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What advertisers can learn from neuroscience

What advertisers can learn from neuroscience
Our industry has much to learn from studies of the inner workings of the brain and its engagement with the world, writes Lauren Hewitt.

One of the pivotal ideas neuroscience has taught us is how little a person consciously assimilates from the stimuli around them (words, images, sounds, smells), but how much gets unconsciously absorbed.

To put this in the context of advertising, a person might not necessarily register a beer ad on the way to the shops, but without even realising it, will find themselves more favourably disposed to the product when they’re actually in the drinks aisle. This is because 80% of our memory is implicit or subconscious memory.

This obviously has huge implications for market research and advertising: by studying the unconscious workings of their audiences, brands can get a deeper perspective into their needs and desires, and formulate subtler avenues of engagement.

Vevo in association with Neuro Insight ran a study last year demonstrating how vital a tool this is for understanding consumers’ engagement with advertisements.

This development arose out of necessity: Vevo’s ethnographic studies suggested that consumers simply weren’t engaging with the content of the brand’s ads, but rather, responding to the ads’ stimuli in isolation.

When asked what they recalled about the ads, respondents remembered personal aspects of the situation such as who they were with when the ad was on, or where they were sitting, or what they were wearing—there was no evidence of engagement with the ad itself.

But when the brand introduced neuroscientific techniques into the study, they came out with some illuminating results. The study used Universal McCann’s ads primarily, and looked at four different types of content:

  • Online music video
  • Online TV clips (two to three minute clips of The Office, for example)
  • Full TV episodes online
  • Traditional TV on TV sets

They had respondents tell them what their favourite TV shows were, inserting ads as they would normally be placed in their respective content. They rotated the ads to make sure they didn’t appear more frequently than others.

Respondents also wore a skull cap capable of centring in on 17 different parts of the brain which Neuro Insight then mapped out in order to understand the meaning of the different responses.

Two important findings came out of this: online TV ads attain greater levels of engagement, and online content in general is more engaging.

This wasn’t too surprising for Vevo, since selection and choice (or curation, if you like) is one of the unique characteristics of online viewing: online viewing involves clicking on an episode, and leaning in to watch.

Consumers watching traditional TV on the sofa are more relaxed (and arguably less invested in the show they’re watching), and therefore less engaged with the ads with which they come into contact. The fact that interaction has become a key part of online TV ads amplifies this: the distracted viewer’s attention is recalled by a notification asking him/her to ‘choose’ an option.

You could argue that ad break memory encoding is key as it’s connected to the actual purchase.

To put this in context – a couple of years ago, Nielsen investigated what percentage of creative was responsible for the effectiveness of an ad. They found that context (where the ad was seen, the viewer’s state of mind) was more important than the creative itself.

Vevo’s study essentially confirms this finding—it demonstrates that the structure of the ad, and their presentation, makes all the difference.

The brain likes to engage in chunks and this works very well with the structure of music videos – they prime respondents to be more receptive to ads/before and after.

Neuroscience helps us understand the unarticulated responses of people, which researchers have struggled to glean in the past. The practice has sometimes received criticism as being an “art” rather than a “science”, but the Vevo case study demonstrates the increased ability of the approach to directly tie responses to purchasing behaviour.

However, one of the challenges faced by the neuroscience industry as a whole is the relative expense of running projects compared to traditional qualitative research techniques.

As a result, projects are entirely dependent on funding from clients who are inevitably reluctant to make their results public, for fear of losing their competitive edge.

This means that a lot of the great work (whose publication would greatly increase the profile of the entire neuroscience discipline) ends up being used only internally.

Even so, our understanding of the brain is improving exponentially and so is awareness of the value that could come from adopting neuroscience-based techniques.

At the very least, there’s enough publicly available material out there to help canny planners sell their big idea to clients.

This post is based on a talk given at the MRS Advertising Research Intelligence Summit by Jim Clark, the IPA’s Head of Insight.

The Insight Centre provides members with free insight reports to help with competitor reviews, new business pitches and campaign planning.

Last updated 12/10/2013

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