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How advertisers are using neuroscience to drive engagement

26th Oct 2016
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It’s been over a decade since the merging of neuroscience and marketing first began to take shape. At the time, companies like Brighthouse were using neuromarketing research and consulting services advocating the use of cognitive neuroscience research and consulting services. This, in turn, helped companies make better advertising choices, hone their messaging, and reach targeted groups of consumers. 

The reptilian brain - the oldest part of our brain that controls the body's vital functions still controls our first reactions to stimuli and is somewhat rigid and compulsive versus newer parts of our brain – the limbic brain and neocortex brain. So essentially, the brain takes input from the other two brains but the reptilian brain controls the final decision making process whether we like it or not!

The magic seems to have worked. Consider, for example, how well the HBO series Silicon Valley has mastered the art of subtle product placement. From the Red Bull cans that litter the table in Erlich’s house/business “incubator” to his references to Fage yogurt to the fact that Pied Piper’s rival firm Hooli is loosely modeled after Google, the number of parallels to real-world brands is virtually limitless. Good or bad, using the art of neuroscience - or, a targeting of the viewer’s unconscious desires - proves that the show’s producers clearly understand that everyday decisions are largely driven by subconscious and even unconscious emotional responses.

"People are fairly good at expressing what they want, what they like, or even how much they will pay for an item," said Uma R. Karmarkar, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, in Harvard Business Review’s What Neuroscience Tells Us About Consumer Desire. "But they aren't very good at accessing where that value comes from, or how and when it is influenced by factors like store displays or brands. Neuroscience can help us understand those hidden elements of the decision process."

A few of the neuroscience techniques include:

  • Acoustic encoding – the process of remembering and comprehending something that you hear.
  • The Cheerleader Effect or Group Attractiveness Effect – the cognitive bias which causes people to think individuals are more attractive when they are in a group.
  • Anchoring or focalism - the tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (usually the first piece of information that we acquire on that subject).
  • Peak–end rule - that people seem to perceive not the sum of an experience but the average of how it was at its peak (e.g. pleasant or unpleasant) and how it ended.
  • Negativity bias - psychological phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories compared with positive memories.
  • Conjunction fallacy - the tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than general ones.

Silicon Valley’s production team isn’t alone in its quest to harness their viewers’ subconscious brainwaves. In June, Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience introduced a new ad testing solution that the company expects to “set a new standard for marketers looking to elevate their advertising creative and optimize in-market performance.” Video Ad Explorer integrates a suite of neuroscience technologies and “helps brands unlock consumer insights and unravel the complexities of advertising creative development with unprecedented predictive power,” according to a Nielsen press release.

The fact that cable TV producers and industry leaders are betting on neuroscience isn’t a big surprise. Marketers and agencies have been trying to figure out the connection between environmental cues and buying decisions for decades. In a 2003 study, for example, a professor of neuroscience set out to learn how our brains handle brand choices. Through this exercise he found that strong brand like Coca Cola could “own” a piece of our prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain that manages attention, controls short-term memory, and managed planning.

Irrational decisions

Fast-forward to 2016 and we now have the technology, platforms, applications, and analytics needed to tap into neuroscience in a very accurate and efficient manner. And in a world of ever-shrinking attention spans, where consumers skip around from screen-to-screen, it’s no surprise that advertisers are turning to neuroscience to better understand how to engage consumers.

“People are not governed by the rational side of their brains, so the majority of purchase decisions are made irrationally,” said Itiel Dror, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, in Bloomberg’s Marketers’ Next Trick: Reading Buyers’ Minds.

One of the reasons neuroscience is catching on is because it goes beyond just gut instincts and best practices to reach the reptilian brain—that area of the brain that controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and balance. Neuroscience also factors in real scientific data. So much like agencies use data to back up media-buying decisions, for instance, neuroscience properties can support creative decisions.

Fast-forward to 2016 and it won’t be long before we see the convergence of virtual reality and neuroscience - a combination that could have a significant impact on the way advertisers present their product.

According to the Triune Brain theory, the reptilian region is the brain’s attention gatekeeper and decision maker. “If you can grab the attention of a consumer’s reptilian brain with your landing page, advertisement, or commercial, you’ve got a much better chance of guiding them to conversion."

Going back to Silicon Valley for a minute, what the show is doing with product placement isn’t new. In fact, the strategy has been used for decades, and includes such notables as E.T.’s consumption of Reese’s Pieces candy to Steve McQueen’s use of a 1968 Ford Mustang in Bullitt to the appearance of an issue of National Geographic in It’s a Wonderful Life. Fast-forward to 2016 (and beyond) and it won’t be long before we see the convergence of virtual reality and neuroscience - a combination that could have a significant impact on the way advertisers present their products to new, existing, and past customers.

As technology continues to evolve, expect to see even more tools and platforms focused on helping marketers incorporate neuroscience into their creative strategies. And while the day when the typical consumer straps a virtual reality headset onto his or her head to view content and advertising is probably still a few years off, it could be here faster than you think. In the medical field, for example, doctors are using “warfare” virtual reality simulations to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Before long, marketers will be able to delivery their messages via these platforms and, in doing so, get even further into their customers’ psyches. Stay tuned…

Jessica Hawthorne-Castro is the CEO of Hawthorne.

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