Made for PR Neuroscience

Times Higher Education has a short but revealing article about a ‘neuromarketing’ company called MindLab that keeps getting ‘accidentally’ associated with the University of Sussex.

The ‘accidental’ association is not what makes the piece interesting, however, as it also gives an insight into a type of marketing that relies on the hype of neuroscience to make the news.

Mindlab International measures psychological reactions to brands or products using a “scientific approach” that “offers PRs an extra way to add a newsworthy element to PR campaigns”, founder David Lewis-Hodgson told PR Week in 2006…

Previous research by Mindlab has found that reading is more relaxing than listening to music or going for a walk, in a study commissioned by the maker of Galaxy chocolate as part of a campaign to give away 1 million books.

It has also been reported that a Mindlab survey, commissioned by the maker of Rocky, a chocolate bar, found that an estimated 25 million adults in the UK have been injured during a tea or coffee break.

In April this year a “neurological study by Dulux [the paint company] and the Mindlab International Laboratory at Sussex University” that measured the “physiological arousal” prompted by the imagining of various activities found that “women find a redecorated room just as pleasurable as sex”, the Huffington Post reported.

Yes, you read that correctly, and if I ever become old, bitter, and want to sabotage someone’s illustrious career in neuroscience I’m just going to write a piece of software that adds ‘the Huffington Post reported’ to the end of all their scientific papers (however, I digress).

What’s interesting is that simply making something appear like a neuroscience study is enough to get it and the associated product in the news – to the point where companies can now base their business model on the practice.

Neuromarketing is the study of the neuroscience of marketing – a genuinely interesting field that, contrary to what neuromarketing companies will have you believe, has absolutely no practical benefit at the moment because no-one has yet demonstrated that a neural response is a better predictor of the key outcomes than a behavioural response.

This, however, is more like neuro-spin-marketing, as it relies on people believing the hype of neuromarketing to get branded pseudo-studies into the media.

Buyer beware.

Link to THE piece on MindLab (via @sarcastic_f)

Advertising through avatar-manipulation

The Psychologist has an article on the surprising effect of seeing a digital avatar of yourself – as if looking at your body from the outside.

The piece covers a range of effects found in psychology studies, from increasing healthy behaviour to encouraging false memories, but the bit on deliberate avatar-manipulation for advertising caught my attention.

One such consequence is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story Minority Report. Specifically, there was a scene in which Tom Cruise’s character looked up at a billboard and encountered an advertisement using his own name. That marketing feat can certainly be recreated in virtual reality. We’ve demonstrated that if a participant sees his avatar wearing a certain brand of clothing, he is more likely to recall and prefer that brand.

In other words, if one observes his avatar as a product endorser (the ultimate form of targeted advertising), he is more likely to embrace the product. There is a fairly large literature in psychology on the ‘self-referencing’ effect, which demonstrates that messages that connect with the receiver’s identity tend to be more effective than generic messages (e.g. Rogers et al., 1977)

To explore the consequences of viewing one’s virtual doppelgänger, we ran a simple experiment using digitally manipulated photographs (Ahn & Bailenson, 2011). We used imaging software to place participants’ heads on people depicted in billboards using fictitious brands, for example holding up a soft drink with a brand label on it.

After the study, participants expressed better memory as well as a preference for the brand, even though it was obvious their faces had been placed in the advertisement. In other words, even though it was clearly a gimmick, using the digital self to promote a product is effective.

The article also notes that “Based on the findings from this study, the Silicon Valley company LinkedIn is featuring job advertisements that pull the photograph of the job applicant and place it in the job advertisement.”

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next wave of ‘penis enlargement pill’ adverts.

Link to Psychologist article on doppelgänger psychology.

Declaration of interest: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. My new year’s resolution is to stop buying promising-looking capsules from the internet.

Sports car advert based on entirely new organ

Car makers Audi have launched a fantastic brain-themed video commercial to promote their new range of money-themed sports cars.

It incorporates the brain as well as lots of neuroanatomy shaped graphics. An approach rarely taken with the usual penis-based marketing campaigns.

It seems the neuroadvert is aimed at academic neuroscientists who would only have to spend their entire year’s salary to buy one.

Despite my snide comments, I have to say, the video rocks.

Link to video of Audi commercial (thanks Natasha!)

The psychology of advertising in the Mad Men era

Film-maker Adam Curtis has just posted a fascinating look into how the Madison Avenue advertising agencies of the 1960s first understood and applied psychology to marketing.

As well as his account of these early forays into the consumerist mind he also posts some wonderful archive footage of the ad agencies’ training and discussions and some never before broadcast interview footage he recorded himself.

You may know Curtis from his numerous sociological documentaries, most notably The Century of the Self, which is a brilliantly made four-part series which puts forward a distinct and defendable argument about how our understanding of the mind changed through the 20th Century.

Part of this covered how advertisers began to take advantage and promote the increased focus on unconscious motivations and individuality to take advantage and promote the idea of the ‘self’ as consumer, and he expands on that in his BBC article:

The story begins at the end of the 1950s. There were two distinct camps on Madison Avenue. And they loathed each other.

One group was led by Rosser Reeves who ran the Ted Bates agency. Reeves had invented the idea of the USP – the unique selling point. You found a phrase that summed up your product and you repeated it millions and millions of times on all media so it “penetrated” the minds of the consumers.

His favourite was Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted”

He laid this all out, with diagrams, in his “bible” – called Reality in Advertising.

The other camp were known as “the depth boys”. They believed the opposite. That you penetrated the consumer’s mind by using all sorts of subtle psychological techniques to find out what they really wanted. These were feelings the consumer often didn’t even consciously realise themselves.

Both the video and the writing are really worth checking out for a revealing insight into how different ideas about the mind played out in the post-war consumerist dream.

Link to ‘Experiments in the Laboratory of Consumerism’ (via MeFi).

Baby, Remember My Claim

If you want to make the findings of your scientific study seem more important, simply give the effect a catchy name to help people remember. A study just published online in Psychological Science found that naming research findings boosted their perceived importance, but only if people assume the name is to aid memory.

On the other hand, if people thought the name was to ease understanding, the results of the study were perceived as less important than un-named findings.

The research, led by marketing psychologist Aparna Labroo, showed through a number of experiments that the effect happens because a name makes us feel we’re mentally processing the information better – the data just seems easier to deal with.

When we assume this feeling of ease is because the results have stuck in our mind, we perceive them to be more important, but when we assume it’s because they’re easily understandable (too easy perhaps?), we unconsciously downgrade their importance.

Rather cannily, the researchers have labelled their findings the “name ease effect” and they finish their scientific paper with a short tongue-in-cheek commentary on their choice of name.

We call our finding the name-ease effect with some reservations. If you are now thinking about whether you understand our finding, our act of merely naming it will increase your perception of how well you understand the effect, making you feel you probably knew about it all along. Note that the name we used does not provide information about exactly what the effect is and when, why, or for whom it occurs. Nor does other research suggest that merely naming a finding should evoke feelings of ease or that, depending on the attributions made, it can increase or reduce perceptions of the importance of the research. Thus, we hope that as you recollect the effect we described, you find it memorable.


pdf of full text of scientific article.
Link to study summary and DOI entry.

Subliminal cigarette marketing

The Tobacco Documents Library is an online database of millions of tobacco industry documents made public through court cases. Included are letters written to cigarette companies including several where the public have complained about ‘subliminal messages’ hidden in adverts.

Quite frankly, they are a joy to read, and this is my favourite among many hidden gems. It’s a letter from an organisation called Morality in Marketing to the makers of Camel cigarettes:

Dear Mr. Johnston

While at first we were enchanted with your popular new advertising campaign featuring head-shots of a “cool camel,’ in the course of an in-depth analysis by our media researchers the subliminal message inherent in your ads was cracked. Consequently, we must withdraw our agency’s support of this ad and include Camel Cigarettes on our hit-list of “Prurient Products” to boycott.

Your subtle ploy to titillate your audience with pornographic imagery of male genitalia disguised as harmless camel heads has not gone undetected. You can only imagine the extreme sense of anxiety, frustration and embarrassment I now feel when I am continually exposed to this graphic homosexual depiction of penile putrescence.

We have a bone to pick with you: where do you get off on displaying this root of all sin to hype your cigarettes? How long will you continue to promote your product by flashing gigantic sex glands on bill-boards throughout this country? As an up and coming organization dedicated to educating the American pubic about decency in advertising, we do not advocate censorship. However, while our desire is not to be too hard on you, we, as chaste Christian consumers, strongly urge you to cut off this media deluge of frontal nudity.

Additionally, could you please send to me a list of promotional materials offered to your customers and their children in conjunction with this extended marketing gimmick . We would be particularly interested, for obvious reasons, in any products which might involve oral contact (ex. mugs, glasses) or fondling (ex . stuffed replicas of the camel).

A prompt reply to this inquiry would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and God Bless You.

Firm in Our Faith,
Reverend Peter Manale

Interestingly, most of the other letters complaining about subliminal messages are a bit fixated on hidden representations of the ‘male genitalia’, probably fuelled in part by a similar urban myth.

I couldn’t find anything in the tobacco documents database to suggest that the industry was particularly interested in subliminal advertising, although there are several documents about subliminal flavours in cigarettes.

In fact, an academic paper [pdf] was written on exactly this topic, finding that the industry had done research to show that adding consciously undetectable amounts of menthol flavour to regular cigarettes caused “altered perception of tobacco smoke and its constituents via cooling, smoothing, and anesthetic effects; increased impact through stimulation of trigeminal receptors; interaction with nicotine controlling its perception, delivery, and uptake; and increased respiratory irritation and toxic effects”.

I heard a rumour that if you smoked cigarettes backwards you could hear Judas Priest songs but it never worked for me.

Link to subliminal complaints letters in tobacco docs database.

Ad Nauseum

adnauseam.jpgI am reading Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture, edited by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. The book is a funny, smart and sometimes shocking collection of articles from Stay Free Magazine and blog. I first came across Stay Free when I was researching the psychology of advertising and was impressed by their sophisticated take on how adverts affect consumers’ decision making. They discuss in Ad Nauseam how advertising is often misunderstood, with people relying on an intuitive ‘Advertising doesn’t effect me’ view or swinging to the opposite extreme of the ‘Sinister Advertisers Manipulate Consumers with their Mind Control Tricks’ position. Both positions distract from the very real, but not magical, power of advertising.

The book has a great discussion of Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction, the book that launched the idea that subliminal, and often sexual, figures are embedded in random features of adverts such as in ice cube shadows. The idea of these ’embeds’ is nonsense, of course, but great fun to look for and a great distraction from the real persuasive content of the advert. The book also has a chapter on the origins of modern advertising practice in 19th century pharmaceutical advertising (the manufacturing of ailments for which ready made ‘cures’ can be sold has been covered by Vaughan on before, in relation to the mental health). Packed with critical analysis of the advertising industry, more informative history and some shocking examples of how consumerism has worked its way into many aspects of our daily lives, this book is essential intellectual self-defense, managing to be critical and aware without ever being sanctimonious or hysterical.

Cross-posted at

Psychology and advertising

Here are links to some old posts about psychology and advertising. About three years ago I was writing a lot about this, and I just thought I’d collect them here:

Longer posts:

Is there a science of advertising?
Decoding adverisements
Cognitive psychology & advertising
Music wine and will
advertising influences familiarity induces preference
neuroscience and advertising
where do implicit associations come from?
Book review: Influence (by Robert Cialdini)
Does advertising erode free will?

‘Briefly noted’ and links

the price is right regardless of the cost
When choice is demotivating
Experimental psychology of advertising resources
Why can’t we choose what makes us happy
The Endowment effect and marketing
A quick and miscellaneous list of advertising links

Update: Book review of Ad Nausam, Sir Humphrey teaches questionnaire design