The all seeing eye

We are learning subconsciously all the time. Ivan Pollard finds ads affect us more than we realise.

Earlier this year, I came to the cheering realisation that ads are more powerful than we ever imagined. This isn't just wishful thinking - it's a hard fact that, although they may not be aware of it, consumers are affected by every single ad we create.

This insight first came to me when I was sitting on a train. As it chugged its way through what passes for the English summer, I looked out of the window, wondering what on earth I was going to say at the Barcelona Outdoor Advertising Association conference.

I had been asked to speak on the topic of "how people consume outdoor" and this had left me in something of a quandary. In my personal experience, I don't think that I consume outdoor advertising at all.

I consume Cadbury's chocolate, Typhoo tea and whatever is the latest gadget on the market. I can concede that I consume books, films, magazines and newspapers. I think I sometimes consume TV but I don't think I consume outdoor. To consume means "to use up or devour" (apparently) and I could not call to mind a single occasion on which I felt I had done either to a piece of outdoor advertising - at least not while sober.

And therein lay the rub. I don't think I consume outdoor ads but I do think that they work through some strange process that I don't understand.

Looking out at the view from the train, I contemplated a bridge that was swaying in the wind and wondered how I could reconcile these two thoughts and turn them into something interesting to say to the great and good of the advertising industry. As I was doing this, I found myself humming the song Making Your Mind Up by Bucks Fizz. This is a strange thing to admit to, but I only mention it because it aided my thought process - and I will explain how.

Back in 2001, a gentleman called Robert Heath published an Admap monograph entitled The Hidden Power of Advertising. I remember the work being published and I remember the buzz surrounding it. I read a couple of articles on the subject and then, like most of the people in our industry, I somehow assumed that I knew what it was all about and that I could pontificate at length about it.

Dumb old me. I knew just enough about it to think that it might be useful and I bought the book from Amazon (£45 and worth every penny). I then took the unprecedented step of actually reading the thing.

It was compelling stuff. It also helped me square the two issues about outdoor - it isn't consumed but it still works - and (with apologies to Heath for appropriating his work) it gave me something to talk about in Barcelona.

Heath has spent the past 35 years working in marketing, advertising and brand consultancy and over that time he has studied hundreds of brands and the way they behave. Advertising, according to Heath, is all about low-involvement processing (LIP).

As a result of these years of study, he is able to assert three interesting things about the way we relate to brands: brand decisions are not particularly important to us in the grand scheme of things; our decisions are made mostly on the basis of intuition and feelings, and we learn these feelings towards brands without really knowing that we are doing it.

Now some of us in this industry might take issue with these assumptions, but hang with it for a moment because Heath then goes on to build upon the third point -that we learn without realising it - in a way that can only be positive for the industry.

There are two broad types of learning: explicit and implicit. The explicit type is the one you will recognise. It is the stuff you did at school when you tried desperately to memorise French vocabulary, the equation for the area of a triangle or exactly why Jenkins had his ear cut off.

You had techniques and tools for cramming this information into your brain.

You wrote it down, made crib notes or recited it out loud while sitting in a cold bath. And usually, it worked.

This is where Bucks Fizz make their only appropriate entrance in years.

As I was staring out of the GNER train window watching the bridge sway, I struggled to remember the story that my physics teacher (Mr Wheatley, with the terrifyingly big ginger beard) had told me all those years ago.

A blustery wind, he had said, can knock down an enormous bridge by creating something called resonance. But could I remember the physics behind it? Simple harmonic oscillation didn't seem that simple any more.

At the same time, I was idly humming those immortal words: "Don't let your indecision, take you from behind/Trust your inner vision, don't let others change your mind."

How strange was that? I couldn't recall something that I had worked really hard to embed in my memory and yet I could remember the words of a 23-year-old song.

According to Heath, it's not really that strange at all. Apparently, there is a kind of learning - implicit learning - that goes on without us even having to try. This is the way that you learn to cross the road, the way you learn the words to Bucks Fizz and the way you learn to prefer Coca-Cola to Pepsi. The problem with this for schoolchildren is that you can't turn the process on. The opportunity for marketers is that you can't turn it off either.

This sounds counter-intuitive. How can you learn anything without ever paying attention? To answer this question, I spoke to an experimental cognitive psychology researcher at Oxford University, whose primary focus of attention is attention itself.

The researcher, Polly Dalton, told me some interesting things about attention.

First of all, it is not ours to control. You are at a party and are trying really hard to pay attention to the person in front of you but you hear your name mentioned somewhere else in the room and your ears prick up. You were paying attention elsewhere.

Second, you are always paying attention. You cannot turn it off, even when you are asleep. We have all had that feeling when something wakes us up in the middle of the night - a noise, a change in the light, a sneaking suspicion that Cameron Diaz is hiding under the bed. We are aware, though we don't know that we are.

Third, as our brains have evolved to handle the modern world, we have developed the ability to filter out all the clutter, and shuffle the important things to the top of the pack of stuff we should be paying attention to. We can be driving along, talking to a friend but still slam on the brakes when some idiot steps off the kerb in front of us.

And last, but most interesting, according to Polly: in order to do this shuffling we must pay attention at the tiniest level to all the stuff that we reject and put to the bottom of the pack. What happens to these tiny bits of unimportant information that we pick up this way? It seems that these bits build up into things that you learn without trying - implicit memories.

This implicit learning is created by picking up tiny bits of data in fractions of a millisecond and leaving them hanging around in your brain.

This data can be shapes, colours, sounds, words or patterns. But it can also be concepts, feelings and ideas.

How do these little bits of stuff turn into memories? Memories that can, at some level, lead us to choose one brand over another?

I always thought memories worked in a certain way. You experience something - that first kiss, the time Leeds United won the Cup - and store it up in your memory wardrobe by hanging it up like a shirt on a hanger. Later on, you could get that memory off the hanger and wear it all over again.

Apparently, this is not how it works. You kiss the girl and create the memory shirt but then you rip off the collar and chuck it in the fridge and hide one sleeve in the microwave. Different bits are stored in different places and you chuck the rest of the shirt away. What we do is recall these bits and fill in the stuff in between to recreate the whole memory.

Weird - but it does explain why your memories blur between what happened and what you filled in to make it more like what you wanted to happen. I mean Leeds absolutely walloped Arsenal back in 1972, didn't they?

Now, what if all the bits of stuff that we didn't think we paid attention to also get stuck in our memory wardrobe? And what if they are pulled back out and we fill in the gaps between them? This is how implicit memories are created.

The staggering thing about these implicit memories is that psychologists have proved in experiments that our brains have a huge capacity for storing this stuff. It is like wandering around with a great big box of iPods stuck between your ears. We can pack it in. Even more incredible is that these memories last much longer than the stuff we try to learn. Hence Bucks Fizz trumps Mr Wheatley and his simple harmonic oscillation.

Thus powerful, long-lasting memories of feelings, ideas, patterns and logos can be created by us picking up tiny bits of information in the blink of an eye. And we can't turn this stuff off.

Boy, that has big implications. For outdoor it means more stuff is picked up more quickly with no interference from the clutter. And the longer it is out there reinforcing the bits of sticky stuff, the harder it is working.

And this LIP is working for all media in all forms. Sure, this is not the only process that is going on but it is the bare minimum that we can hope for. If people pay attention or are interested, if we can engage them and give them something they want, then it has to be working even better, doesn't it?

But to get at what happens with LIP, we have to challenge some conventional measures of advertising effect. How can people be aware of what they didn't know happened? How can they rebuild the memory shirt if you show them the collar but not the sleeve?

Awareness tracking doesn't give us the whole picture, we need to look at other things. Perhaps this means we have to recalibrate the way we judge the relative value of all the media channels that we use. For example, we pay more for TV than for posters, in part because it drives awareness scores more noticeably. I am not saying we should pay less for TV - in fact, it might mean the opposite - but the relative pricing of TV and outdoor is something we should think about.

It's a compelling theory, but what does it mean in real life? To put it to the test, I used the very latest in hi-tech digital surveillance (I strapped a video camera to a pith helmet) and took the Tube home. Later, I counted the different messages that I didn't even know I had seen by going through the 20-minute journey frame by frame. There were 288 in all. That means that in a year I would implicitly learn from 144,000 different outdoor messages.

This stretched my belief to breaking point. Then someone showed me a clip from Derren Brown's TV show last year in which he predicted how two smart, talented creatives would answer an ad brief for a taxidermy store before they had even been given it, all the way down to drawing the poster from the same perspective as they did. If you doubt that LIP is going on and can affect behaviour, get hold of that clip and watch it. You will be amazed.

I doubt I have done justice to Heath's work. I have dumbed it down to fit my small brain and these large pages. I can only urge you to get hold of the book and read it for yourself because despite the fact that I consumed the book, devoured its ideas and committed them to memory - and have now forgotten what it said - I do remember feeling that it was great. Bucks Fizz had it right all along - it is all about making your mind up, even if you don't know you are doing it.

- Ivan Pollard is a communications strategy partner at The Ingram Partnership.

The Hidden Power of Advertising by Robert Heath is published by NTC Publications (ISBN 1841160938).

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