The place where your ad is seen is as important as what it says

Context-dependent memory means we recall things better in the same contexts where we first experienced them, which is key for point-of-sale advertising.

If you were walking along the beach near Oban, Scotland on a blustery summer day in 1975, you might have stumbled upon a rather strange sight. A line of divers in full scuba gear reciting a series of random words.

These divers were not part of a Wicker Man-style cult, but participants in a rather bizarre study by two University of Stirling psychologists, Duncan Godden and Alan Baddeley. They had recruited a group of scuba enthusiasts and asked them to learn a list of 36 words. Half learned the list on dry land and half underwater.

The next day, the psychologists asked the divers to return to Oban and recall the words. Half tried to remember the words in the same place they had learned them, half in the alternate setting.

Godden and Baddeley found that when people tried to recall the words in a different setting, they only remembered 8.5 words. However, that number jumped to 12.5 words when the locations were the same. That’s a 46% improvement in recall.

The psychologists termed the idea that we remember information better in the environment we learned it ‘context-dependent memory’.

They weren’t the first people to notice this quirk. As far back as the 17th century, the philosopher John Locke had reported an incident of an adolescent who had learned to dance in a room containing a distinctive trunk.

According to Locke: “The idea of this remarkable piece of household stuff had so mixed itself with the turns and steps of all his dances, that though in that chamber he could dance excellently well, yet it was only while that trunk was there; nor could he perform well in any other place unless that or some other trunk had its due place in the room.”

While anecdotes about context-dependent memory stretch back through the centuries, it was only with the work of Godden and Baddeley that the insight was tested in more controlled circumstances.

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From the coast to the classroom

However, you might be a little sceptical about these findings: scuba diving and 17th-century dancing are pretty atypical activities. Do the results hold in more mundane, everyday settings?

Well, in 1998, Harry Grant from Iowa State University decided to find out. He recruited 39 participants and asked them to read an article in either a quiet library or a noisy canteen.

Two minutes after the participants had finished reading, he asked them to answer a quiz about the article. Just as with Godden and Baddeley’s experiment, half the participants undertook the test in the same setting and half switched.

The results matched the original study. On average, participants scored five out of 10 when the learning and recall environments differed, but that increased to roughly 6.5 when the places were the same. That’s a 29% improvement.

These studies aren’t cherry-picked examples. In 2001, Steven Smith from Texas A&M University conducted a meta-analysis of 75 studies on the topic and found that, when learning and recall environments were the same, memory was consistently better.

The practical application

The underlying point of these studies is that we’re more likely to remember information in a similar environment to where we heard it. That finding has a couple of media implications.

First, the studies suggest a reappraisal of point-of-sale or point-of-consumption advertising. These media are likely to have benefits that currently might not be fully appreciated. Normally, they are judged on the immediate sales they drive.

But the idea of context-dependent memory suggests that they are likely to be effective at driving longer-term associations between a brand and a particular place. So, if you want your message to be salient when people are at a bar, as they pull up to a petrol station or when they’re ordering online, these are the places to embed your messages.

Second, some psychologists argue that context dependence isn’t just related to place. The same effect occurs with feelings. So, for example, when we’re in a good mood we’re more likely to remember things we learned when we were happy. That argument suggests that you should identify the mindset in which people tend to consume or purchase your product and advertise at moments that replicate that feeling.

Context-dependent memory is just one of hundreds of findings into memory conducted by behavioural scientists. Since we’re in the business of creating memories, it’s time we immersed ourselves in more of them.

Richard Shotton is founder of the consultancy Astroten and author of The Choice Factorya book about applying behavioural science to advertising. He tweets at @rshotton.

Will Hanmer-Lloyd is head of strategy at Total Media.