Ninety-nine percent of what our brains do is unconscious. As a result, asking people what they like or why they’re taking a particular action provides little information of value.

It’s not that people lie; rather, we simply don’t know why we do what we do—an important insight for any company that has turned to advertising to try to stimulate customer interest in its products or services.

Just as my lab has applied social neuroscience to improve organizational performance, we have also used neuroscience to radically reduce reliance on self-reports in marketing.

We did this by spending years running laboratory experiments that varied the types of advertising we showed to different people. All the while, we collected a variety of signals from their brains until we had algorithms that could predict post-advertising decisions with 80 percent or greater accuracy.

Our consumer neuroscience studies have shown that there are two main components to effective advertising. First, the ad must sustain attention. Any ad that lacks a compelling story arc is bound to lose it. Attention is a scare resource, stingily doled out by the brain.

Second, the ad must have emotional resonance—feelings that are transferred to the viewer by the character or characters in the ad. In fact, we have shown that the emotional contagion of ads causes the brain to synthesize oxytocin. Oxytocin literally makes us feel what the characters in the ad are feeling, and as a result we are likely to do what the characters do after the ad concludes.

To quantify an ad’s ability to sustain attention and emotionally engage viewers, my lab has developed a measure that we call the Zak Engagement STatistic, or ZEST.

As a fun way to show how this works, I did a mini-study that I recently presented at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. My group had 16 people watch the 10 television commercials from this year’s Super Bowl that were rated best by USA Today readers while we monitored brain activity 1,000 times per second. We then compared each commercial’s ZEST ranking with its USA Today ranking.

The upshot: There was zero correlation between what people say they like and what actually “tickles their brains.” For instance, the top-rated commercial by USA Today readers, the Budweiser “puppy love” spot, was near the bottom of the ZEST rankings, at No. 9. And the lowest-ranked ad on the USA Today list, the Pepsi “sound check” ad that plays music using New York City landmarks, rose to sixth based on its ZEST score. 

Perhaps most important, our neurologic measures predicted a high intent to purchase the products shown in the Super Bowl ads with 62% accuracy—a value that is substantially greater than chance.

Our work has shown substantial variation in ZEST rankings by demographic segment. Selling to “soccer moms” requires a much different advertising strategy than when you’re trying to sell to twenty-something single males. But we know that all customers want a captivating story that builds tension and induces emotional contagion from the characters.

“The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous,” Peter Drucker wrote. “The aim of marketing is to know and understand customers so well that the product or service fits them and sells itself.”

The same is true when it comes to advertising. You need to understand your customers so well that your ad fits them and sells itself—and, in turn, sells your product.

Customers want an ad, in other words, with a little ZEST.


This post originally appeared in the The Drucker Exchange April 3, 2014. Used by permission. 

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