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Neuroscience: The Hot New Advertising Research Myth

Posted by Doug Garnett April - 11 - 2012 - Wednesday

A new ad research messiah has appeared with claims that it answers all the most fundamental questions about advertising. (Meaning, mostly, that agencies are interpreting this research to tell them what they want to hear rather than the complex and uncomfortable things they hear through other research.)

Today’s savior is neuroscience and the research that records activity in various areas of the brain. MRI’s, CAT scans, & PET scans are now casually thrown around advertising discussions. And we are told that these colored picture of the brain reveal everything about what motivates consumers. Right…

Now I highly respect neuroscience – there’s a tremendous amount to be learned about the brain. But ad folks should be more careful. Consider one of the claims I’ve seen.

The claim: “Neuroscience tells us that an emotional urge precedes rational thought”. And…I’m underwhelmed. Did we really need neuroscience to tell us this? But agencies go far afield jumping from this fact to the conclusion that it “proves” advertising is all about emotion.

Any jump of this sort defies fundamental logic. Neurons are microscopic influences. Yet consumer actions are macroscopic and are driven by thousands (or millions) of microscopic influences. That means advertising impact is influenced by lots of reality buried in a wide range of neural pathways. This reality is so complex its impossible for neuroscience to trace this tiny start to its impact.

So, nice finding. But it doesn’t really tell us much about advertising.

The Observational Fallacy. Neuroscientific conclusions about advertising fall prey to the observational research fallacy:

The most that neuroscientific research can observe is (a) that there is activity and (b) where that activity is taking place.

But the brain is exceptionally complex (I watched my 80 yo father suffer a major aneurism and brain surgery – then in only 3 months the brain recovered nearly fully). Moving from recording a specific activity to any advertising conclusion requires that we accurately know (a) what it means when each specific part of the brain is active and (b) that we understand brain interaction enough to know what it means when 2 or more areas of the brain are active at the same time.

But, we don’t really know either of those. The understanding of the brain evolves almost daily right now. And what we thought we knew 20 years ago is no longer acccurate. (Consider how fast right brain/left brain theory is evolving into far more useful understandings – which are still suspect because how do we know for certain?)

That means that when a research subject sees an ad and at the same time generates a red blob on a screen…it’s important to sit back and realize that all we saw was a red blob in a specific area of the brain generated at the point in time when they saw the ad. End of story. (Do we know for certain it was the ad that caused the blog? Probably. But even that requires an assumption.)

Reporting blobs won’t make the pages of AdAge. So, instead, career minded neuroscience reserach folks make huge leaps of logic which history shows we will find to have been entirely invalid. But heck, it’s a fad so what should we care?

Funny thing is that TS Eliot explains much about this issue in the final stanzas of “The Hollow Men”.

“Between the emotion
And the response lies the shadow

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow…” from ‘The Hollow Men’, TS Eliot

Here is the truly human challenges with or without fancy measurements – the massive distance between a neuroscience start and a consumer action.

Eliot’s Shadow is Well Known in Communication Theory. Communication theory shows us that all communication must make it past filters before it has impact. These filters are massively important. And one of the critical filters is rational evaluation. Let’s consider that one a bit more.

It’s not surprising that ads hit us without initial rational filtering. But it’s quite human to develop rational filtering – a process that starts with parents. We train our kids to observe a purely emotional start then hold back while we check whether the conclusion pointed to by the emotion is valid. And over our lifetimes, developing this sense is critical to human success.

So while I’m quite comfortable an urge starts emotionally, effective advertising has to deal with the entire human being. And that means all our flavors of filtering.

It may be that the creative disciplines require (or attract) people with under-developed rational filters. But that means we have to be extra cautious not to look to our own filtering habits when deciding what “all people” are like. (Or, be aware that we probably aren’t the best judges of our own filtering habits.)

The Missing Truth is that People Are Human and Not Emotional Robots. Modern advertising uses claims of “respect” to ignore the whole human being – in fact listen carefully and it sounds as if people are purely emotional.

There are many reasons the ad biz has devolved this far – portfolios are the saddest reason. The ad portfolios that lead to the best jobs AREN’T the ones with the most effective ads. They’re the ones with the most emotional ads. So if you want a good job, you ignore impact and emphasize emotion.

I’m looking forward to more findings from neuroscience. But we need to remember neurosciences reveals, at most, a tiny part of the human being. More importantly, remember also that we respond both emotionally AND rationally to everything…everything!

And let’s never forget, as Eliot informs us, that there’s a far distance between neuroscientific beginnings and consumer action and between lies the shadow.

Listen to this new research and listen with considerable caution. Then, go forth and do great advertising – by communicating with the entire emotional, rational, social, and fully irrational human being.

Other posts that relate to this topic include “The Misleading Desire for Market Research Innovation” and this post about reading the fossil record.

Copyright 2012 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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