To Win Them Over, Learn How Their Minds Work

Secret to Effective Advertising Is Cognitive Neuroscience

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You don't have to know anything about quantum physics to cook popcorn in a microwave. But in the world of advertising, you aren't cooking popcorn. Instead, you're aiming at the cogs of the most complex system known. A single brain cell is like a light switch; it's either on or off. We have about a hundred billion of them; each makes about 7,000 connections with other neurons. That's a pretty messy biological network. Did you really think you could target it without understanding more about its workings?
An Aarnio ball chair's curves are a pleasure to look at.
An Aarnio ball chair's curves are a pleasure to look at.

True, advertisers have progressed tremendously with little attention paid to the formal science of the human brain and cognition. Still, advertisers seem oblivious to the important ways their work could benefit if they learned more about the brains they are trying to reach.

What if I told you that cognitive neuroscientists know a great deal about what reaches conscious awareness; what engages attention; what can promote retention; what type of information activates "fear centers" and other "early-warning" parts of your brain; what features shape our preferences; what is true and what is myth about subliminal influences; and how mood affects behavior? Given how critical this information is to advertising's goals, it might help you to know more.

Brain power
By becoming more aware of the sources of people's influences -- and effectively applying the principles of cognitive neuroscience -- marketers can create advertising that is more credible, reliable and effective.

In some instances, advertising professionals have already been doing this. Just look at any design by Saarinen, Noguchi or Aarnio to realize how pleasurable viewing curves can be. Product designers and advertisers seem to have known this for ages -- at least since M&M's have been around.

The opposite also is true: We get nervous around sharp edges. An Ann Sacks tile ad with the copy "Make yourself nervous" uses this characteristic of human nature to achieve a powerful result. But why would we be made to feel nervous by objects that are clearly harmless, such as a pile of wood? Advertisers may opt to say, "Who cares?" and let the ad's effectiveness stand, regardless of the reason.

But marketers could benefit from understanding that reason. In fact, we conducted a study to determine that reason. Specifically, we showed in the lab that people indeed have an inherent preference for objects with smooth features, compared with the same objects with sharp features. We continued with brain-imaging techniques to show that the amygdala, a deep brain structure involved in fear, was significantly more active when human participants viewed the objects with the sharp elements. This supports our theory that relative preference for curved objects is a result of the implicit threat sharp features convey.

Advertisers and designers didn't have to wait for us to provide an explanation for them to use this principle to generate powerful ads and products. The power of associations and the best way to create them (showing pretty people in a car ad) are common tools of persuasion, as is the principle of random reinforcement (promotions and sales). Not surprisingly, it turns out these are also the basic elements of the way the brain works.

Making good on research
But the application of real facts about human brain and behavior in advertising (rather than suppositions that sound true but fail in the lab) is far from optimal. Putting theory into practice can have powerful outcomes.

A few years ago, Taco Bell had billboards that depicted the arm of a man holding a taco. I didn't mind Taco Bell as a fast-food option, but, oddly, I found this ad exceptionally aversive. I tried to figure out why.

One day I was driving and about to merge with traffic, just ahead of an approaching bus. Glancing very briefly to the left and then to the right, my impression was that the bus carried an ad depicting a cobra snake ready to bite. So I looked again and noticed it was the Taco Bell ad. My brain interpreted the configuration of the arm with the taco as a snake. Why?

It was a case of unconscious perception: Visual elements in the picture influenced my impression about it unconsciously, leaving me with a negative attitude toward the ad.

First impressions
When we form our opinions, we do it extremely quickly, and once we have, it is very hard to change our impression, sometimes in the face of contradictory facts.

Naturally, it would have been nearly impossible for people at Taco Bell to be aware of such a negative, unintended effect of their otherwise carefully planned campaign. That is, unless they're familiar with the principles of cognitive neuroscience.
An Ann Sacks tile ad stimulates by making us nervous.
An Ann Sacks tile ad stimulates by making us nervous.

Here's another example. By now we are all familiar with internet sites that force you to watch preroll spots. Most of us get somewhat annoyed by such pervasive advertising. Cognitive psychology experiments have shown that when people have to ignore a stimulus on the way to achieving another goal, not only do they get annoyed, they end up really disliking the distraction. And this disliking is very specific to that stimulus. So, if I am interested in the latest Red Sox score, but am forced to watch a commercial for a new merlot first, chances are that I will develop an aversion to that very brand of merlot, which will create for the advertiser the opposite effect of what was intended. Or imagine a fashion retailer that would like to modify its conservative image. If we scientists have behavioral methods that we believe could modify the associations elicited in post-traumatic stress, changing associations in a retailer's reputation should be a walk in the park in comparison, using exactly the same principles.

So what's the upshot? Advertising has advanced extraordinarily. But advertisers could go even further by better understanding the basic science of the human mind. Don't you want to know how to better generate positive associations that will stick in memory? Or how context and attention filter the perception of reality? Or the way that mood affects people's desires? My guess is you do.

A word about research methods

I don't know how much of a typical agency's resources are allocated to research. And when I say research, I do not mean focus groups. The modern world of cognitive psychology and neuroscience has come a long way from simply interviewing people about their views. Sophisticated methods keep subversive influences such as pressure, participants' strategies and motivation from cluttering an important finding. There are many parallels between cognitive neuroscience and advertising. And if the two are indeed related, why are the research methods so different?

When talking with marketers recently, I asked them how they quantify a campaign's success and learned that there are no exact tools for such measurements, and the ones that do exist are, for the most part, not scientifically valid. My colleagues and I have to demonstrate very clearly every effect we report and answer continuous criticism until everyone is satisfied. But that's the easy part. Our research will not be funded (by the National Institutes of Health, for example) if our grant proposal does not convince all reviewers there's a high chance that what we are proposing and predicting is going to work.

Do you believe that your methods are as scientifically solid? Put another way, do you feel that your creative products have improved because of the research methods you have in place? The world of advertising could benefit from developing tools for predicting the potential success of a proposed campaign, for tweaking its design accordingly and then for measuring its success afterward.
Moshe Bar is a professor at the Harvard Medical School and the director of the visual neurocognition laboratory.
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