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How advertising really works

October 4, 2013 5 Comments

Derren Brown is a British “mentalist” and entertainer. He has a number of fascinating videos over on You Tube, including this classic – quite simply, the most persuasive illustration of nonconscious processing I have ever seen:

What lessons can we draw from this clever experiment?

First, nonconscious processing exists. Our brains are busy taking in stimuli all around us that never reach conscious awareness.  As Derren Brown says toward the end of the video, “if you knew the amount of effort we’ve gone into to make this work, you’d be absolutely flabbergasted.”  But advertisers and marketers go into this amount of effort every day.  That’s why it’s a trillion dollar a year business.  And much of that messaging enters our brains with about as much awareness as the harps and bears and “zoo” stimuli entered the brains of the advertising guys in the video.  Clearly, they were unaware of any of it.

Second, nonconscious processing is not susceptible to self-reporting research techniques. Imagine a focus group with these two fellows following the experiment (assuming of course they had not been debriefed).  I’m sure they would have provided wonderful and detailed explanations of how they came to their ideas.  But those reports would have told us next to nothing about the effectiveness of the stimuli that actually influenced them.

Third, repetition matters. This was one of the most interesting aspects of the video to me.  Notice how many variants of the key stimuli the unwitting participants were exposed to.  The underlying psychological processes at play are all forms of conditioning, and all conditioning requires repetition to achieve its magic.

zoo-gatesFourth, I have one quibble with Darren Brown. He calls the stimuli he planted along the executive’s route “subliminal stimuli.” They were in fact not subliminal, because they were fully accessible to conscious awareness. It would be better to call them “peripheral” or “unobtrusive” stimuli, because they were there to be noticed consciously, but they were only taken in nonconsciously. Peripheral stimuli don’t make us do anything, but they can impact us later when we access them in the process of deciding to do something. What we see here is not a case of zombie programming.  The participants did not start thinking about dead animals on their own.  They were presented with a specific task, and in using their full conscious processing capabilities to perform that task, they activated and connected to the new stimuli their brains had “taken in” and “filed away” without conscious awareness.  If they had not been asked to design a taxidermy store logo, they would not have been drawing bears with wings playing harps and sitting on clouds.

Each of these lessons has important implications for advertising and marketing research, and reinforce many of the themes and ideas we have been discussing in this blog.  Let’s review:

  1. Research methodologies that focus only on people’s explicit evaluations of advertising are missing something important, the nonconscious effects of stimuli on conscious attitudes and behavior.
  2. Although the conscious brain is not aware of its own nonconscious processing, these processes do leave clear markers of their presence in neural activations and physiological reactions.  Capturing and interpreting these markers is a necessary component of any thorough market research methodology.
  3. Nonconscious influences are subtle and are best measured over time.  Their full effect may not be apparent from a single exposure because they trigger conscious attitude and behavior change mainly by accumulating unnoticed over time.  Getting a “snapshot” of nonconscious effects is better than not measuring them at all, but to be really effective, research measuring nonsconscious effects must be ongoing so trends can be tracked and responded to.
  4. Measuring the experience of a stimulus only tells a part of the story.  Imagine we were measuring the neural and physiological responses of Derren Brown’s advertising guys as they were driven by the zoo.  Would we have seen attention and emotional response?  Would we have observed later explicit recall or recognition of the experience?  Probably not.  Yet the experience did have a huge effect later, just when Derren Brown wanted it to, when it was activated by the explicit cognitive process of designing the requested logo.  Similarly, to fully understand advertising effectiveness, we need to measure its impact on decisions, actions, and later cognitive processes (e.g., attention, attraction, memory activation at time of sale), not just reactions to the ad itself.
  5. We find here some persuasive evidence in favor of the “low attention” model of advertising effectiveness discussed in our post on Robert Heath.  Conscious attention to the relevant stimuli was low at best, yet those stimuli impacted choices and behaviors in a huge way, allowing Derren Brown to “predict” what the participants must have thought was a completely internally-derived result.  Perhaps we need to refine our research terminology when we discuss attention and advertising effectiveness.  The attention we see operating in this video is  a kind of recognition or impression that precedes – in neural response time – traditional conscious attention.  Indeed, it may not trigger conscious attention at all.  So what do we call it … pre-attention, attraction, impression, elicitation?  Language matters, especially when old words used in new ways can cause as much confusion as insight.
  6. Finally, I saw some indirect evidence in this video for Robert Heath’s point that more attention (explicit attention) may actually be detrimental to advertising effectiveness.  Suppose the two advertising guys had consciously recalled the zoo they passed and some of the other stimuli they observed?  They might have censored their “animal heaven” idea, because they would not want to appear unoriginal.  Similarly, rationally dissecting an advertising “pitch” may reveal it to be as simplistic and non-rational as most pitches are.  From the advertisers point of view, it’s much better to have people “primed” with diffuse, nonconscious good feelings about your brand than to be thinking what a silly argument you made in your ad.

Thanks to Derren Brown for providing such a great educational tool for understanding how our brains – and advertising – really work.

Originally posted on my previous blog on November 9, 2009.

About the Author:

Steve is a pioneer in the field of neuromarketing. He founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms in 2006 and published the first comprehensive overview of the field, Neuromarketing for Dummies, in 2013. He established Intuitive Consumer Insights in 2012 to help clients, vendors, and industry associations navigate the opportunities and challenges neuromarketing presents to the marketing and market research communities.

Comments (5)

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  1. Dominic says:

    What lessons can we learn from this clever conjuring trick?
    About as much as we can learn from watching a magician saw a woman in half.
    Maybe we learn this: advertising simply doesn’t work this way. If it did, it wouldn’t take a magician with a conjuring trick to achieve it.
    Put it this way; if advertising really did work this way, how did Derren manage to render ineffective all the hundreds of other images they would have been exposed to over the previous few days?

    Science 0; Gullibility 10

    • Steve Genco says:

      Hi Dominic, thanks for your comment. You are not the first person to respond skeptically to this demonstration! It definitely is pretty counter-intuitive, I agree with you there. But it is backed up by lots of science that has confirmed in lab and field studies that this is how our conscious-nonconscious minds do in fact work.

      I wanted to comment on your very good question … how did Derren manage to render ineffective all the hundreds of other images they would have been exposed to? He did it by giving them a specific conscious task that naturally triggered memories of the stimuli he cleverly planted along their route. When I show this video to audiences, I always mention that if he had asked them to create an ad for a beauty salon, they would have accessed a quite different set of memories. They wouldn’t have produced an ad with a harp-playing bear in front of the gates of heaven.

      What is interesting about this example is not so much which memories they accessed, but that they had no conscious awareness of how those memories got in their heads. And that, I do believe, is how a lot of advertising works. We don’t really pay attention to it, but it nevertheless wields its effect later when we’re involved in a conscious task (like shopping) that triggers those memories and thereby influences our choices.

  2. Dominic says:

    To be clear – I’m not responding skeptically to a counter-intuitive demonstration; I’m writing as a magician: this trick was devised by a friend of mine, who is as amused as I am by how some people still are taken in by it (although he does wish he was getting repeat fees!).
    You remind me of Conan Doyle, and how he stuck doggedly to a conviction that Houdini achieved hiss escapes through de-materialisation.

    I do, however, agree with you when you write “We don’t really pay attention to it, but it nevertheless wields its effect later when we’re involved in a conscious task (like shopping) that triggers those memories and thereby influences our choices.”
    It’s just that the effect of such advertising is weak, and nothing like as effective and accurate as this conjuring trick suggests.

    • Steve Genco says:

      Interesting! I do appreciate this insight from the perspective of a fellow magician. I had assumed this wasn’t magic in the Houdini sense because he “explained” how he did it in the end. But I guess you’re saying it’s not exactly a full explanation! Did you know this effect has been demonstrated in real academic experiments as well? Check out: “Dogs on the street, pumas on your feet: How cues in the environment influence product evaluation and choice,” Available here: Unfortunately, they didn’t do a video as entertaining as Derren’s!

      Thanks again for your comment, Dominic.

  3. Dominic says:

    I’m not saying “it’s not exactly a full explanation”. I think you’re trying to cling on to this trick – you need to let go. From beginning to end this is a conjuring trick. Everything Derren says is designed to entertain and to misdirect from the way the trick is done.

    Thanks for the link to the paper. It was interesting, but I wonder if you linked to the wrong page? I think you meant to link to a paper which demonstrated Derren’s effect, but I don’t see anything close to Derren’s effect here. In Derren’s effect: the participants “were unaware of any of it {the cueing]”; but more specifically, Derren’s effect showed 100% control over the precise subsequent behaviour of the two participants. In all the effects in the paper, the effects were statistical movements of much vaguer behaviour among much large groups.

    On a side issue, I find it interesting that, counter to Heath’s hypothesis, the world’s biggest copy-testing databases (Link, Next*TV, Ad*Vantage) all show that the more people remember having seen the advertising, the more chance it has of having an effect.

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