It’s been a few months since I got through Martin Lindstrom’s book, Buyology. It came to my mind again recently in a conversation with a friend about movie product placement and subliminal advertising. What struck me was the idea a lot of common, even logical notions about marketing are often just way off the mark.
Take the example of the rotting cancerous body parts decorating cigarette boxes - you’d expect these images would make people think twice about buying cigarettes, right? A group of smokers selected by a market research company also had the same conclusion. They all ticked the right boxes that determined this to be a major deterrent but the results from fMRI scans showed something entirely different.
These images where shown to actually activate the brain’s reward / pleasure pathways strengthening a smoker’s compulsion to smoke. It makes for a win-win situation for the tobacco companies - having anti tobacco lobbies funding advertising that triggers your desire to smoke!
So if the anti-smoking tactic is doing the reverse of what it sets out to do, would pictures of obese people on Big Mac wrappings help sell more burgers? It’s likely they wouldn’t, but I think that’s the point Lindstrom makes - even with all the raw data from market research, we’re still faced with a lot of assumptions about why certain marketing ideas work and others just don’t and it’s often those ‘common sense’ propositions that tend to get in the way of the truth locked inside our gray matter!
Don’t know, ask a Neuroscientist (in the making)…
I couldn’t find much explanation as to why those particular anti-tobacco images trigger cigarette cravings, so I spoke to a budding Neuroscientist about it. Her take was it was not so much the images’ disturbing content that’s important, but that those images trigger significant neural activity. It’s likely the parts of the brain responsible for addictive tendencies is already highly developed in heavy smokers, so to give an analogy - their neural pathways are more like open highways to the pleasure / reward centers than the normal suburban roads for other people.
Another idea is the pleasure / reward centers of the brain being closely linked to the pain centers, work like a balance. A disturbing image that creates a level of pain (in this case emotional) would automatically trigger a pleasure seeking response to retain equilibrium.
Although whatever reasoning holds, the fact remains that all this stuff is happening before we’re even aware of it…
So if I’m not consciously making the buying decisions, then who is?
Lindstrom points out how our buying decisions are far from conscious or even logical. Interestingly too, Neuroscience tells us that consciousness is but a fragment of the huge amount of information that our brains process at any given moment - evolved with efficiency in mind (ignore the pun), we can only focus on what our brains have already deemed 'necessary' for our awareness. And that little awareness we do have (from all the available sensory information) is further filtered through expectations. The human eye for example, has a very small focal point that perceives color and detail. Whereas the receptors responsible for peripheral vision are monochromatic and can't register the detail required, so one's memory and expectations fills in the blanks.To demonstrate this how sharp (or not) our peripheral vision is, just watch this video:
It’s a little disconcerting knowing the very small drop in an ocean of our available sensory input is filtered by a whole host of automatic assumptions - and it’s all happening without our awareness involved. So the idea we’re making sound, objective decisions is at best flawed when our brains are only ever giving us part of the story!
If consciousness plays only a minor role, why not market to the unconscious?
With so much of the decision process happening under the surface, it’s a wonder why any marketing strategy bothers appealing to common logic such as with vendor comparisons or price busting etc. Though a lot of us will justify our buying decisions after the event with a whole host of logical arguments - probe a little deeper we’re likely hear: “I don’t know, it just felt right”, “I went with my gut feeling…” etc. and this all points to our logic’s dead end.
The problem is, the use of fMRIs or even EEGs (trade tools of Neuromarketing) is far from cheap, so if we’ve no other method to ‘hear’ the unconscious how do we communicate to it?
Dreams, myths and brands?
It may help recognizing the language of the unconscious is basically symbolic. A symbol is metaphor loaded with individual (personal) and often universal (archetypal) meaning. An attention to our dreams will likely verse us well in this regard or at at least help us gain further insight into how symbols communicate meaning.
The interesting thing about symbols is that they’re not static, you can’t pin them down to one meaning with the “101 Dream Symbols” book in hand. They’re relevant to time, place and person and in that regard they’re transitional. On the other hand, when a symbol resonates with something archetypal, for example found within our age-old stories and myths, it becomes a source of cultural significance. By understanding how relevant (transitional) symbols such as brands can strongly resonate with archetypal or universal symbols, we may begin to learn how some brands trigger strong emotional connections and have the type of mass appeal that turn them into cultural icons.
Article by David Wall originally on Photolibrary News