The Psychological Reasons Behind GIF Popularity

by Federica Rustico

12 min read
Last Updated: December 30, 2022

You may think this is a bit of a stretch but the reality is, in the past few years, GIFs have done more to attract our attention and interest than anything else. GIFs have evolved into a type of web and social media lingo, conveying nuanced feelings and encapsulating cultural ideas at the speed of light. Because of the explosion in GIF popularity, the user sharing rate on GIPHY is currently over 10 billion each day (say what?!). But what exactly is all the fuss about? Why have GIFs become so popular on the internet, and why should we incorporate them into virtually every aspect of our lives (including our marketing campaigns)?

Why GIFs capture our attention

If you can’t get yourself to understand how an animated image became so explosive, let’s begin by covering some of the fundamentals of the human brain:

GIFs are able to capture our attention because they take use of the fact that our brain has evolved to favor motion and focus on faces. The mental image that we have of progressive movement, in which one action leads to the next, is something that we expect. But, the animated snapshot that is looped in a GIF does not go to the next movement. Because of this, our focus is held captive in the anticipation of something that does not come into existence.

But that’s not even the half of it. There is more to it than just drawing our attention to something. There’s something emotional linked to GIFs, something that is winning over our hearts. Bear with me for a second:

At the annual meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery in 2014, a presentation called "I Have So Many Feels!" was given. Elli Bourlai and her colleagues revealed the astonishing way that GIFs are able to easily encompass our emotional hemisphere in their research. GIFs are able to instantly portray our thoughts considerably better than a tweet with 280 characters could, regardless of whether those feelings are happiness, sadness, disgust, or horror. What exactly is the proverb? Something like “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

This understanding has been put to excellent use within the consumer sphere, with GIFs being purposefully implanted into marketing campaigns in order to easily impact, and in many cases improve, the emotional state of social media users. The unconscious reaction that consumers have to GIFs contributes to an increase in the effectiveness of marketing campaigns.

But not so fast. The landscape can become a great deal more complicated when it comes to social and political issues. Media and communication strategists are required to work within conditions that frequently hinder effective communication. These conditions include attempting to convey complex information in brief spans of time or working to provide content that is mobilizing or motivating within an environment that is polarized. What should strategic planners do? It's possible that GIFs can help supply part of the answer.

Why GIFs are becoming increasingly popular in digital culture

While animated GIFs have been there since the early days of the internet, their popularity has just recently skyrocketed into the mainstream spotlight. This is due to the proliferation of high-speed internet, the growing usage of messaging apps, as well as the growth of meme culture. It should come as no surprise that companies are currently attempting to get a handle on this trending medium given the growing number of customers, particularly those in the younger generations, who use GIFs as part of their regular communication. To sum up, there are three main reasons why GIF has been so popular over the years (beyond the technical reasons of universal browser support and low bandwidth use).

1. Humor

They facilitate instantaneous expression of emotional response in situations where words would otherwise be inadequate. GIFs also make use of the meme culture, which is responsible for the steady stream of allusions that contribute to the overall digital culture we inhabit.

The act of persuasion, or the process of doing so, can be regarded as the presentation of arguments with the intention of moving, motivating, or otherwise changing the target audience. Different things motivate different people. To bring about the change that is required, motivation is what is required. And in order to bring about this change, a lot of organizations are turning to statistics as a way to convince their audience of their point of view.

The psychological reasons behind GIF popularity

However, there is one major hurdle to overcome. In most cases, facts are ineffective. The real question now is, what are we supposed to do when it comes down to presenting the facts? When the average visitor scrolls through enough content in a single session to equal the height of the Empire State Building, how can we best grab the attention of those who visit our site? Or do we maintain that interest with dry statistical material after we get it? Yes, you guessed it, the answer is GIFs.

A research titled "The State of Marketing 2015" highlighted how certain businesses, such as Salesforce Marketing Cloud, used GIFs with survey findings to add aspects of humor and culturally relatable reactions to their most important themes. This assisted to convey difficult subjects while also assisting their readers in remaining interested with the content being presented.

There are times when we have to express an idea, an action, or an event that is emotionally charged, and when we do so, we run the risk of derailing the intended result entirely if we engage in a negative emotional response. In this context, communicators have the opportunity to use the comedy that is included in many GIFs as a kind of buffer to the adverse emotional reaction. An article written by Kugler and Kuhbander in 2015 and titled "That's not funny! But it should be" details the various ways in which humor not only serves as a method for reducing negative emotional responses to difficult stimuli, but it can also serve as a form of memory enhancement, helping viewers to remember your content for a longer period of time than engaging in a negative emotion alone would. 

2. Belonging

There is, of course, nothing quite like a GIF to allow quick access to popular culture. GIFs have the ability to relate one scenario to an entirely different one while yet drawing a meaning that may be understood by the viewer. Let me explain through the following example. 

the psychological reasons behind gif popularity

We take GIFs like this one and internalize them because, not just intellectually, but also emotionally, we relate with the characters in the GIF. Perhaps they are significant to us because they represent an important facet of either our history (in this example, Grey’s Anatomy) or our identity. Instantaneously, we form a connection with other people who also share that sensation, and as a result, we feel a sense of belonging, not only to the image, but also to one another. This sense of belonging is mutual.

Obviously, there is also potentially a drawback to this situation.The simplicity with which GIFs may absorb culture and adopt the most recent trend might, however, serve to isolate people who are not up to date on said culture and trend. Images that are utilized within GIFs sometimes speak to a very specialized knowledge set, creating something of a backfire effect as a result of belonging to an exclusive group. On the other hand, having access to imagery that is particular to a target audience could underline the fact that your communication is sensitive to the preferences of the demographic in question. So, to cut down to the case, it is essential to take into account the photos you are utilizing and the ways in which they may (or may not) signal belonging to a group.

3. GIFs are easy and affordable to create

And let’s not forget the importance of ease of production. GIFs, in contrast to texts and still images, are capable of condensing a significant amount of data into a relatively compact and easily distributable type of media. They may also be created very easily and at a little to no cost, making them the ideal companion for an organization that needs to move quickly to keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape.

The psychological reasons behind GIF popularity

But don’t tread lightly, there’s something you should always keep in mind. Sure, GIFs are extremely ease to create but, because of how quickly they may be created, they are also prone to other societal processes, such as those in which imagery that is stereotypical, prejudiced, or discriminating can swiftly become ingrained in the name of a topic that is trendy. Jardin Dogan, M.Ed., Ed.S., a counselor and educator who specializes in Black mental health, defined "Digital Blackface" as "when non-Black people use the images and voices of Black individuals to explain emotions or phenomena." An extraordinary number of GIFs currently exist online that promote what has been termed "Digital Blackface." In this instance, the images contribute to the development of harmful racial stereotypes regarding members of the African-American community, which in turn contributes to problems of racial inequality in the United States. So when developing media campaigns or any other type of communication, it is fundamental to pause and examine the unintended effects that pictures and taglines may have on members of marginalized or vulnerable communities. This is especially important when developing media campaigns.

Key insights for brands

It should come as no surprise that many brands are trying to learn how to "speak GIFs" in order to remain culturally in sync with today's connected consumers. Given its important role in our digital culture as both an extension of language and a major disseminator (and sometimes generator) of pop culture and memes, it is no wonder that many brands are trying to learn how to "speak GIFs." Here are three recommendations that you should take into consideration if you want your business to capitalize on the growing popularity of GIFs.

First things first: attempt to make people laugh, but don't overdo it. On social media, there is already a tendency with certain firms to overuse GIFs in an overeager attempt to appeal to the younger audience. This occurs as a result of an overzealous desire to target social media users under the age of 35. It is not necessary to include a reaction GIF in every single one of your replies or retweets. A proper application of GIFs that highlights the personality of your brand is significantly more effective than a horde of meaningless GIFs. Instead of using them as the actual message, you should use GIFs to contextualize and punctuate your marketing messages with a wink.

Second, you should select your GIFs with care and consideration. Like we mentioned before, because GIFs also include cultural allusions and memes, they may also carry the kind of sociocultural conceptions that could lead to controversy. For instance, in response to a racist GIF that was shown on the search engine, Instagram and Snapchat were forced to temporarily remove GIPHY stickers from their respective apps (the feature has recently been restored). Therefore, it is essential for businesses to not only be familiar with their target demographic and the cultural references that are significant to them, but also to be aware of the complex social issues that are associated with the use of GIFs, such as the rise in the prevalence of digital blackface. This will only become an increasingly essential factor as an increasing number of firms go toward the kind of one-on-one customer connection that can take place on messaging platforms.

Last but not least, exercise some originality in the ways in which you utilize GIFs. As we stressed earlier, GIFs have the potential to be an excellent source for the creation of memes. Brands that are early adopters of this trend are already experimenting with the creation of their own viral GIFs in order to bring their brands to the attention of millions of people. According to the data that Tenor gave to AdWeek, a connection can be made between Domino's and the platform's 8 million searches for "goodnight" GIFs and its 900,000 searches for "hangover" GIFs. Additionally, customers click on a GIF associated with Coca-Cola after conducting 12.9 million searches for the term "dancing."

It is essential for businesses to have a solid understanding of the place their brand occupies in popular culture and to base the content of their branded memes on that knowledge. For instance, after a night out on the town, the majority of people have a craving for Domino's Pizza, while Coca-Cola beverages are commonly served at parties. In addition, companies should be aware that GIFs are the driving force behind the majority of digital fandoms in existence today and that they provide an excellent opportunity to engage with clients in inventive ways. GIFs are essentially short video snippets that do not have sound (GIPHY Clips have sound) and play on an endless loop. Because of this, they are a fascinating and versatile tool for the storytelling of companies, with which brands may be creative.

Start creating your own GIFs

"GIFs will be around as long as social media and messaging apps continue to dominate our digital interactions," writes Richard Yao, manager for strategy and content for IPG Media Lab. "GIFs will be around as long as they continue to dominate our digital interactions." And there's a good explanation for that. GIFs have the unique ability to penetrate our mental landscape and seize our feelings better than any other medium. Should we decide to make use of this resource, we will have access to a broad landscape of opportunities that will allow us to advance progress. However, as is the case with everything else, you should do it consciously while pausing to think about who might be included, who might be excluded, or who might be accidentally damaged as a result of the production of your photos. After that, let your sense of humor lead the way to a more positive tomorrow. If you haven’t already started creating your own GIFs, it’s time you do so! To get started, learn how to create a GIPHY brand channel! 

Wrapping up

If we look to the future, we should expect to see GIFs around for as long as social media platforms and messaging applications continue to dominate the way we connect online. Will they still be relevant in ten years, when our primary personal computing devices are likely to be wearables, which place less emphasis on graphics and a far greater focus on aural and haptic cues, and augmented reality glasses, which favor 3D objects over 2D images? It's difficult to say for sure. Because Apple's Animojis feature facial tracking, it's possible that we'll soon see a new type of reaction GIFs that are fully self-generated by users. This might happen very soon. Or perhaps we will simply create hologram versions of GIFs in three dimensions, which we will be able to bring into view whenever we choose. Regardless of how it will continue to develop in the future, it is quite evident that GIFs are a distinct dialect of our modern digital culture, and it is imperative that all organizations become proficient in this language.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do people love GIFs?

The language of GIFs is distinct from that of text and is generally easier to understand. Misunderstandings often arise when communicating, especially via text. You have the words in your head, but you may be doubting their effectiveness. GIF offer a fun solution to get a thought, emotion or event across in a lighthearted way.

What are the main reasons why GIFs have become popular over the years?

To sum up, there are three main reasons why GIF has been so popular over the years (beyond the technical reasons of universal browser support and low bandwidth use):
1. humor
2. belonging
3. they're easy and affordable to create for brands

The psychological reasons behind GIF popularity