Advertising on the Brain
The concept that advertising affects the brain is almost tautological. Its very purpose is to influence how we think and feel. However, in the past the issue has been addressed mostly by way of folk wisdom with very little evidence or real understanding. Fairly recent developments in neurology are beginning to change that.
The story has a rich history, dating back to the late Renaissance, when Europe was just beginning to think again. It starts in the mid 17th Century, Rene Descartes when was pondering thought itself.
In 1641 Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy and famously declared, “I think, therefore I am.” (Cogito Ergo Sum) He was attempting to build a foundation for knowledge that was firm and beyond doubt, of which he could not be deceived (as we also attempt to do in some way when we say that advertising affects other people, but not us).
Descartes made the point that he undoubtedly existed because he was thinking. Even if he was deceived he had to exist for that deception to take place. Yet, he also had a bigger point. If he could be sure of his mind, but not his body or his senses, it followed that the two were separate. Furthermore, Descartes suggested that the rational superseded the emotional.
Descartes school of Rationalism became dominant and a century or so was wasted pursuing other truths that could be gleaned without experience. (David Hume came around about the time of the American Revolution. He said that sensory experience was primary and that we were basically stuck with it, warts and all).
However, the rationalist idea remained and continues to this day. Conventional wisdom tells us that we should not let our emotions affect our decisions. Religious doctrine holds that our mind and body are separate. Generally speaking, our society frowns on our “animal instincts” and self improvement gurus preach that we should develop our higher faculty.
Many modern economists and advertisers reflect this same view in models of “rational choice,” a concept that is coming under fire as more evidence comes in.
The Emotional Brain
Evidence for a different view came in the unlikely form of an industrial accident in Vermont in 1848. Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman, was injured when an explosion sent an iron rod through his head. Amazingly he lived and could carry out all of his normal functions, except one. He could no longer experience emotions and consequently lost his ability to make decisions. He could define the alternatives, but couldn’t weight them
Neurologist Antonio Damasio has studied the Gage case and has made a career out of researching emotions and decision making. It turns out that people who have their emotions impaired also have trouble making decisions. The result of his research is the Somatic Marker Hypothesis, which holds that effective decision making is actually inextricably tied to our emotions.
In effect, rather than two different functions, the emotional and rational are inextricably linked. Further research has shown that our feelings affect learning as well.
How We Learn
Our brain is made up of neurons, which are separated by gaps called synapses. It is through the ability to transmit information between these synapses that thinking and other brain functions possible. Yet, not all neurons can communicate with each other. The process of our neurons getting to know each other better is how we learn.
We learn through experience and we train ourselves through repetitive experience. What is happening inside our brain is that our synapses are getting built up. The more often we repeat an event (either actually or cognitively), the stronger those synapses become.
Moreover, when a new event is paired with something more familiar, synapses are built up faster and more easily. Chemically speaking, the new memory just hitches a ride on the old one, which makes learning by association effective.
Emotions Promote Memories
Joseph LeDoux at NYU has done extensive research into how emotions affect our brain, memory and decision making. He made the astute observation that we have an emotional and a physical reaction, before we engage in rational thought (as when we jump back to avoid a bus hitting us and only a few seconds later realize what had happened).
Furthermore, LeDoux found that emotions (specifically he studies fear) release chemicals that help induce synapse building (so our survival instinct improves over time). His research suggests that rather than being separate from our rationality, emotions are inextricably linked to our major cognitive actions: learning, memory and decision making.
The concept makes evolutionary sense. Imagine you are in the jungle. You need food and water to merely subsist. There are dangers all around: Snakes, predators, treacherous terrain, etc. In order to survive, you need to remember what can help you and what can hurt you. Moreover, when you encounter danger, you won’t have time to research or weigh alternatives before you act. Your life is at stake.
It would really come in handy to have a yellow highlighter pen in your brain that says “This is important, remember it.” That’s what emotions are; a yellow highlighter pen in your brain. We can’t make decisions without them because emotions are our brain’s way of signaling importance biochemically.
Interestingly, LeDoux, now one of the world’s top neuroscientists, started out as a marketer. He got his PhD because he was interested in how consumers are motivated.
The Advertised Mind
With Damasio, Ledoux and others in mind, Erik du Plessis of Milward Brown has done extensive research into what makes advertising effective. The database for his study has over 30,000 TV commercials which he accumulated over 20 years. His conclusions are simple, practical and well documented.
Effective Advertising is Emotional: Aside from neurological evidence, this makes intuitive sense. Try to remember a non-emotional event. Even if you can, it’s difficult, but think of an emotion such as anger, sorrow, pride or joy, and a flood of images come at you almost involuntarily.
In du Plessis’ studies, one of the best supported findings is that emotive advertisements were much more successful in promoting recall and producing a sales effect. That advertising works best when it is emotional is probably the point that he emphasizes most.
Clarity before Creativity: One of the worst things an ad can do is confuse the consumer. One common mistake is to have too many scenes in an ad, or just too much going on in general. The association with the brand needs to be strong and familiar to be effective.
Another point is to show the brand (product or logo) as early in the ad as possible so that the association starts as early as possible. This isn’t all that hard to do because we notice more than we are consciously aware of. The brand doesn’t have to be large or dominant, just enough to cue the viewer.
This seems like common sense, but one has to always be on guard. Du Plessis gives one example an ad showed a Ford truck bringing Kelvinator appliances to a happy family. Although the ad was for Kelvinator, people remembered the Ford logo that appeared first.
The first brand impression can be very powerful. Consumers know that a commercial is associated with a brand and will naturally cue on the first one they notice, even if it is in the background.
Brands can become more complex as they age: As mentioned above, strong associations can aid the building of weak ones (which is why celebrity endorsers can be very effective).
Like a young boy tagging along with an older brother, these weaker pathways become more robust with a stronger companion to lead the way. The more they are used, the more they become true synaptic pathways in their own right.
New brands with few associations built up in consumers minds need to pair themselves with strong associations. However, a well established brand has synapses devoted to it. It already occupies a place in the consumers mind. Therefore a popular brand can become more complex over time, using old, built-up associations to help forge new ones.
While this might seem antithetical to the previous point, there is an important distinction to be made: Brand Communication and Brand Identity are not synonymous. Not every association needs to be present in every message.
In fact, building new brand associations is not only possible, it’s advisable – if done carefully. As long as there is no conflict with the older, built-in associations, creating new brand attributes creates new synapses and therefore greater “share of mind.” These new associations can actually strengthen incumbent ones.
How Advertising Works
The concept that advertising, learning and memory are intrinsically related is not new. However, our understanding of how it all works neurologically is. Ergo, we can separate myth from meaning and define what makes advertising (or anything else) memorable:
Repetition: The old adage “frequency sells” has a biochemical basis. Just like trails through a forest, synaptic pathways become deeper with use.
Association: Anthropologists have long known the power of archetypes. Neurology can now tell us why: A strong synaptic pathway leads the way for a weak one.
Emotion: The emotional center of our brain (Amygdala) releases chemicals that promote the formation of new synaptic pathways.
As advertising researchers Giep Franzen and Margot Bouwman say “The brand exists as a neural network of memories.” This has undoubtedly always been true. Now, through greater knowledge of how our brains acquire and store information, we can better understand how these neural networks of memories are built and can communicate with consumers more effectively.
Note: I am indebted to James Sinclair for his input on this article. James is one of the world’s premier advertising creatives, winning an amazing 6 Cannes Lions and induction into the Clio Hall of Fame, among other honors. Please visit his site: http://web.mac.com/james.sinclair
Further Reading: Anyone who has more than a passing interest in this topic further should read du Plessis’ excellent book, The Advertised Mind. Those who are more adventurous can also read primary sources such as Descartes’ Error by Damasio and Synaptic Self by Ledoux.
John Grant’s Brand Innovation Manifesto is an excellent guide for the point about expanding brand attributes.