Neuroscience: The Hot New Advertising Research Myth

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 pictures 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.

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 the brain is exceptionally complex (I watched my 80 yo father suffer a major aneurism, brain surgery, and a fully incapable week in intensive care. Then in only 3 more months his brain recovered nearly fully).

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 research 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 challenge 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

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

6 Responses to Neuroscience: The Hot New Advertising Research Myth

  1. Daniel Clark says:

    You brought up a very interesting point on the importance that the industry places on emotion. The ad industry and psychology were joined together through J.B. Watson who established the school of behaviorism and later became the vice president of JWT. He was an evangelist to defining oneself by their actions and that emotion is simply your reaction to stimuli across your body. He said that a successful ad has to elicit an emotional response no matter what kind, so from him we get the ads that show a man face down on a hospital bed and the doctors surrounding him are saying, “the problems started when he started using the rougher textured toilet paper.” But the problem with him and the problem with neuroscience in advertising is that nothing is attributed by the brain being stimulated by a memory. What if the red blob does not mean that the subject is thirsty after seeing a coke ad, but it is from the brain experiencing a familiar stimulus that is inciting the subject to think about all the coke ads they have seen before.
    I think the ad industry should definitely rethink the validity of neuroscience and the inferences that it can lead to.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks for the excellent thoughts, Daniel. Seems to me quite often that early pioneers like Watson say things that they exercise with appropriate control, but which later generates mutate into what wasn’t really intended.

      You’re absolutely right to take the “blob” problem one step further – there’s about a billion things that could generate a red blob. Which one are you going to guess caused it?

      But back to emotion… Truth is, all ads cannot help but evoke an emotion (sometimes they don’t mean to but end up evoking a negative one). And, as advertisers, we should want that emotion to work to our advantage. In some cases, the overt emotional evocation should/can be a primary communication…but not always. As you note, when emotion becomes “everything” we’ve wandered far off from what Watson meant. After all, he referred to a specific product advantage (disadvantage) with “rougher textured toilet paper”. πŸ™‚



  2. Tim Orr says:

    Great entry, Doug! I got here from your comment on the MediaPost blog about CBS’s apparent embracing of the neuroscience approach. A lot of the snake-oil peddlers rely on the fact that most folks don’t know the difference between a correlation and a causation. They also make the false equivalency mistake of assuming *any* emotion is the *right* emotion. In business-to-business, where I work, I often say that the emotion a prospect feels might just be fear that if he buys the wrong product, he could lose his job. That’s very different from whether or not to try a new soft drink, where the only risk is you might not find it to be to your taste.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks for the comments. Some days I fear we are becoming so overwhelmed with so-called research that the ability to focus on important distinctions like you’ve identified has been lost in society. But really, it’s always been that way. We just need to remain committed to calling out the errors.

      I particularly love the fear you identified in B2B. As a computer salesman in the late 1980s we always fought the reality that “no one ever gets fired for choosing IBM”. It is exceptionally important to plan advertising with that awareness.



  3. Pingback: The Absurdity of Brand Disconnected from Product | Doug Garnett's Blog

  4. Pingback: The Absurdity of Brand Disconnected from Product | Doug Garnett's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: