They Blinded Me With Science

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As scientific understanding of the brain's inner workings deepens, the field of cognitive science tackles more and more previously unknown aspects of our consciousness. But what are the implications for advertisers and marketers? We asked two leading intuition experts at ad agencies. Arnold Worldwide's Dr. Lisa Haverty (pictured), who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon University, works in the shop's intuition analytics department. Crispin, Porter + Bogusky's Tom Birk is VP-director at of cultural radar, a recently formed group that grew out of the agency's cognitive and cultural studies department after its acquisition of Radar Communications.

What do you do?

Lisa Haverty: Make sure we play nice with the brain. As a cognitive scientist, my expertise is in how people think, how they learn, how memory works. I'm here to make our messages dovetail with how the brain is working. Tom Birks: Mine the world for cultural insights and human tension to help inspire creative solutions for the brands we work with.

Marketing is becoming more measurable, more targeted and more scientific all the time. Does this kill the creative spark—the thing that you can't explain, that doesn't make sense, but that just works?

LH: It's actually a big part of my job to provide the creative spark. There is no magic formula for making great creative, and there never will be. It will always be an art form. But art and science can play quite nicely together in the sandbox. In fact, the best sandcastles always have some clever engineering behind them. That doesn't kill the creative spark—the science actually enables greater creativity by ensuring that the final product won't fall down. My role isn't to give the creatives a list of ideas that they're allowed to use, it's to provide insight at the beginning of the process about the types of strategies that are most likely to connect with consumers.

TB: Actually, I would argue that marketing is becoming less and less measurable and scientific all the time. Tracking studies and other tools used to measure marketing effectiveness were designed for a different era. There are so many more opportunities to be creative, and that includes media and other departments besides the creative department. Today, you need to throw a bunch of good ideas into the marketplace, figure out which ones are the stickiest and invest behind those, even if you don't know why some ideas work better than others. We hire people from a variety of disciplines. We have psychologists, sociologists and cognitive anthropologists working in our department.

Is it possible to determine whether or not a campaign reaches the buying parts of the brain?

LH: We're not looking for a "buy button" in the brain, which is good, because there isn't one. The brain isn't organized in such a way that you can point to the neuron that stands for "brushing your teeth," never mind one for "toothpaste" or for "Crest" in particular. The brain is so much more complex than that, and the only types of things that we've been able to really "localize" are areas that help us to process things like sight and language and emotion—big things.

But what if you discovered, say, a pattern of symbols that would stimulate the "buy detergent" impulse in the human brain; Would you be ethically opposed to extrapolating that information into advertising?

LH: Until buying detergent becomes a basic human need, I don't think we're going to need to worry about this type of thing. Applying science, even cognitive or neuroscience, to advertising does not translate into some kind of brainwashing. People will always have free will. We're not trying to replicate The Manchurian Candidate here, we're just trying to convey information. We'd like that information to be persuasive, but we're not trying to create a nation of zombies who buy things they don't really want. And even if we did want to do that, it's not going to happen. Anyone who's worried about the ethical implications of such a scenario needs to give consumers a little more credit.

TB: I wouldn't be opposed to that scenario—that's the game. But I'd work really hard to figure out how to stimulate the "buy our detergent rather than theirs" center of the brain. The strategy behind Truth, for example, was based on understanding the cognitive development of the brain in teens, and we've used that to save thousands of lives.

In which fields do you find the most important research and ideas? Where are the big breakthroughs coming from?

LH: For applications to advertising, I think the most interesting findings are in the areas of decision making and emotions. Social psychology, in particular the psychology of online communities, is also becoming more and more important. These are extremely complex areas of cognition and can be very difficult to isolate in rigorous experiments. Only when we have a large body of literature and studies on these topics will we really be able to harness the power of that expertise.

TB: I think breakthroughs are possible in all disciplines. That's why we strive for a multidisciplinary approach to staffing. But if I had to choose, I'd say cultural anthropology and sociology, because I think cultural insights are most powerful. We use approaches that are more common to sociology and cultural anthropology than to traditional planning. That's why we changed the name of our department.
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