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Part 2: The Reptilian Brain - Surprising Results from Brain Science

By Burkey Belser
August 25, 2008
Part 2: The Reptilian Brain - Surprising Results from Brain Science

You will learn:
1. How memories are stored and retrieved.
2. How the brain makes decisions.
3. Why and how you respond to advertising.

Two months ago you learned about the evolution of the brain and, we hope, got a taste of the power of the emotional brain to bring the rational brain to its knees. We need a bit more science to pull us along as we delve further into the efficacy of advertising (in which, you will remember, we want to include Web sites, collateral materials and other marketing efforts).

THE AMYGDALA AND THE HIPPOCAMPUS

If you flash your logo on a screen, it is registered in the hippocampus, part of the limbic system, which contributes to memory formation. But the hippocampus can only hold onto a few bits of information for short periods of time. To extend the memory, the hippocampus has to “talk” to the amygdala, which searches for and ultimately “matches” that immediate memory with other memories in its storehouse.

Let’s explain this again with an example: If you see a Coke can, your hippocampus holds that impression until it can match that impression (or “immediate memory”) with the taste and satisfaction of the contents of that can. The hippocampus, says Isobel Butcher, is like a “cloakroom attendant who receives your ‘stimulus ticket’—Coke logo and can—and matches it to the contents of the cloakroom in the amygdala—all other experiences you’ve ever had with Coke.

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The amygdala winds up playing an incredibly important role in our lives. Match a past memory with a current stimulus and you get an immediate emotional response before a thinking response has time to even stumble awake. I picked up my gardening gloves on Saturday to find a harmless lizard had hidden itself underneath. I jumped three feet. I’m not embarrassed; I quickly determined the lizard to be harmless but I was out of harm’s way before the recognition of “lizard” crossed my mind. That’s the limbic brain stirred by the amygdala in response to the stimulus temporarily registered in the hippocampus. Got it?

It’s no leap at all to recognize that positive memories provoke similar instantaneous reactions in favor of a stimulus just as negative memories provoke fright and flight from a stimulus. All pre-conscious!!!

WHO’S “THE DECIDER AND HOW DO WE KNOW IT?

Dr. Dean Shibata, a University of Washington researcher, confirms what all research on the brain affirms:

People use the emotional parts of their brain to make so-called rational personal decisions. Neuropsychologists have begun to believe that emotional and rational parts of the brain may be more closely intertwined than previously thought. Our imaging research supports the idea that every time you have to make choices in your personal life, you need to “feel” the projected emotional outcome of each choice—subconsciously, or intuitively. That feeling guides you and gives you a motivation to make the best choice, often in a split second.

Exactly. Even when the decision doesn’t appear to be emotional, people employ the emotional brain to make a decision.

Let’s take a quick look at some other research as reported by Dermot McGrath on Wired.com from London:

Scientists…using a technique known as magnetic encephalography (MEG)…have identified the brain region that becomes active as the shopper reaches to the supermarket shelf to make their final choice…Within 80 milliseconds their visual cortex responds as they perceive the choice items. A little later, regions of the brain associated with memory and speech become active.

In other words, emotionally, we are primitive animals as buyers stalking the aisles.

EMOTION INFORMS THOUGHT

In The Advertised Mind, Erik du Plessis looks at the science of how learning occurs, confirming there has been a major shift in neurologists’ understanding of how we pay attention. This is what your boss needs to understand:

At the center of this new paradigm is the thesis that it is emotion that governs all our behavior; driving our unconscious reactions, but also determining what becomes conscious. Emotion feeds into, shapes and controls our conscious thought.

Good golly, Miss Molly. I don’t know about you, but this idea hit me like a ton of bricks, not because it’s so outrageous but because it so clearly explains how we act in our day-to-day lives. And by extension, it explains how we respond to advertising.

But before we can pay attention, we need to attract attention. “Since emotion plays a key role in the directing of our attention, the task of the ad is to evoke emotion in us,” du Plessis says.

Let’s press the pause button. There is a lot of activity focused on how the brain works. We have three hypotheses to examine before we can finally conclude how advertising works. They are these:

1. Tim Ambler’s MAC (Memory-Affect-Cognition) hypothesis, as reported by David Penn of Conquest Research Ltd., that it is the “affective content that drives advertising effectiveness and our ‘thinking’ merely supports a decision that may have been already made.

2. Robert Heath’s LAP (Low Attention Processing) model, which suggests that “implicit learning [that is, environmental or peripheral learning] is probably much more important than explicit (conscious) processes.

3. Likeability rules. In other words, liking an advertisement is much more predictive of its success than any other factor.

Before we go further, we should probably explain that emotions are not the same as feelings. Emotions are “simple, unconscious and non-verbal responses—shortcuts to help us make choices.” Expressed feelings that show up in focus groups, for example, are almost certainly disguised or rationalized after the fact by the participants. (In fact, the more that the topic under discussion is turned over, poked and prodded, the further away you get from knowing what you really felt about it.)

We have compelling research that proves we respond to stimuli before our conscious brain kicks in with a reason why. That research identifies a moment in time. But what about all the other moments that make up our day?

THE REPTILIAN BRAIN AT WORK

The limbic system monitors our environment constantly and automatically. We cannot be conscious of this monitoring because we would flame out. The neocortex does not have the processing power to bring every stimulus to the level of consciousness. In other words, if fight or flight isn’t necessary, then we amble along with intermittent attention or focus.

As part of our monitoring, we are matching our sensory input (taste, smell, touch, sound, temperature, etc.) to existing memories. It’s unconscious and automatic. This constant monitoring may cause memories to become conscious—a savory smell reminds us of that vacation in Mexico—but more generally simply adds to our storehouse of unconscious impressions.

EMOTIONAL CHARGE

So, during the day, we move along most of the time absorbing ordinary impressions, ordinary stimuli. But if something big happens, it makes a big impression. It is the emotional charge of stimuli that determines how much attention we pay (a lot or a little). Emotion stimulates and guides our attention.

Meanwhile, most learning (picking up impressions for storage in memory) isincidental, not deliberate. In other words, just walking down the street nets a basketful of impressions that seldom rise to conscious notice. Doesn’t matter. You’re “learning” nonetheless.

Left-brain types—or maybe most of us—will often say they are not influenced by advertising but, in fact, viewing advertising is incidental learning. The effects may show up long after the viewing is forgotten. In Looking for the Emotional Unconscious in Advertising, David Penn writes “Brain science suggests that much of what we know about brands is learned implicitly (i.e., at low or no awareness) which means that we know a lot about brands, but don’t necessarily know how or where we learned it.”

Whoa!

Let’s examine the other extreme: Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) are, in essence, suffering from powerful memories with substantial emotional charge. Witness the stunning impact of a negative memory. (It seems we are less inclined to remember positive ones—another survival strategy of the limbic system.)

The emotional charge of seeing a logo or advertisement would hardly seem to rate compared to a war-time experience. Yet we all remember, can recite or sing complete commercials or jingles, often from our childhood. Why? Because we don’t just remember that which we fear. We also remember what gave us pleasure, what gave us comfort, what gave us warmth. Research suggests quite strongly that the most memorable advertising is simply likeable. (By the way, this may explain why advertising designed to change behavior—against drug use or alcoholism or war, etc.—has questionable impact. It’s intent is to scare the reader into better behavior but it’s never likeable, therefore, not useful nor remembered.)

THE REPTILIAN BRAIN AT PLAY

SPOT’s research in 1997 of 67 brands found that only 3 percent of viewers remembered ads that were not well liked, 10 percent remembered those that were moderately well liked, and a whopping 33 percent remembered those that were well liked. Now you understand why so much creative effort is directed toward gaining positive attention for a product or service. And you can also understand why humor, whether the guffaw or the interior smile, plays such a role in the result.

At their simplest level, all emotions can be reduced to two: positive (pleasure or positive inclination) or negative (fear or negative inclination).

BUILDING BRANDS: THE ROLE OF MEDIA PLANNING IN REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING

The study of brand building is as much about the study of how the brain forgetsas it is about how the brain remembers. One research study led media planners to the conclusion that the brain needed three impressions to “remember” an ad, asking on the first viewing, “What is this?” On the second, “What does this say?” And on the third, “I’ve already seen this.” But because each person is different and we attend to things based on our emotional history, one individual may go through this sequence in the prescribed three viewings while another may take 20! Or so we thought.

This idea was stood on its head in a 1995 study of 78 advertised brands in 2,000 households over a two-year period. Researchers found that significant remembering occurred among this audience seven days after only a single viewing! The reason: likeability.

In other words, the effectiveness of a campaign perhaps has more to do with its appeal than frequency of repetition. It has always amazed us that firms will pay hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars to fill pages or screens with boring ads. Why? Almost always because the average agency is less expensive than the good one. Or because great creativity is terrifying. But science is telling us those who try to save a buck or save their sense of propriety are wasting all of their dollars.

LONG-TERM MEMORY

While getting noticed and liked is step one, advertising and marketing do not end there. Advertisers must still concern themselves with long-term memories of the brand. A well-trodden, oft-repeated path is easier to walk to your goal of brand awareness than a blazing trail.

Cutting through the clutter

Common sense tells you it will take more exposure to establish a new memory than to confirm an old one (hippocampus to amygdala: “What prior memories have you got for me to relate to?”) This is good news for products and services that are well established if their position is a favorable one in the mind of the viewer. But even in this instance, changes to an established brand name are learned more quickly than poorly known products and services. This is because brand memories are already stored in that “overstocked cupboard” called the amygdala.

Impressions created by the brand must resemble one another to be beneficial to the brand simply because that cupboard is overstocked. This confirms the value of brand standards, doesn’t it? Remember, advertising in all of its forms works to create new associations for a brand as well as keep existing associations fresh “in mind.” Hark back to the theory of incidental learning: New impressions for familiar brands may be “ignored” by the conscious mind “simply because there is no need to retain [them] in working memory.” Nevertheless, those incidental impressions go into the brand storehouse of the mind.

EFFECTIVE BRANDING IN SUMMARY

We know this is a lot to absorb. We hope you’ll go back and read this again. And, then perhaps, read it yet again. By way of parting, we’d like to share these thoughts with you:

Back to remembering and forgetting—which is to say, learning—theeffectiveness of your advertising and marketing is influenced by:

  • The positive emotional response created by the branding efforts
  • Simplification that aids memorability (like cue cards that help a speaker along)
  • How well the impression created is linked to the brand using tools such as imagery, mood, color and voice consistently
  • Authenticity or believability. Claims are invariably suspect when asserted by the advertiser. They require proof or a more subtle, nuanced creative approach to create a gut-feeling of believability. Making unbelievable claims for a brand or category can deal a severe blow to your brand equity. Contrary to popular belief, truth is a long-term winning strategy in branding!
  • The impact of creativity trumps the number of—and interval between—exposures to the advertisement (think broadly, remember—ads, Web sites, brochures, etc.)
  • Competition among memories must be factored into your marketing strategy; familiar products and services or categories are easier to introduce and reinforce than new products and services or categories.

Finally, important to understand about branding is that our memory of a brand is not one “consistent, cohesive entity, but is made up of a series of memories and associations that…will never be stored or remembered in its pure form, but as part of a much more complex and constantly evolving [composite] construct.” (Isobel Butcher) Brands are part of the very fiber of your being, like it or not. They are filtered through your experience and stored without your consent.

Being “on-message” is key to branding success. But being “on-emotion” means your brand efforts—advertising, Web site, collateral materials—are more likely to be “seen, read, believed and remembered.” —Dan Hill, CMO Strategy

To learn more about Greenfield/Belser and our work, call our marketing team at (202) 775-0333.