Dr. Michael Smith of Neuro Focus and Charles Guilbeau of Anheuser Busch discussed neuroscience at the UGA’s 30th anniversary celebration of its Masters of Marketing Research program.

Why the move towards neuroscience? Consumers don’t always have a very good understanding of their own minds and will say anything when asked standard survey questions. Many reactions are out of reach of mental processing.

As researchers have discussed the role of the subconscious and emotions on consumers, they’ve debated three models:

  1. Emotional Pawns – According to this model, emotions are bad: they fool us, and they lead us to make bad decisions. Because of this, people need to be protected from advertising and other “overly persuasive” emotional appeals.
  2. Rational Robots – Emotions are neutral: we make rational decisions by evaluating brand product information, and emotion-based preferences are no better or worse than utility-based preferences.
  3. Cognitive Misers – Emotions are good: they help us make satisfactory if not optimal decisions rapidly, and they help us expend minimal cognitive resources to get what we want and need in a complex world.

Of these simple models, Cognitive Misers has the most promise, according to Michael. After all, non-conscious processing of information has many benefits:

  1. We filter out irrelevant distractions so we can concentrate on what’s important.
  2. We can perform automatic motor processes like riding a bike or swinging a gulf club.
  3. We get an “early warning system” to potential dangers, helping keep us safe.
  4. It draws our attention to potentially rewarding situations or opportunities.
  5. It helps us pursue goals that meet our immediate or anticipated needs – hunger, thirst, warmth, sleep, etc.

On the whole, the division of labor between our conscious and automatic processing provides “a good cost/benefit trade off”, according to Michael.

For a case study, Neuro Focus and Anheuser Busch analyzed the effect of celebrity spokespersons within commercials. Neuro Focus combines EEG and eye-tracking measurement and tested 54 research subjects’ exposure to TV commercials for Michelob Ultra. Introduced in 2003, Michelob Ultra is one of the fastest growing brands and was “the biggest share gainer in the past 4 weeks”, said Charles.

The research questions addressed were:

  1. Does Lance Armstrong as an iconic sports figured associated with an “ultra” life increase ad effectiveness with the target audience?
  2. Do the ads communicate sociability?
  3. Do the ads effectively drive consideration in the key young male target demographic?

By tracking eye movements and neurological response to commercials, and analyzing them in sync with the timeline of the commercials, Neuro Focus found that Lance Armstrong’s presence did produce greater emotional engagement. The commercial that integrated Lance throughout its 30 seconds outperformed the commercial that introduced Lance later, which in turn outperformed the commercial that didn’t feature Lance at all.

A party scene with Lance at the end of the first two ads did score poorly, however. “The party scene may be too much of a stretch for his personal brand,” said Michael. “Celebrities work best when a celebrity’s personal brand coincides with the attributes of a brand: Lance being a good match for the ‘Ultra’ life.”

Want to increase the power of your call to action in visual advertising? Here’s one last lesson from neuroscience: create an image that will fire the “mirror neuron” system, those nerve cells that are activated by either performing an action or by watching someone else perform that action. Good campaigns trigger mirror neurons: “If your product is something picked up and consumed, depict that it in your ad,” Michael said. “If you’re Coke or Pepsi, have someone drink it.” Neuro Focus has developed an experimental metric of mirror neuron activations – ads with extensive depiction of holding the product may activate mirror neurons related to grasping and may increase purchase intent.

We may not be emotional pawns, but ad-testing techniques such as these may make us advertising pawns!

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.