Book Review: About Face

Companies are desperate for attention.
They spray paint their logos on streets, pay people to drive cars wrapped with their ads, and even hire a guy to wear their T-shirts. In our ad-saturated, commoditized society, what else is there to try?

Lots of things, according to ad consultant and Sensory Logic president Dan Hill. In his book, About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising, Hill breaks down exactly what makes an ad work in today’s hyper-stimulated marketing era.

Hill’s message is that ads aren’t about message anymore. They’re about emotion and experience. Passion, purpose and personality have replaced the old three P’s of product, place and promotion.

Using brain science, Hill decodes how ads work on an emotional level. He shows advertisers how and how not to design ads that appeal to 21st century consumers. Because emotions rule decisionmaking, advertisers ignore these new rules at their own peril.


Hill shares how advertisers can cultivate positive emotions and experiences in consumers, using science, qualitative research, his own extensive experience, diagrams, charts, and MRI images.

Each chapter focuses on several ways that humans work, and then how to create ads around those emotional and experiential realities. Chapter begin with an orientation, then parcel out wisdom in engaging, cleverly written sections. Although chapters are relatively short, they’re rich in information; Hill facilitates your understanding by ending each with a summary. Here’s an abbreviated breakdown of each chapter:

Chapter 1 explores the commercial value of stopping power—making someone stop what they’re doing—as opposed to just getting attention with your ads. Hill stresses the importance of engaging all five senses in advertising, uses eye tracking data to unveil seven features successful ads need, and covers the six creativity templates that 85% of award-winning ads adhere to.

Chapter 2 tells you how simplicity can create significant emotional interest in an ad and create engagement, one of advertising’s Holy Grails. Hill discusses the benefits of including movement, famous faces, and one or more story climaxes in your ad. Using eye tracking, he gives five tips for optimal web design. He also shares tips for making copywriting work.

Chapter 3 covers how to harness peoples’ natural tendency to like, prefer and trust the familiar. Ads can crate familiarity through repetition, music that helps viewers make certain associations, a cast and voices that the target market recognizes.

Chapter 4 helps you cultivate your characters’ public appearances. Hill rates how on-emotion CEOs and spokespeople in real ads are; for example, Drew Barrymore, representing Cover Girl, failed at being authentic and engaging, while Healthy Choice’s Julia Dreyfus was a winner. The more emotion your ad or appearance’s main character is, the more people will pay attention. Hill shows data that 75% of on-screen “gaze activity” is focused on faces to underline his points.

Chapter 5 dives into memory, specifically how we only recall a tiny portion of the sensory information we absorb. We save it because it is relevant, novel, intense, familiar and/or involves change. You learn what the optimal number of TV spot scenes and emotional peaks are for maximizing recall, and how to increase notoriously low levels of brand recall.

Chapter 6 covers how ads can help consumers address their fears, wants and needs. Ads draw consumers in by making problems vivid. This, in turn, readies consumers to buy. Hill explores ten kinds of consumer motivations, how to create a resonant brand personality using archetypes, and how to live in a commoditized era by redefining markets into six emotional niches, including causes, nurturing, and affirmation.

Chapter 7 explores how to promote the key positive feelings of happiness and hope. He shares seven principles of behavioral economics as a way for advertisers to “play to people’s emotional manipulation of reality.” In an insight that now happens to pertain to national politics, Hill writes that “if you advertise using hope, be sure to deliver, because customers expect emotional reciprocity.”

Chapter 8 tells you how competing on price kicks you in the face and makes you look desperate. Instead, use sensory stimulation, brand associations, and innovation to enhance your offerings.

Chapter 9 shares how ads need to reflect their target market’s beliefs and values. They can do this through dialogue, stories, authenticity, and products geared at 21st-century “prosumers.” Hill explains how to do this. He also stresses how being insensitive to gender—which most advertisers still are—is a big mistake.

Chapter 10 how to craft ads that persuade and foster trust. Hill describes three kinds of ads that do this, whom to use them for, and what kind is best. He then wraps up the book with a summary of his many useful ideas.


When I was reading About Face, it felt like Hill, a witty and engaging conversationalist, was talking to me the whole time. He makes it easy to grasp each concept, no matter how complex.

After finishing the book, I felt like I had the formula for effective 21st century advertising. Not only did Hill break down how and why ads need to appeal to certain facets of human nature, he also gave actionable keys to making those principles work in your own campaign.

The book contains almost encyclopedic knowledge, but without being dry. Hill brings concepts down to earth by pinpointing where and how advertisers get it wrong; he’s not shy about naming names. After finishing all the chapters–there wasn’t a boring one in the bunch–I started seeing TV and print ads, and especially faces, in a whole new way. I liked it, I learned from it, and it changed the way I saw things. That’s what I call a successful book.

That said, About Face geared mainly towards marketers and advertisers, especially those who produce visual campaigns. This book, as its title suggests, mostly covers the visual aspects of advertising.

Bottom line: If you know how humans work, you know how to work ads on them. I highly recommend this book to anyone involved in creating visual ads on any level.

Disclosure: We received a free copy of this book.

Written by Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.