Ads must work with people’s brains not against them

by Nigel Hollis | May 31, 2017

Kantar Millward Brown recently released a new report titled, ‘Make a Lasting Impression’.  One of the key recommendations of the report is that advertisers need to work with people’s brains not against them. Recent experiences in Italy reminded me that it is sometimes difficult to anticipate what will work with people’s minds rather than against them.

One of the things that I try to highlight in my presentations is the distinction between intuitive and deliberative responses. I get people to shout out the answer to a math question to which people intuitively know the answer and then give them a more complex one that they will have to think about (I stole this idea from Daren Poole and it works a treat – thanks Daren).

Knowing that the audience’s first language was most likely to be Italian I translated the question into that language. My assumption was that this would make the intuitive task even easier. I was wrong. Each time I came to the question and asked people to, “Grida in Italiano per favore...” while the screen flashed up “2 X 2” there was a pregnant pause instead of the immediate response I expected. And then most people shouted out “Four” instead of “Quattro”.

Silly me. Instead of making the task easier I suspect I made it harder by trying to switch languages in mid-presentation.  If you have been hard at work trying to understand a guy speak English for the last 30 minutes your mind is primed to expect and work in English, not suddenly jump back to your native language. (Of course, an alternative explanation was that they were busy looking at their phones but I prefer not to believe that.)


As it was, the demonstration still worked because when the next slide asked them to give the answer to 16 X 19 everyone paused and then laughed. Faced with a question to which the answer was not intuitively known, people’s brains simply ground to a halt. Our brains are lazy and rely on heuristics and shortcuts most of the time, and only deliberate on something when forced to do so.

This is one of the reasons that video advertising often fails to engage or make the desired impression, it requires too much conscious thought. Additionally, advertising often requires the audience to change mental gears, often to reflect on why something is happening or what went before, and most times they do not, or if they do they blink and miss what comes next. One of the benefits of automated facial coding is that, in conjunction with questions about the response to an ad, it can highlight exactly where people might lose the plot in an ad and make it easier to figure out what might be done to address the issue. The combination of intuitive real-time, emotional response with reflective responses is a powerful combination.

Why do you think it is so difficult to anticipate how people will react and what they will take away from an ad? Please share your thoughts.

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