Can’t look at her, can’t not look at her

It’s the most common reaction to our new work for the launch of fintech, Exo Investing. A perfect response to a poster, we think. But there’s psychology at work as well as creativity. Here we reveal the science behind the simple idea.

We’re super-excited about our new OOH, digital and print campaign for Exo. For a start, we’re working with a first-of-its-kind investment platform. Exo wants to break down the barriers to financial security. They’re doing this by giving private investors access to an institutional-grade platform with user-friendly controls. And it costs investors just 22p a day. We didn’t know you could buy anything for 22p anymore!

So Exo has a brilliant proposition that nails the zeitgeist of financial democratisation and inclusion. Naturally we jumped at the chance to help them launch. And the result is the ‘Start your revolution’ campaign. It’s all about breaking down those wealth barriers, doing things differently, turning investing on its head.

The work started as type only, with some clever headlines – ‘Get privilege for peanuts’ is a particular favourite – where half the sentence was turned upside down to signify revolution. The concepts looked smart and different.

But another great thing about working with Exo is that it’s s been so collaborative. We kicked the idea around with them for a while and decided that we wanted to go further, to really make an impact and get people talking. The result is turning heads (figuratively and literally) from the FT to train platforms. And it’s all down to what’s called the Thatcher Effect.

The former Prime Minister didn’t discover the effect. Instead her face was the one on which it was first demonstrated; in 1980 by Peter Thompson, Professor of Psychology at the University of York. Using an extremely early version of Photoshop (or more likely scissors and glue), Professor Thompson took a photo of Thatcher, turned it upside down but kept her eyes the right way up.

When viewed like this, people found it very difficult to detect that the photo had been altered. They just saw an upside-down Thatcher. Try it for yourself with the photo above. Doesn’t it just look like an upside-down face? Most people don’t process that the eyes have been flipped. Yet view the face the right way up (turn your screen upside-down or stand on your head, whatever’s easier), and the change is obvious. You can also see a rather disturbing demonstration of the effect in this Open University video.

Professor Thompson hypothesised that the difficulty in detecting altered features in an upside-down face is because people usually rely on the arrangement of facial features rather than what the features look like. But, because we’re not used to seeing a face upside-down, we do things the other way round; studying the features separately. That means we don’t process that the eyes are flipped compared to the mouth and nose.

There used to be an urban myth that the illusion only worked with Margaret Thatcher. Now that would be weird. But happily for us it works with all faces. And that’s why we’ve used the effect for our Exo campaign. People who see the work feel that something has happened to the images but can’t quite work out what. It’s a gut reaction which, when combined with challenging headlines, makes for ads which engage both the emotions and the intellect.

So next time you see someone peering at an Exo poster, you can tell them there’s more to it than meets the eye.