Facing Facts: Why are our brains so obsessed with human faces?

Facing Facts: Why are our brains so obsessed with human faces?

Take a look at this DOLCE & GABBANA ad, what do you focus on first?

Scarlett Johansson in DOLCE & GABBANA The One campaign, 2011. Photographer: Jean Baptiste Mondino.

Thanks to eye-tracking heatmaps, we know that you (and everyone else who tries this) focus on Scarlett Johansson’s face instead of the perfume bottle (or the brand name). In fact, we do this with most ads we see on a daily basis. To understand why our brains are so obsessed with human faces we need to dig a little deeper into the psychology behind advertising. Many articles, experts and blog posts (like this one) will explain the stronger associations that consumers will build with a brand when they’re able to identify a face or person in relation to it. It’s not difficult to imagine why our brains are wired this way. As human beings, our brains search for faces on an instinctual level – to detect a threat, to read emotions and to search for company and community. Here is the same ad again, showing you where viewers focused their attention (the warmer the color, the more fixations on that area).

Eye-tracking heatmap by Sticky

There is a part of our brain called the ‘fusiform face area’ which is especially dedicated to recognizing human faces. The human brain even goes so far as to perceive faces in objects, an experience called ‘pareidolia’, signifying the human need to personify objects to better understand or relate to them. Ever spotted an old, wrinkled face embedded in a tree trunk? Or looked at a car’s headlights and felt like it was a bug-eyed creature looking back at you? When this happens, our brain is stimulated in a unique way, even on a subconscious level – much the same as seeing a face in an ad campaign. 

There’s also a concept called ‘The Face Advantage’, which refers to the fact that it’s easier for us to recall memories associated with faces than to recall memories associated with voice. In other words, there is a stronger link between a face we see and the meaning we give it, making it easier for us to remember it. This is why people are able to remember faces easier than names, suggesting that the mental imagery of a face-to-face encounter is what really sticks in someone’s mind. 

At some point, we’ve all described someone we’ve met along these lines “She was the one with green eyes and red lipstick” or “The blonde guy with the really cool sunglasses”. When something stands out on a person’s face, we remember it – a powerful tool that brands can harness. Think of the face as a new medium for brand awareness and communication, a new way to share memorable messages in a real-life situation. If we know that our brains are obsessed with faces and that everyone is looking at it, why are we still spending money advertising elsewhere?

Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing I’ll Be Back sunglasses by Vision1

Interesting facts about the face.

  1. Dimples are genetic, they are caused by a shortened muscle which pulls across the face when smiling. 
  2. We are capable of making 10,000 unique facial expressions.
  3. The average person can recognize 5,000 different faces.
  4. Fake smiles can be distinguished from genuine smiles by the specific muscles they use. 
  5. It takes 12 muscles to smile, while it only takes 11 to frown.

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