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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Thinkbox Event – TV & The Brain: How Creativity Wins


Last Wednesday, I attended the Thinkbox event TV & The Brain: How Creativity Wins. The half-day conference explored how psychology plays a role in brand communications and advertising. The argument is that we should be looking towards the emotional and not the rational.

As a researcher, this is a challenge. Rational messages are easy to measure – emotions aren’t. I went into the event wanting to build up my knowledge on the theory, to learn of any practical applications and to leave with ideas on how to improve our understanding of advertising evaluation.

The event was split in two – half on theory, half on application. Personally, I found the first half far more rewarding. My knowledge of psychology was limited to Malcom Gladwell books, but the three excellent speakers broadened my horizons considerably and left me with a lot of things to ponder. I found the second half a disappointment. There were few specifics and the talks were dangerously close to sales pitches.

Tess Alps, Chief Executive of Thinkbox, opened the event in the customary fashion of selling TV as a medium. She quoted two recent studies that returned excellent results from a TV perspective. The “Marketing in the era of accountability” study by the IPA suggested that TV campaigns are 25% more effective than other media, while an econometric study by PricewaterhouseCoopers indicated that on average a £1m increase in investment on TV yields a £4.55m increase in revenue.

The first guest was Justin Gibbons, an excellent speaker (and researcher) whose presentation – “Directing the Brain: Neuroscience & Advertising” was designed to offer a primer on neuro-theory and acted as an introduction to the succeeding speakers. He did this very effectively.

He spoke about the different areas of the brain, and how we don’t always consult the hippocampus (the area for knowledge), meaning that the amyglada (emotional area) can be responsible for decision-making. The example he gave invoked our survival mechanism – assuming a stick on the ground is a snake.

This is a reason why emotions should be emphasised above rationality in advertising – after all advertising is persuading people to buy things that they don’t need.

Justin departed with two interesting facts. The first was that unless we give attention to information, it disappears within 10-15 seconds. Deep processing is assisted by associations and emotions e.g. our most vivid memories will likely be at an emotional time. The second was that our mirror neurones hardwire our brains to copy what we see i.e. we find it difficult to frown if we see someone smiling. Both of these facts provide interesting insights into how successful advertising can be created.

Next up was the keynote speaker Paul Feldwick who presented “Exploding the Message Myth”, which (jointly) won the prestigious Best Paper at the 2007 MRS awards. It is fully deserved.

He opened by speaking on the adaptive unconscious, and how we try (and fail) to use post-hoc explanations to rationalise emotional effects. He illustrated this with a study where women were asked to pick which panty-hose they liked best out of four pictured. The right-hand pair was the most popular and respondents gave varying, and sometime contradictory, reasons for their choice. Of course, all the pictures were identical and ordering effects were to account for the difference in preference. It is the marketer’s job to tap into these emotions and suggest a rational explanation. For instance, Stella Artois sells a lot despite doing badly in blind taste tests.

He then persuasively undermined the message model of advertising. This model states a linear causation of

Attention -> Information -> Memory -> Decision

with awareness and recall used to evaluate effectiveness. This theory was formulated in the 1880s for door-to-door salesman. Bar Rosser Reeve including a unique selling point in the 1960s, the theory hasn’t moved on. Paul argues that this model is wrong – while it may work for direct response, it will not work for other forms of advertising. Instead he advocates the following:

  • Create saleability rather than sales through associations and relationships. These can be non-verbal and non-conscious
  • Recognise that people are analog (i.e. ambiguous) as well as digital (i.e. precise)
  • Resist the urge to over-analyse and simply concentrate on “being a charming guest”

He finished with the assertion that not only does a new model of emotional engagement need not be provocative or intellectual, it doesn’t even need to be original. Merely, it needs to represent an aesthetic whole from which associations and relationships can be built.

Robin Wright closed the first session with “Brainpower: The Secret of Remarkable Advertising”. His presentation covered memetic theory- referencing the notion of a meme first expounded (to my knowledge, at least) by Richard Dawkins.

He cited 118 188 as an excellent example of the theory in action – the advertising trained to brain to keep rivals out through a combination of repetition, nostalgia, iconic imagery, catchphrases and theme music. The twins were easy to remember and meant that people associated directory enquiries as 118 xxx rather than 11 8x xx, which a rival was attempting.

The reluctance of brain to change its mind helps make the first in market succeed, and inherent risk avoidance helps explain the longevity of brand leaders. He went on to say that if a brand wants to change, it needs to offer differentiated continuity i.e. to retain what people expect while introducing new elements.

Overall, while his talk was compelling, I wasn’t convinced by this last element. It only appears to work in mature markets, where consumers are sold in to the offerings and restrictions the existing brands have to offer. Neither Google nor Facebook were first in market – yet they were able to convince a new audience that their services were valuable. Only when people buy into the service do their habits and expectations entrench.

After a coffee break, David Pemsel of ITV opened the second session with “From Viewing to Engagement”. Using Secret Diary of a Call Girl as a case study, he listed the elements of the online campaign designed to create engagement – the first episode being made available before broadcast, storylines previewed on a Facebook profile for Belle du Jour, and so on. He made the fair point that for ITV – i.e. a behemoth of the “old media” landscape – this approach was nigh-on revolutionary. Even so, I was left wanting more details on ITV’s thinking. The only thing I took out was a triangle segmented with four layers of audience – passive viewers at the bottom, enthusiastic supporters, fan promoters, and finally pioneer fanatics. No explicit link was made to targeting the emotional over the rational, which was disappointing.

Next up was Ian Armstrong from Honda with “A perspective on Creativity”. Again, he was short on specifics, but surprisingly candid in his remarks. He admitted that, above all else, the commercial reality of dealership targets takes precedence. He chooses to approach this by aiming for an emotional attachment to the brand – he doesn’t worry about cars and features specifically but how to create intrigue and excitement over his products, which result in a call to action.

He stressed the need to create meaning by telling stories in compelling ways, but not to be clever as the brain is lazy. This linked back to Robin Wright’s example of the Audi advert from the 1990s. People were assuming the yuppie would choose to drive an Audi, rather than the implied BMW.

He then alluded to some physiological research that Honda were conducting, among both salespeople and consumers, involving measurements of skin, the face and the heart. While I concede that it was not a research event, I personally would have welcomed more insights gained from the research.

The presentation concluded with the exhortation that the method of selling cars is outdated, but no one has yet found the next big idea.

Sue Elms & Graham Page from Millward Brown were the final speakers, with “Research & The Brain: Myths & Consensus”. They opened by attempting to extinguish myths surrounding their approach – explicit recall is everything, emotion is secondary to reason, and that engagement doesn’t have to be cognitive. It was insisted that memory and engagement go together and a balanced representation of knowledge, experience and emotion is needed for brand associations.

Considering the speakers in the first session had talked in length about the difficulties surrounding the concentrating on the emotional over the rational, Millward Brown’s presentation offered a sharp contrast. Sadly, their assertions on their ability to measure the emotional went on for far too long, and I am not sure they convinced the audience of their credentials.

David Brennan from Thinkbox rounded off the (over-running) session with a neat encapsulation of the ideas we had just heard. Interestingly, his final point was to think purchase first and then track back from there. In a time where advertising is becoming increasingly sophisticated, the ultimate goal of sales – either immediate or long-term – cannot be ignored.

Overall, I would consider the event a qualified success. I went away with plenty of insights into why emotions are useful and how they could be targeted. From a research perspective, I would have liked more practical examples and indications of measurement – the second session was too weak on this. However, from a more general perspective, I learned a lot and was indeed engaged for the most part.



4 Responses

  1. […] (RSS) « Thinkbox Event – TV & The Brain: How Creativity Wins Nine Inch Nails and free music […]

  2. Thanks Simon. Another event I missed which you have helped me to live by proxy!

  3. I have borrowed the brain image for use in my EDM310 class blog. I hope you do not mind.

    John Strange
    University of South Alabama

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