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TV and the Brain
What is the relationship between emotion and memory, and what does it all mean to advertising? In the last two years there have been more advances in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience than in the previous twenty. And the picture that is emerging turns our traditional models of how we absorb and respond to advertising, and the ways we evaluate it, on its head.
This is how psychologists and neuro-scientists see the brain
They study the brain in terms of regions and functions. Here's the top line on four of these regions.
Amygdala. Processing emotions and feelings, responds very fast as part of the limbic system, some brands have an instant reaction in the amygdala
Parietal cortex. This region of the brain processes complex information and in everyday life deals with our spatial awareness. It is required for factual messages and detailed communication.
Hippocampus. The brain's hard drive, where long-term memory lives. Once brand experiences and learning have been processed by the hippocampus, they can be there permanently.
Prefrontal cortex. The brain's working memory, or short term memory. Located in the grey cortex, literally the 'grey matter', this area works things out and effectively edits information before being processed by the hippocampus.
Neuroscientists study activity in these areas of the brain using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanners. These monitor blood flow, and in simple terms, when an area like the Amygdala "lights up" on the fMRI scan we know that its associated mental processes have been activated. You can find out more about this here.
As advertising people there are four functions which are important: brand engrams, heuristics, emotion and memory.
Engrams, and how brands live, sometimes for a very long time in the brain
Here's the science:
Brains are made up of 'associative networks'. A brand is not neatly represented as a 'whole' in one area of the brain. Rather, tens of thousands of connecting neurones, dendrites, and synapses connect and combine to form networks of associations. As one neurone is stimulated (fired), it excites the next one.
With repetition, connections are made and 'set' in the mind - in short neurons that fire together wire together. So if the associative network of Sainsburys fires at the same time as the associative network that is Jamie Oliver for a number of times - the two networks start to join up. Thus when you think of Sainsburys it is likely to have unconscious associations of Jamie. These connections are constantly changing with time and different stimuli. The representation of a brand at a neuronal level is called a brand engram.
The brain doesn't just store factual information about brands, it stores sensory perceptions, emotions and learned behaviours. These are stored as sets of associations
The greater the frequency and the emotional response, the deeper the tracks.
Some associations become so ingrained that they are permanent. This is known as 'hardwiring'. It can take up to 2 years to create a hardwired connection in long term memory but once it has become solidified in the mind and once this connection is learnt, it is rarely forgotten.
What does this mean?
Advertising is a powerful way of building these associations. If you ask people about Dulux they will say dogs, Andrex and it's the puppies, Beanz Meanz Heinz and the Halifax is still a 'building society' in research.
And while it is incredibly difficult to change existing hardwiring the good news is that it's not impossible; Lucozade went from a medicinal to a sports drink, Clarks went from middle-aged conservatism to contemporary mainstream fashion and Guinness was the drink of lonely old men before Rutger Hauer.
Repetition and time increase the chance of new associations being established and therefore new information being transferred to long-term memory. You can also tap into an existing association - for example by using sponsorship - and set up a new association for you brand.<!-- images of sponsorship -->
The big question? What associations exist, what are we trying to change or build on?
Heuristics, and how we make choices, or actually how we don't sometimes
When shown a picture of Van Gogh and asked to free associate, most people would quickly say 'artist', 'mad' and 'ear cut off'.
Here's the science.
Some associations are learned over time and become automatic and habitual, in other words there is not an active thought process that leads to these associations. These associations are learned over time and become automatic and habitual, i.e. there is not an active thought process that leads to these associations each time we are confronted with the image.
Brand habits are built in the same way especially where there is routine behaviour or in situations where there is no time for a lengthy decision making process. Heuristics are rules of thumb that allow efficient decision-making.
How much time do you want to spend selecting a Barbeque sauce?
When faced with over 26,000 calculations regarding barbecue sauce heuristics kicks in and provides us with shortcuts. It helps us get through too much choice.
This is interesting because these start to lead us to a much more emotional view of the brain, because rationally we can't crunch that many barbecue sauces. We can't sit and rationally weight up all the different types of tuna you can buy. We can't stand that long in Starbucks, although the queue sometimes would allow you to. You can't crunch that many permutations. Or toothpaste - it is likely that you always buy the same brand, as it is a heuristic purchase. We all do it.
What does this mean?
If people are habitual users of a product, getting them to change the brand they choose requires them to have actively considered a reason to change.
The big question? Is the category one where consumer's heuristics kick in?
Emotions, and why they always win
Here's Robert Winston on Emotions
"If asked to describe emotion I might be tempted to see it as a set of feelings - fear, anger, sadness etc. But looking at the evidence, it seems less about feelings than a set of survival mechanisms that helps us to avoid danger and direct ourselves towards whatever is most beneficial"
Professor Robert Winston
This is a really interesting because our emotions aren't just feelings but are actually there with a purpose.
Here's the science
The emotional brain reacts immediately to input and is much faster than the rational brain. We make decisions sometimes before we even have chance to cognitively process. An emotional reaction accompanies everything and a positive predisposition to a brand will determine whether or not it is given further consideration.
"When someone says to you, 'you are allowing your emotions to cloud your rational judgement' they are exactly right"
Erik du Plessis, The Advertised Mind
What does this mean?
Emotional warmth or distance determines selective perception. If people are 'warm' to a brand, it is easier to get their attention, as they are more open to 'listening/seeing' and absorbing new information. If they are 'neutral' or 'distant' from a brand, it is more difficult to influence them and the advertising needs to work harder.
Some really effective advertising sets about the task of warming consumers up to the brand. Often as part of a long term approach to creating sales.<!-- emotional ad/ great image -->
Dr Robert Heath, from the University of Bath's School of Management, found that advertisements with high levels of emotional content enhanced how people felt about brands, even when there was no real message. However, advertisements which were low on emotional content had no effect on how favourable the public were towards brands, even if the ad was high in news and information. So, "in advertising, it appears to be the case that it's not what you say, but the way that you say it, that gets results."
And nothing does emotion like television …<!-- great ad image/ abstract -->
Memory, and low involvement processing
Here's the science.
Low involvement processing is a theory developed by Robert Heath in his 'Hidden Power of Advertising'. He suggests that the way in which we take in brand messages can be either 'high' or 'low' involvement. High involvement processing is activated at will and is 'active/explicit' learning, for example, the way in which we learnt at school. You are currently high-involvement processing, well hopefully
Low involvement processing is a mixture of conscious and semi-conscious activity. Much of it involves 'implicit' learning - learning that takes place without you knowing that you are learning. In this instance you are low involvement processing the images, the colour and perhaps some sounds around you.
Research has shown that information which enters the memory through low involvement processing gets stored directly to the long-term memory without any conscious filtering. Low involvement processing is therefore an incredibly effective way of increasing a set of associations around a brand.
What does this mean?
Different media are more naturally suited to low versus high involvement processing and creative also contributes.
High involvement messaging is typically rational, logical or time-sensitive information that needs immediate attention. Typically, print and internet are good at this.<!-- copy laden press ad or web page -->
Evidence suggests that TV is typically processed at a low involvement level and thus it is well suited to thematic or brand messages that need to be remembered for the long-term.
When watching a TV ad it is the actor's voice, the setting, the sounds etc that are low-involvement processed and start to build the brand associations.
Low involvement processing obviously works best for brands in markets where the purchase decision is low involvement (i.e. little risk, little product differentiation; low cost/frequent purchase) but can also be the best way to get a brand into the consideration set for high involvement purchases (e.g. buying a car; choosing a holiday destination)<!-- ad compilation?? -->
The A/V difference
Neuroscience also indicates how experiencing audiovisual creative works on the brain. Work by Phd looked at the generic effects of Impacts delivered across all media channels against activity in the various areas of the brain and found that the emotional area of the brain and that associated with long term memory get lit up to an astonishing degree by audio visual stimulus delivered by television.
The power to connect - gesture
We have mirror neurones that hardwire our brains to copy those around us. In experiments, respondents find it hard to frown when watching a smiling face. When we see an emotion in another person we tend to experience it in ourselves. In salesmanship known as 'mirroring'; "smile and the whole world smiles with you"
AV stimulus captures emotion the best through gesture and facial expressions. Paul Ekman at the University of California has identified six universal facial expressions; anger, disgust, sadness, fear, surprise and happiness. He has shown that we have automatic reactions that unfold within microseconds when we see facial signals in others.
Creative mirroring induces powerful effects in advertising and is an important part of TV's power to connect.
The four big issues
Although we shouldn't think of it as a complete solution, Neuroscience has got some really interesting lessons for us. It's a huge topic but it supports lots of theories about the way advertising works and it certainly deepens our understanding. Here are four things for us to think about when developing our advertising:
- What do we know about our brand engram, and what are we trying to do to it?
- What do we know about the decision making process, are heuristics involved?
- What is the emotional warmth of the brand, is it a winner?
- What kind of information are we communicating, does it require high involvement processing?
TV and the Brain
Paul Feldwick argues why and how any organisation that wants to create more effective advertising will have to change some fundamental assumptions about advertising, communication and creativity.
Neuroscience is entering the world of brand communications and market research in a big way. Dr Gemma Calvert and Professor Steve Williams from Neurosense explain what it is, what it can do and who is using it.
In recent years we’ve clearly come to understand a lot more about precisely how TV affects consumers, and to gain some actionable insights from this work, but we still don’t have the full picture. The metrics industry has struggled to keep up. So what should we look at next?
In June 2010, Thinkbox released the results from our first foray into neuroscience. This pioneering study combined two cutting edge techniques to ascertain a) how creativity works in TV advertising and b) how the impact of media placement – particularly the relationship between TV and online – impacts upon the brain. Here you find out more about fMRI and SST, explore the methodology, and have a good look at the results that came out of this research.