‘We are built to forget’ – VCCP unveils year-long study on the science of memory

The human memory is an imperfect thing. Less than 16% of all ads we see are recalled and correctly attributed.

Even more worryingly, more than a third of all online ads we are served are never seen at all.

Calling out this ‘chronic wastage’, VCCP has launched ’The Challenger Series’, a new thought leadership programme tackling the industry’s biggest problems and starting with the the science of memory – which is describes as being ‘key to unlocking real brand growth’.

“The human brain is not designed to remember, it’s designed to forget,” said VCCP founding partner and chairman Charles Vallance, adding that “memory is the most valuable real estate on earth”.

“The greatest brands understand this. They become memory makers by cracking the codes of memory, establishing a foothold of recall in the mind of their prospect.”

As the first report in the series, ‘Cracking the Memory Code’ takes a closer at how memories are created, stored and retrieved, and what this means for brand growth. It also includes how to ensure brands are remembered, how to get noticed in the first place and – crucially – how to make sure they are recalled at the shelf, search engine and till.

The research revealed that there’s a common misconception that the more we like something, the more we remember it. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – the more we remember something, the more we like it.

Contrary to popular belief, memory is not a storage system, it’s a filtration system – we are built to forget, not to remember. However, once memories are set they can be recalled for up to a lifetime and become habitually accessed with the right triggers.

Although they may not realise it, marketers are relying on neuroscience premises like the Hebbian Theory to form these habitual triggers between their brand and category.

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The report also explores how consumers are curious to discover new things, but afraid of anything that’s too new – which is why marketers’ must act as custodian of brands, allowing them to innovate while staying ‘relatively’ safe.

To back up the white paper, VCCP commissioned the UK’s leading commercial behavioural psychologists, Cowry Consulting, to test the findings on 100 adverts, widely regarded as some of the industry’s best since the 1970s.


The ads were tested using three scientific techniques for memory encoding, with the results underscoring the report’s findings.

The top fifth percentile across all categories included Cadbury’s Birthday, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Coca-Cola’s Holidays Are Coming, Haribo’s Boardroom and Specsavers’ Rollercoaster. This testing revealed that of four of these top five ads were part of long-standing creative platforms – demonstrating the power of “compound creativity”.

These best-in-class brands have become synonymous with their categories by using consistency and association.

VCCP’s global group planning director Richard Harriford, who wrote the report, said: “Every piece of communication exists on a knife edge between being instantly forgotten and remembered forever.

“It throws down a gauntlet to everyone working in marketing communications: if we’re not interesting, they’re not listening, and our brands go missing. In a time of lightweight assets and competition for attention, this report is a timely reminder of not just why people remember, but why it’s so fundamentally important that they do.

“All of us reading this have an incredible job – and responsibility – to create work that’s unmissable and impossible to forget.”

The results of the first report will be rolled out in a year-long programme including events, reports, interviews and a unique measurement product.

AgenciesMarketing StrategyNewsResearch and Data

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