14th June 2016

The effect of advertising on the brain

We are all exposed to a cacophony of advertising messages each day, whether we realise it or not. With the debate raging about ad blocking, I’m interested in understanding what effect advertising has on our brains and behaviour.

Conventional wisdom states that the purpose of advertising is to influence how we think. To date this has only been posited in theoretical terms, with a distinct lack of empirical evidence. It’s a view that recent developments in neurological science are beginning to change.

So where do we start?

As far as we know, the thoughts and feeling we will be talking about are intrinsically linked to being human, and particularly the human brain. So why not start here? The essence of humanity is considered to be extensively related to our distinctive ability to assign ourselves the status of being a higher creature. This profound ability is referred to as thinking, the power which not only distinguishes an individual from other creatures, but also lifted us up to marvel at the sky, create technological breakthroughs, scientific discoveries, express ourselves through art and look to understand humanity and the world around us.

It was in the 17th Century that Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy and famously declared, “I think, therefore I am.” (Cogito Ergo Sum). His statement highlighted the significance of ‘thinking’ as the indication of his existence. His explanation was that even if he was deceived, he had to exist for that deception to take place. However, there was a more significant outcome. He set out that if he could be sure of his mind, but not his body or his senses, it followed that the two were separate. Furthermore, Descartes went on to suggest that the rational superseded the emotional.

This school of Rationalism became a dominant ideology and continues to this day. We know that conventional wisdom tells us that we should not let our emotions affect our decision making. You could go as far as to say that our society frowns on our ‘animal instincts’, and self-improvement gurus preach that we should develop our higher faculty. This thinking is even reflected in the views of many modern economists and advertisers in the model of ‘rational choice’ but this is a concept that is increasingly being challenged as we develop a deeper understanding of human behaviour.

Behavioural psychologists including Sigmund Freud developed the view that our behaviour in general is the product of our mental processing. A widely accepted notion in the field of psychology states that you just need to change the thought - the behaviour will automatically follow. I have to say this all sounds very programmatic - as if we are computers. But we know this is not true, humans are far more complex, I only have to look at myself to know that. We are emotional beings, so how does that fit into the equation?

Evidence for a different view, one constructed around the idea of the emotional brain, came from the study of individuals that have suffered traumatic head injuries and recovered. They have been diagnosed as no longer being able to experience emotions. Consequently, they have lost the ability to make decisions. Extensive research has indicated that effective decision making is actually tied to our emotions. In effect, rather than being two different functions, the emotional and rational are inextricably linked. Continued research has shown that our feelings actually affect how we learn. This is a really interesting moment - we’ve learned that how we feel affects how we learn… so if we can create the right feelings, can we create the right learning? So is advertising really about feelings?

Before we can answer this I think we need to understand a bit about learning. The human brain is made up of neurons, which are connected by synapses. It is through these that we have the ability to transmit information and make thinking and other brain functions possible. New connections are made as we experience new things, and are made stronger as these experiences are repeated. This, simplistically speaking, is how learning works.

Linked to this is the importance of experience - that we train ourselves through repetition. Inside our brain, our synapses are getting built up. The more often we repeat an event, the stronger those synapses become. Interestingly, when a new event is paired with something more familiar, synapses are built up faster and more easily. In essence, the new memory just hitches a ride on the old one, which makes learning by association effective.

It has been shown through research that we have an emotional and a physical reaction before we engage in any rational thought. An example is that we automatically let go of a hot object and recoil our hand, and only afterwards do we realise what we did. Rather than being separate from our rationality, emotions are inextricably linked to our major cognitive actions: learning, memory and decision making. These can all be attributed to evolution and improvement of our survival instinct.

So how does what we have learned so far apply to advertising?

Before we address this, we must first add into the mix the role of ‘Brand’. this term is widely and possibly over-used but unevenly understood. What does ‘Brand’ mean, and how has the word’s application changed over time?

Around the later part of the 20th century, marketers began to realise there was more to the perception of distinctive products and services than their names - something David Ogilvy described as ‘the intangible sum of a product’s attributes’. Marketers realised that they could create a specific perception in customers’ minds concerning the qualities and attributes of each non-generic product or service. They took to calling this perception the ’brand’.

Quite simply, ‘Brand’ is what your audience thinks of when he or she hears your product or company’s name. It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your offering. Relating it back to where we left off in terms of the human mind, a brand name exists objectively - people can see it. It’s fixed. But, the brand emotion exists only in someone’s mind.

Advertising and branding have a very close yet distinct relationship with each other. It was historically assumed that advertising achieved ‘conversion’, in the sense of converting loyal users of other brands into loyal users of the brand advertised. Actually, what was far more common was a situation in which the consumer had a repertoire of brands within the category, and purchased them with varying frequency. Clearly, then, if advertising is to ‘work’, in most cases it will do so by causing the brand to be added to the consumer’s repertoire (or at least prevent it from being dropped), or causing it to be purchased more frequently (or at least preventing it from being purchased less frequently).

A second assumption that has always been made, is that, in relation to the advertising communication process, the consumer was merely a passive receiver of messages. People were assumed to be “uniformly controlled by their biologically based 'instincts' and that they react more or less uniformly to whatever 'stimuli' came along" 1. This model has been challenged by concepts such as the ‘Uses and Gratifications’ 2 theory. This assumes that audience members are not passive consumers of media. Rather, the audience has power over their media consumption, and assumes an active role in interpreting and integrating media into their own lives. Unlike other theoretical perspectives, UGT holds that audiences are responsible for choosing media to meet their desires and needs to achieve gratification. This theory would then imply that the media must compete against other information sources for viewers' gratification.

This allows us to understand that, far from being passive advertising fodder, within the consumer's mind there is a continual tug-of-war between their perception of advertising and their brand attitudes.

A big takeaway point from earlier on was, “how the brain learns and its direct relationship to the role of advertising”. Seminal work by Krugman3 on the topic of ‘low involvement’ versus ‘high involvement’ is helpful in understanding this. He made an obvious but necessary point that consumers are not greatly ‘involved’ with many of the products they buy. They do not view television or read magazines with a view to making decisions about which brand of shampoo or detergent to buy next. The learning they do undertake from such advertising is low involvement and relates directly back to what we learned about repetition and experience. We learned earlier that we train ourselves through repetitive experience. Inside our brain, our synapses are getting built up, and the more often we repeat an event, the stronger those synaptic connections become.

Another important element to add to the mix is the medium by which the message is being carried. This is a critical part of the advertising function. Marshall McLuhan proposed in 1964 that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content it delivers, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.

Looking further into this idea, Erik du Plessis of Milward Brown has done extensive research into what makes advertising effective. Having studied over 30,000 TV commercials over 20 years, the conclusions he made are are simple and practical. The first is that effective advertising is emotional. He found that emotive advertisements were much more successful in promoting recall and producing a sales effect.

The second outcome he presents is that clarity before creativity is essential. To confuse the consumer within an advert is one of the worst mistakes to make. He goes on to state that the association with the brand needs to be strong and hugely familiar to be effective. This also includes featuring the brand identity early and clearly in the advert. It doesn’t have to be large or dominant, just enough to cue the viewer.

Brands become more complex as they grow older. Strong associations can aid the building of weak ones. Repetition of messages is essential to building association. The more they are used, the more they become strong synaptic pathways within the brain in their own right.
New players in the market arrive with very few associations built up in the consumer's mind, so it is essential that they pair themselves with strong associations as soon as possible.

Once again, we have come across the complex relationship between advertising and brand identity. They are not synonymous, and not every association needs to be present in every message.

We set out to understand how advertising affects the brain.

We have learned that this is a complex mix of relationships - biological responses in the brain which have an affect on human behaviour and, in turn, society.

Through my research for this article, I have developed an understanding of how, neurologically, the brain is behaving. The role of emotion, which traditionally has been viewed by society as a non-scientific quality, actually has a physiological role. The Amygdala, the emotional centre of our brain, releases chemicals that promote and facilitate the formation of new synaptic pathways.

What has also been clear is that repetition plays a key part. The old saying holds true, ‘frequency sells’. We know now that this has a biochemical basis. Just like tracks through a forest, the synaptic pathways in the brain become deeper with use. Finally, we know that how the synaptic pathways develop in relation to association plays a core role in recall.

These three elements go some way to explain and simplify what is one of the most complex and remarkable systems that we know of. I look forward to reading about further study and discovery in this fascinating area.

1. Lowery, Shearon (1995). Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effects (en inglés). USA: Longman Publishers. p. 400.ISBN 9780801314377.
2. Elihu Katz, Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch. The Public Opinion Quarterly
Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter, 1973-1974), pp. 509-523.

3. Herbert E. Krugman, “The Measurement of Advertising Involvement,” Public Opinion Quarterly, Winter 1966-1967, 583-596.

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