoded and stored, and in fact a retrieval cue could be in place that would be expected to trigger recall. Unlike problems with transience, the information is still in memory; it just remains tantalizingly out of reach when required.

Blocking is basically associated with names, and therefore potentially a problem for brand names. The problem seems to occur in the left temporal pole, where the fragile link between the characteristics associated with something and the name by which it is known is made. The reason we often have trouble remembering someone’s name is that they are difficult to retrieve because people’s names tend to be isolated from conceptual knowledge.

* Like proper names, brand names may be 'blocked,’ especially those that are not well integrated or related to obvious associations with the category need. If there are no logical and immediate links in memory between a brand name and the category need, we run the risk of occasional blocking. Even when names are equally familiar to people, arbitrary brand names will be blocked more often than descriptive brand names (cf. Bredant and Valentine, 1998).

In another troubling aspect of blocking when considering brand names, access to brand names that are not immediately salient when thinking of a category will be blocked by the successful recall of other brands. This is why we are only likely to 'recall’ a small subset of all the brands with which we are aware when thinking about a product or category. But there is more to this. To minimize blocking, it is necessary to suppress the retrieval of recently encountered information that is related to a recall cue so that the mind is not cluttered with irrelevancies that could interfere with the desired memory.

* If a brand’s benefit in its communication is similar to a leading brand’s, it will be that much harder to make the connection to the advertised brand, especially if the category cue is linked to the leading brand. Such a situation would make it very difficult to spontaneously recall that the advertised brand also has the same or similar benefits as the leading brand. This again suggests the need to have copy (and packaging as well as other marketing communication) unique to a brand in order to avoid multiple connections in memory that could minimize or override the desired brand-related memory.

Certain retrieval inhibitions that lead to blocking can be 'released’ if we encounter a sufficiently powerful cue (e.g. nondeclarative emotional memories) that help us re-experience something in the same way in which it was initially experienced. Appropriate triggers in advertising or other marketing communication that elicits the correct emotional memories may help overcome retrieval inhibitions, and release positive memories for the brand.


Perhaps the most common occurrence of the sin of misattribution reflects source misattribution where someone does in fact correctly remember something they have learned, but attribute it to the wrong source. This is often referred to as 'unconscious transference,’ and is the bane of eyewitness identification. As Schacter has put it: "A strong sense of general familiarity, together with an absence of specific recollection, adds up to a lethal recipe for misattribution." This is potentially lethal in the case of eyewitness identification. While not as serious, it can certainly be a potential problem with brand benefit associations in memory.

* To avoid misattribution, it requires more than simply retrieving specific benefits from memory, they must be linked together in memory in such a way that you can recall the correct conjunction of brand and benefit claim. This linking process is known as 'memory bonding’ where all of the critical associations within the advertising must be bound together into a unifying whole at the time of encoding. Failure can lead to something called 'memory conjunction error,’ and is very likely to happen when adverts for different brands are visually or verbally similar. Memory conjunction errors occur because people misattribute strong familiarity with similar (even if not identical) things from more than one source, as coming from a single source; brand advertising in our case. Interestingly, a strong visual-verbal congruence can help minimize misattribution (cf. Schacter, Israel and Racine, 1999).


Suggestibility in memory results from people’s tendency to include information that they have learned from some outside source as something they have personally experienced. This information may come from any external source, including advertising or other marketing communication. While similar to the sin of misattribution, misattribution may occur without specific suggestions from outside sources. But when the two combine, it is quite possible for people to develop memories of something which in fact never occurred.

* While in many cases suggestibility may indeed be a 'sin’ of memory, with marketing communication this sin may be a blessing. For example, suggestive questions may produce memory distortions by creating source memory problems. As a result, advertising that utilizes questions that remind people of a favorable brand association could occasion a 'memory’ for that positive experience, even if it never occurred: 'Remember how easy it was to remove those nasty stains the last time you used new Persil with bleach?’

Hyman (1996) and his colleagues have done some interesting work in successfully creating false childhood memories via suggestion, simply by asking subjects about things that never occurred. One of the important conclusions they drew from their work is that these false memories produce vivid visual images. This suggests to Schacter that if one embellishes a false memory with vivid mental images it should make it look and feel like a true memory.

* Application to advertising is obvious. If we reinforce a suggested favorable experience with a brand with a strong visual image of such an experience, it should help seed the false memory.

In an extension of these ideas, we know that one of the best ways to elicit early childhood memories is to ask subjects to 'visualize’ themselves as children. While there is no evidence that anyone can remember anything much earlier than about two years of age, with suggestive visualization techniques one can create false 'memories’ for events going back almost to birth (cf. Spanos et al. 1999). The key here, as in all suggestibility, is expectancy. If we are instructed to expect something, and it seems plausible, it is possible to create rather strong false memories. The more recent the primed experience, the more difficult it is to suggest a false memory; and of course it is very difficult to counter strong existing memory.

* If you hate a brand, an advertiser is unlikely to 'suggest’ you like it. But if it is one of a set of brands that you use, it is certainly possible to suggest more positive experiences with that brand. And if it is a brand you have not used, if you can relate it to a positive experience from childhood, it is quite possible to suggest positive memories for the benefit and link it to the brand.


The sin of bias reflects how current understandings, beliefs, and feelings have the ability to distort how we interpret new experiences and our memory of them. Biases that are associated with our memory of past experiences will greatly influence how we perceive and understand new information or situations. Schacter identifies five major types of bias: consistency, change, hindsight, egocentric, and stereotypical biases.

The neurological source of bias seems to come from something in the left brain that Gazzaniga (1998) has called an 'interpreter’ that continuously draws upon our experiences and understanding of things in order to provide some stability to our psychological world. This interpreter utilizes such things as inferences, rationalizations, and generalizations in relating the past with the present, enabling us to justify our present attitudes with our past experience and feelings. The left brain interpreter, however, is mediated by systems in the right brain that are more attuned to actual representations of what is going on in the world around us.

Consistency and Change Bias

As one might suppose, consistency bias is a tendency to behave (or believe) today in a fashion consistent with one’s memory for similar experience in the past. As a result, what we find is that memories of past experience and feelings are filtered through, and made to match, current experience and feelings. Because our memories are not 'exact,’ we tend to infer our past beliefs, attitudes, and feelings from what we are experiencing today.

* This opens up an opportunity to exploit existing positive attitudes toward a brand by implying they are of long standing. Especially with brand switchers who include the advertised brand in their purchase set, one could imply a long standing preference: "You know you have always liked our brand, why not buy more?" This is also congruent with change bias, which is where one remembers an initial assessment as being worse than it actually was, making what you feel now an improvement by comparison. Both consistency and change bias help reduce cognitive dissonance.

Hindsight Bias

When we feel that we have always known something would happen after we have become aware of the outcome, this is the bias of hindsight. We are reconstructing the past to make it consistent with the present. The key seems to be an activation of general knowledge. As Schacter puts it, "it is as if knowledge of the outcome becomes instantly integrated with other general knowledge in semantic memory, and people simply cannot treat this new bit of information any differently from other information relevant to the judgment they are trying to make." There is evidence that this selective recall is a function of the general knowledge that influences perception and comprehension and a vulnerability to misattribution.

* Hindsight bias would seem to suggest that after reading an advert or direct mail brochure, one will tend to 'recognize’ or believe claims later that had not actually been made in the advert, but would have been expected precursors of the new claims. Work by Carli (1999) tends to support this suggestion.

Egocentric Bias

Egocentric bias is the result of the important role that the ?self’ plays in our ongoing mental life. Because of this, when we encode information by relating it to the self, our memory for that information is better than other types of encoding.

* The implications for marketing communication here are obvious: include personal references. Moreover, given our tendency to see ourselves in a positive light, it follows that such memory bias will occasion memories in a self-enhancing light. This suggests that copy asking people to remember a situation in a positive light should encourage an egocentric memory bias: e.g. 'remember when you . . .’ In the same way, egocentric bias can result from exaggerating the difficulty of past experiences: 'remember how hard it was to . . .’


As we know, emotionally charged experiences are better remembered than less emotional occasions. Persistence involves remembering things you wish you would forget, and is strongly associated with our emotional experiences.

* Research has shown that emotionally-charged information automatically attracts attention; and in the briefest exposure, the emotional significance of a stimuli will be retrieved from nondeclarative emotional memory, evaluated, and mediate how we encode the information. Understanding the emotional associations generated by an advert is critical. Because people are more likely to remember the central focus of emotionally arousing information rather than memory for peripheral details, it is essential to tie the brand in marketing communication to the appropriate emotion. Otherwise, it will become peripheral to the information conveyed (a problem with many highly entertaining adverts).

Schacter has pointed out that persistence thrives in negative emotional situations such as disappointment, sadness, and regret. Our memories of traumatic experiences are persistent, and while these unwanted memories may occur in any of the senses, visual memories are by far the most common. This suggestion is reinforced in the work of Ochsner (2000), who found that when people recognize a positive visual image they tend to just say it is familiar to them. But when they recognize negative visual images, people relate detailed, specific memories of what they thought and felt when they were originally exposed to the picture.

* All of this underscores the importance of the visual images in marketing communication. Because persistence thrives in a negative emotional climate, visual images conveying disappointment in a usage situation, resolved by the advertised brand, should tap into any persistent memories of product dissatisfaction (always assuming such dissatisfaction). It also suggests that for appropriate product categories (especially high involvement informational decisions such as medical or other insurance, financial planning, etc.) visual 'reminders’ of past problems which could be avoided with the advertised brand should be an effective strategy. This should also be equally effective in situations where there is strong psychological risk involved: e.g., reminding young people of a social 'disaster’ which would never occur with the advertised brand.

Not surprisingly, much of this activity is centered within the amygdala, the source of nondeclarative emotional memory. It is the amygdala that regulates memory storage, and can release hormones that can 'force’ us to remember vividly an experience (LeDoux, 1996). And as we have already noted, this response by the amygdala is much more likely to occur for negative than positive experience.

* This suggests that, again for appropriate product categories, it could make sense to create situations within an advert that signal a possible threat to the well-being of the consumer. This 'threat’ may then well intrude upon active memory when cued by the category, with the brand associated with a positive resolution.


The seven 'sins’ of memory, as outlined by Schacter, clearly have implications for marketing communication, as we have seen. Recent work in neurobiology has shown, especially with the advent of fMRIs and PET scans, that memories are not 'snap shots’ stored in the mind waiting to be recalled. Rather, they are made up of a number of component parts waiting to be reassembled and 'remembered.’ As a result, a lot of things can interfere with our ability to accurately remember. But, understanding how this happens can help us minimize potential problems with encoding and subsequent recall of communication messages. Schacter’s seven 'sins’ provide a framework to help us with this understanding.

Additionally, a number of research projects to investigate the implications for advertising that are drawn from the seven sins of memory are easy to envision. A few suggestions are briefly outlined below for testing some of the implications suggested in this paper.

The sin of transcience suggests that specific recall tends to change over time to more generic descriptions of what is expected. This premise would easily be tested by tracking short-term recall of message content over time. It was also suggested that questions in advertising copy should stimulate elaboration, which in its turn should reduce memory transcience. This too would be testable.

The sin of absent-mindedness suggests that advertising with unique purchase cues, unrelated to other long-term memory associations (especially to other competitive brands), should minimize distraction caused by prospective memory failure at the point-of-purchase. This proposition could be tested in many ways, utilizing stimuli ranging from adverts with varying degrees of purchase cues to packaging with different degrees of similarity to competitors.

The sin of blocking suggests a number of possible studies. For example, brands with more arbitrary or abstract names, particularly relative to category need, should be less easily recalled when one is asked to remember brands from the category. Also, benefit claims that are similar to claims made by a leading brand should be harder to connect to the brand than more unique benefit claims. Such hypotheses could easily be tested using real-world stimuli.

The sin of misattribution suggests that if 'memory conjunction errors’ are more likely with visual or verbally similar material, testing brand-benefit memory associations for similar vs. unsimilar adverts for different brands should reveal greater correct recall for more unique adverts, owing to greater memory bonding for the brand and benefit.

The sin of suggestibility suggests it should be possible to utilize visual images to reinforce suggestibility for events that have never occurred. If advertising utilizes copy and visuals that suggest a strong positive experience with a brand, this should generate more memory for such positive experiences among brand users. This would be an especially interesting exercise for occasional users of a brand.

The sin of bias suggests one should be able to imply long standing positive attitudes toward a brand simply by implying such in advertising. Strength or duration of a positive attitude toward a brand could be measured as a function of whether it is or is not implied by the message.

The sin of persistence suggests that adverts utilizing negative visual images of a problem that is solved by a brand should reinforce or build more positive attitude (especially in the case of serious problems). One could test adverts that utilize such images vs. adverts that use, say, positive benefits to measure this.

The implications drawn from the seven sins of memory for the processing of, and response to, advertising are significant. These brief examples represent only some of the more obvious research suggested by the sins of memory to better understand how to create and develop more effective advertising.


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Larry Percy, Consultant, USA


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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