It's in the nature of the human condition that there are some things that we can't stop ourselves doing. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the things we can't stop ourselves from doing is thinking. Every stimulus that comes your way gets the grey matter involved whether you like it or not, even if the vast majority of it remains blissfully subconscious and effectively discarded without you ever truly noticing.
Some of these stimuli involve brands and ads, so, in understanding how communications work, we should look to understand how the brain itself responds. In particular, we should look to find out how it is that out of the morass of life's daily stuff, some stimuli stick to us enough to get genuine recognition. Beyond that, some get stored for future reference and, further still, some cause a change of impression: understanding, opinion or feeling.
So then, one that I can't stop myself from writing is: "How many neuroscientists does it take to recognise a light-bulb going on?"
While you're working on your own punchline, consider the following contributions. The Newspaper Marketing Agency has been getting into media neuroscience in a big way. In true scoop fashion, it claims to have undertaken the first commercial application of a technique called brain finger-printing. Straight out of the realms of CSI, the US neuroscientist Dr Lawrence Farwell of Brainwave Science does the whole brainwave scanning thing to identify what's called a P300 mermer, according to the blurb "a patented measure of the characteristic and involuntary electrical fields emitted by the brain when it registers stimuli of importance to the subject".
Previous applications have included putting some pretty nasty people behind bars and, apparently, freeing a few innocent ones too, all done by showing respondents crime scene images and looking for the flash of recognition. Expect to see this on Five US sometime soon.
Anyway, the NMA has used brain fingerprinting to observe how and when ads in situ cause the brain's light-bulb response: what they call the "ah-ha" factor. So far they've demonstrated how ads work in newspapers differently from how they work in TV and how the combination is greater than either independently.
Helping to support a generic case for newspaper advertising effectiveness, it hasn't yet contributed much to an understanding of how newspapers work cognitively. For that, the NMA has additionally worked with a number of other published neuroscience studies to tease out their relevance to newspapers and build something of an argument as to what it is in newspapers that makes them effective and - armed with that understanding - what can be done to make newspaper advertising more effective for more advertisers. Notable among these studies, and somewhat closer to home than Dr Brainwave, has been Millward Brown's foray into neuroscience with Professor Jane Raymond at the Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology at the University of Wales in Bangor.
Raymond suggests a simple model of how the brain responds. At the centre is the "mental workspace" - the area where you're actively thinking. This area works only on the most important stuff at the time - so the central issue for the myriad competitive stimuli is getting into the mental workspace to get this attentive thinking.
Governing what makes it on to the mental workspace's to-do list are three physically separate and largely subconscious areas of the brain where each stimulus gets simultaneously pre-processed. These three areas have different evaluation roles. First, there's a knowledge response - what information do I have about this; second, an emotional response - associations of feelings; third, an action response - what actions are associated with this stimulus, either with or without information or emotional involvement.
Stored in each of these three areas is a range of "representational tags". The stimulus prompts the brain to retrieve the tags in each of the three areas. The greater the quantity or quality of those tags, the greater the likelihood that the mental workspace gets tasked to prioritise it.
Firing strongly in any area will do the trick, but firing all three really gets the reader's attention, so the spider creeping towards you on the floor gets processed as follows: information - eight legs are faster than two; emotion - these things give me the creeps; action - summary execution through sharp use of hard object is traditional. In your head there's a light-bulb flashing: you're thinking and you know you are. The spider's acknowledged presence is promoted to the mental workspace and fate decided forthwith.
Brands work in a similar fashion. IPod's representational tags might be its physical characteristics (information), its social necessity (emotion) and its finger-wheel operation (action). The fact that you can easily think of alternate tags by category is testament to the strength of the iPod brand.
As you'd expect, Millward Brown is well on the way to proving that brands that fire all three pre-processing areas get a better chance of effective communications, period. Unilever's Niall FitzGerald once described a brand as the "consumer's essential shorthand" for value and quality - a real-world definition of that combination of representational tags that give a brand identity, meaning and purpose. In Millward Brown-speak, this is articulated as better "bonding" - the complete package that means consumers prefer the brand above all-comers.
In the every day, it's the strength of the tags that influence our behaviour in every brand decision we make. In an era of unprecedented consumer choice, the easy shorthand of a brand is a vital enabler for getting through the day without decision paralysis. One delegate correctly pointed out at the Media Research Group conference last November, "other search engines are available". Most internet users know this, it's just that the tags of familiarity (information), trust (emotion) and syntax (action) of Google makes it the easiest brand to turn to. Meanwhile, there are thousands of brands on shelves in stores that are just easier to pick off the shelf because the representational tags in our heads reinforce our preference.
Back in neuroscience, the theory is that brands are built by creating or modifying the tags associated with the brand.
The rub for newspapers is that, section by section, they provide a context which on a good day helps brands achieve this. It's not difficult to see why. The NMA's 100-plus focus groups of readers confirms the context. Of course, it's an information medium across the range of "real" and "less real" news, television programmes and a range of lifestyles from maternity to motors. But then newspapers have always provided an emotional benefit, whether it's the privacy of the implicit "do not disturb" sign or the ritual of the Sunday papers. Finally, the action response of social currency - "No FT, no comment", remember - or water cooler tittle-tattle, watching the recommended movie, taking the test-drive.
The brain boffins have demonstrated this to be the case, too. Raymond and others have shown that involvement with a medium and the relevance of the content provide potent primers for getting a stimulus into the limited-capacity mental workspace.
By extension, it seems to make sense that the placement of your ad makes a difference, too. If you're in a largely distraction-free environment in editorial relevant to your particular need of the moment, then "right place" and "right time" naturally coincide.
Of course, delivery and aspiration are different things. Advertising low-fat products against obesity-scare editorial might have a beneficial synergy, but for every great placement there are dozens that get away.
Beyond that, there are, however, some actionable principles. As a final component in this primer on neuroscience, it emerges that the creation or modification of emotional tags differs from that of information and action tags. Emotion creation is a "hot" process in comparison with the "colder" processes of information and action. So, for example, the reading of fashion editorial is in a mood of emotional concern over personal appearance - a warm state. Advertising a spot cream in that environment more easily allows the brand not only to create or modify the cooler information (performance) and action (application) tags, but also the emotional tags of reassurance or comfort. Again, the NMA has made some progress in supporting these arguments qualitatively.
Whether the NMA's brain fingerprinting technique can quantify the benefits of good placement - which NMA case studies show are readily proven qualitatively - remains to be seen, but the signs are encouraging.
Meanwhile, there are some examples of the right ad in the right place, but perhaps not enough. The usual finger-pointing at this point is that either clients and/or their agencies don't give newspapers enough time and/or flexibility to provide the optimum environments; or that creative agencies are somehow ill-equipped to understand how an ad might look when taken off the art board and put among live editorial; or that the newspapers aren't helpful, flexible or forward-thinking enough to provide the right opportunities within anything like a viable commercial framework.
Discuss, if you like. Alternatively, recognise that the papers are at least doing something in providing a better quality of industry-level forward information than we've ever had via the "Harnessing Editorial" tool on the NMA website. While it won't actually let you read next month's papers, it does give enough information to know whether there might be enough features and supplements to make a campaign worth the effort. You decide.
So, some new information, an emotive call to reappraise the ad development process and an action to see the NMA website (www.nmauk.co.uk). Got you thinking?
- David Fletcher is the head of MediaLab at Mediaedge:cia
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