Research has shown that a story can activate empathy. Through a system in the brain called mirror neurons, we can feel what characters in the story feel. As the story draws us in, our emotions are connected to the story, suppressing our awareness of our actual surroundings. This causes us to leave reality and enjoy time in the world the story is creating. When we’re transported into this imaginary world, we’re in a highly persuasive state, because our usual defenses against persuasive messages have been, in effect, left back in reality. Our emotional involvement with the reality makes it easier for us to align our own beliefs and evaluations with the story.
Brain science tells us our brains make sense of reading about an experience or watching it unfold in a movie by simulating how we would experience it ourselves. This is why neuromarketers sometimes say that the brain responses of people watching an experience are a good indication of the likely brain responses of people actually engaging in that experience.
An effective narrative allows us to feel the emotions of its characters, but it also can activate other parts of our brains. For example, research has shown that reading words like lavender, cinnamon, perfume, coffee, or soap activates areas of the brain where smells are processed (called the primary olfactory cortex), exactly as if we were actually smelling them. A metaphor like “The singer had a velvet voice” or “He had leathery hands” activates areas of the brain where we process touch (the sensory cortex). And words describing motion, like “Kick the ball,” activate the areas of the brain that control body movement (the motor cortex).
These are all good examples of how the brain acts as a simulation machine to help us understand the world around us (see Chapter 6, “The Central Role of Emotions in Consumer Responses”). Language is a relatively new capability for mammal brains, which evolved for millions of years without it. It’s rather clever that we’ve repurposed some of our old brain machinery to make sense of this new type of input. In the same way we understand peeling a banana by watching someone do it, we can also understand peeling a banana by listening to someone describe it. From a brain processing perspective, there isn’t much difference between reading about an experience, watching it depicted in a movie, and experiencing it ourselves. In each case, the same neurological areas are activated.
Stories in action: Neuromarketing, movies, and trailers
A subfield of neuroscience, neurocinematics, studies the impact of movies on the mind. Researchers have found that a well-constructed movie with a strong plot and tightly managed emotional scenes (such as a thriller) synchronizes eye movements and brain activity across an audience of viewers. The more effective the thrills, the more all viewers respond in the same way at the same time. Interestingly, comedies produce less synchronization than thrillers, perhaps validating the comedian’s lament that “comedy is hard, dying is easy.”
Movies can also prime the audience, activate goals, and impact behavior. Research has focused primarily on the dark side of priming, showing how viewing violent movies can be linked to an in increase in aggressive and violent behavior in children and adults. It’s also likely that movies can act as positive primes, leading to altruistic, ethical, and pro-social behavior, but this side of priming has received less attention by researchers.
Movie trailers are mini-movies with a marketing purpose: to get viewers to go see the movie. Traditional researchers test trailers by asking viewers after seeing the trailer if they plan to see the movie. Neuromarketing research can do more. It can deliver insights into nonconscious responses to the trailer, such as impressions of novelty and familiarity, emotional reactions to different scenes, fluctuations in attention and interest, memory formation or activation, approach or avoidance motivation, and audience synchronization.