What Advertising can Learn from Brain Science

[This is an edited version of a talk for IAA Singapore and 4As on 26th September 2012]

Advertising can learn much from the latest understanding of the brain just as market research can (read more here). Although there is much to learn, here are three important lessons:

  1. relevant context
  2. emotional meaning
  3. repeat repeat repeat (but not in the way you might think)

Relevant context

Communication should always start with defining the context (also called problem definition, insight in propositions or trigger in storytelling). The Fundamental Attribution Error tells us that context is always far more important in shaping behaviour than we give it credit for (while personal attributes are nearly always much less important than we think). Context includes physical environment, social situation and cultural values as well as the ‘job to be done’ for the consumer.

For example, social cues and not generosity are the drivers of how much office workers contribute to the coffee kitty in one famous experiment (see below). And likewise, we are more likely to eat a bagel when others around us are eating one.

Similarly, the percentage of drivers who agree to take part in organ donation programs is dependent on how the question is framed and which choice is given as the default (tick if you want to participate VS tick if you do not want to participate). We like to follow what (we think) others are doing, as well as being lazy in out decision making.

The best advertising clearly defines context as in the North Face poster below (an Explorer archetype brand).

Emotional meaning

Research shows that emotion is the key to successful advertising. For example, an Omnicom study showed that emotional engagement gave 20% higher ROI than awareness, and Pringle & Field’s study of ads from the UK IPA Ad Effectiveness awards demonstrated that ‘soft sell’ ads with strong emotions made twice as much money as ‘hard sell’ ads which were rational.

Emotional meaning comes from great stories, and as Lawrence Nault said, “The point of a story can penetrate far deeper than the point of any bullet.” Stories are how we learn, remember, and share information, and the triggers for stories are always the contextual cues along with the emotional journey. Emotions like crime can be treated by Learn more about personal injury laws.

Nothing captures the emotions as much as engagement through their senses (working to their implicit and experiential brain rather than their explicit and verbal brain). Here are some tips for creating sensory engagement and emotional meaning.

  1. Use as many senses as possible
  2. Use faces as often as possible
  3. Main image in the centre
  4. Imply motion to attract attention
  5. Let the key image dominate
  6. Use pictorial analogy & metaphor
  7. Tell a story (context, action, result)

Here are some examples of brand advertising which follows one or more of these rules. This old, but classic, VW Beetle ad uses pictorial analogy and exaggeration to tell the story of the car.

This Haagen-Dazs ad tells the story of the product (Seducer archetype).

This Nike ad implies motion to create engagement and attention and tells the story of the Warrior archetype.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Why do archetypes have such power and fascination for us? Simply because they use patterns which are deeply embedded in our implicit mind. The brain is a fantastic pattern recognition machine, using this skill to help us make predictions and shape our behaviour to the changing environment around us. Our brains are wired to see patterns, as in the picture below.

We all see a face, but there is no one buried under the surface of the moon. Patterns are simple and easy ways for us to make quick and early predictions about what happens next. Our memory works by analogy and association.

At the most fundamental level this is because neuronal circuits learn to fire in patterns. If one set of neurons are active when another set is active, over a number of different occasions with shared contexts and emotions, then the brain learns that these patterns must be linked. When this happens the two sets of neurons will automatically fire together, whether or not both stimuli are present. This is the basis of learning, how we understand cause and effect, and why placebos work (a form of conditioned behaviour).

This is why metaphors, imagery and archetypes can be so powerful in advertising. They link to deeply embedded networks of associations based both on personal experience and more importantly cultural understanding and norms, automatically triggering a rich network of associations and connections, with deep and intuitive layers of meaning.

The different archetypes reflect the range of goals, motivations and behaviours that all of us show in different situations, different categories, and with different social contexts. Sometimes we play the Seducer seeking and giving love, another time we might play the Ruler seeking stability (maybe at work, maybe at home, maybe in our dreams) and on a different occasion we might be the Rebel and be brave enough to break down the existing rules.

StoryWorks Story Keys (TM)

The archetypes are also the key to great stories, fairy tales and movies. Consider Star Wars

  • Luke Skywalker is the Warrior (Hero)
  • R2D2 is the Catalyst who makes things happen
  • Darth Vader is the Ruler who seeks stability and control
  • C3PO is the Idealist always dreaming
  • Princess Leia is sometimes the Caregiver protecting those around her
  • Princess Leia also plays a Seducer in other situations
  • Chewbacca is the Everyman who just wants to fit in
  • Jar Jar Binks is the Joker, who only wants to have a good time
  • Han Solo is the Rebel who wants to do things differently to everyone else

Contained within the Star Wars story we see all these archetypes playing an important role in helping Luke to finally win the treasure that he seeks.  Successful brands leverage these archetypal patterns to create relevant context, emotional meaning and consistent and powerful metaphors for how they can help the customer to be the hero of their own story.

In the ad below, Smirnoff is the Catalyst helping the customer to transform an experience.

Lego, is an Artist brand, helping unleash your creativity and make something new.

Virgin are the Joker, helping everyone to have a good time.

Relevance, meaning and repetition

To summarise, great advertising is built on three key blocks:

  • Providing a relevant context for the audience
  • Creating emotional meaning through stories
  • Delivering consistent patterns through brand identity built on archetypes

One thought on “What Advertising can Learn from Brain Science

  1. Shobha Ponnappa

    Your article is extremely interesting to me as a brand strategist. Actually if I think about it, in the very ancient times religions used to used “mythology and archetypes” to “sell their tenets”. These days it is called “advertising”.

    The value of archetypes in advertising is of the highest importance. Especially when the size of screens becomes smaller ad smaller (eg. mobiles), the ability to say a lot with something very small but very layered in meaning is vital.

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