Taking the rational approach to humanity’s baser instincts

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week there’s a new idea on the agenda –  neuroscience. At first sight, how the human brain works seems a far cry from global politics and economics. But world leaders are increasingly realising that the way people think and feel lies at the heart of politics and economics. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass C North says, to understand the human condition, including economic progress, we need to understand the “intentionality” of the players. And that, in turn, involves understanding “the way consciousness evolves in the context of diverse human experiences”.

The same goes for marketing. Neuroscientific research is raising questions about the role of conscious and unconscious influences – and the roles played by reason and emotion – in decision-making, and about the degree to which decisions are open to suggestion and influence. Such questions lie at the heart of the theory, and practice, of marketing.

What, for example, does our understanding of conscious and unconscious influences tell us about how advertising works and how to measure its effectiveness? According to a new paper by Robert Heath and co-researchers David Brandt and Agnes Nairn, for example, recent research throws doubt on the assumption that consumer attention to advertising is a good thing for the advertiser.

Generally speaking, says Heath, most consumers do not regard learning about brands as being important, so when they come across advertising, they pay little attention to it. Yet, far from being a bad thing for advertisers, this is actually why so much advertising is effective, he argues.

The reason is simple. The human brain is “always on”, taking information in from the environment, most of it below the radar of consciousness. If Heath is right, it doesn’t really matter what your advertising says (because consumers won’t pay attention to its message anyway) but it matters enormously how you say it – because these “under the radar” associations will influence future judgements. Yet, because these associations have “sneaked in”, there’s no point in asking consumers what they think or feel about them. One possible implication: all that money you spend tracking advertising awareness could be better spent down at the pub.

follow the bear Wendy Gordon, of the Acacia Avenue consultancy, remembers an experiment from 25 years ago which seems to back such an argument. A subject who did not consciously recall the Hofmeister bear advertising could nevertheless mimic the character’s entire routine when under hypnosis.

Unsurprisingly, not everybody is enamoured of this line of argument, especially companies that earn their living conducting ad tracking research. An award-winning ESOMAR paper by Graham Page, Millward Brown’s global director of research and development, and Jane Raymond, professor of experimental consumer psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor, draws the opposite conclusion to Heath. To get consumers to remember brand messages and be influenced by them you must engage as many different parts of the brain as possible. Engagement requires conscious attention, which in turn requires advertising which involves the consumer. “Involvement with advertising is crucial to advertising effectiveness,” they declare.

So here you have two contradictory theories of advertising, with completely divergent implications, both claiming neuroscientific discoveries as their source of authority.

What about the relative roles of emotion and reason in consumer decision-making? Heath’s theory draws on recent research into the nature of learning and memory. This suggests that far from being a highly rational, logical process of sifting through experiences and laying down conclusions on the basis of careful consideration of all the facts, the whole process is shot through with a range of emotions – especially primeval emotions to do with survival (fight, flight, food and sex) which leave us with simple, but powerful feelings of attraction or repulsion.

survival techniques When we come across information – including ads on the TV – we automatically and unconsciously process it according to these emotionally-charged survival imperatives, and can’t help recalling these emotional tags (called “somatic markers”) when making a decision. In this way, brand preferences can be influenced without our being aware of it, argues Heath. We “just feel” one decision is better than another.

The connections between brands and emotions have also been underlined by other bits of research into so-called “brand engrams” (spikes of brain activity that happen when we recognise a brand), and brain scans such as those recently conducted by the Radiological Society of North America. These show that strong brands excite the pleasure areas of the brain, leading some US marketers to suggest we might be on the verge of discovering a holy grail of marketing communication: ads that release pleasure-inducing dopamines in the brain, and effectively press the consumer’s “buy button”.

Which raises the question: what do these connections tell us, and how powerful are they? Beware of jumping to conclusions – they don’t tell us half as much as some people like to pretend, warns Raymond. For instance, they don’t tell us what the person is thinking while this chemical soup whirrs away, or what decisions they’ll make as a result.

So the crucial issue of degree of influence remains unresolved. Take Heath’s theory of “low involvement processing”. Yes, his results can be obtained in the laboratory, says Raymond. But “they are very, very small and subtle. They will be washed out by larger effects”.

OK, replies Heath. The sorts of advertising he’s talking about will only be effective in low-interest categories where people don’t invest too much time or attention making brand decisions. But, he adds, this is the reality in many modern consumer markets.

So the debate continues. Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience, neurology and psychology at the University of South California, and the man behind the “somatic marker” hypothesis, recently attacked the way his work has been interpreted. Emotion evolved to “assist reasoning rather than disturb it”, he declares. In fact, he continues, we human beings resort to reason precisely because our emotions alone cannot solve many of the problems posed by our complex environment.

He is supported by evolutionary psychologists who point out that the brain evolved to take in huge amounts of information from its environment (and from people seeking to persuade you to do things) and to sift this information to make decisions which aid personal survival. The notion that marketers can use advertising to reach into consumers’ brains and fiddle with their decision-making is far-fetched, they argue. “If you define neuromarketing as the use of neurotechnologies to improve the effectiveness of ads or sales, I have not yet seen a single instance of success,” says Antonio Rangel, a neuroeconomics expert at Caltech University.

something for everyone So what conclusions can we draw? One conclusion is that”you can take bits of the research to prove any theory you like,” warns Gordon. But does that mean we should adopt a stance of “a plague on all your houses”? No. For two reasons.

First, over time it looks as if neuroscience will throw huge amounts of light on how human attention, perception, learning, memory and decision-making actually work.

Some of these insights could radically challenge (or confirm) current theories of marketing. Some will be highly technical. For example, we now know that the brain notices things far faster than the speed of a personal video recorder being fast-forwarded at 30 times normal speed, so advertising images on fast-forwarded ads will still “go in”. On the other hand, once you notice something, while your brain processes the information, you have “attention blink”, which means you don’t notice what comes half a second later – which is tough if it happens to be a brand logo.

Second, if you are an agency, it’s now de rigueur to claim neuroscientific underpinning for your particular approach. And if you are a client, you are going to have to distinguish between spurious neurobabble and real learning. Either way, neuroscience is now part of the marketing agenda.

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