Dean Buonomano, Ph.D.

Dean Buonomano Ph.D.

Brain Bugs

Your Brain on Marketing (What Happened to the $ Sign on Menus?)

Why are our desires and choices so easily shaped by marketing?

Posted Aug 12, 2012

Sure, we are the smartest species on the planet, but it must be stated that the bar is pretty low. My dog, for example, has been known to check to see who’s behind him after a bout of flatulence. Our nearest relatives, the great apes, don’t have a clue as to how to make fire. And it seems safe to say that we are the only species on the planet that actually understands where babies come from. Yet, even with this low bar humans are uniquely foolish in some domains. Say what you will about the intelligence of lab rats, I suspect they would not be willing to work harder to obtain water from Fiji over New York City tap water. Humans are fairly unique in the extent to which our decisions and habits can be shaped by marketing in ways that are often not in our own best interests. Perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of this fact is the tragic success of cigarette advertising, which contributed to approximately 100 million smoking related deaths in the 20th Century1.

Why are we so susceptible to marketing? Why are our desires, habits, and opinions so easily molded by advertising and propaganda? We don’t know the answer to this question, but the answer lies within the architecture of the brain. While there are probably many different answers to this riddle, two may be of most relevance: imitation and associations.

Human See, Human Do.

Humans are exceptional among animals in our exquisite ability to imitate each other and learn by observation: without coaxing, babies imitate their parents, whether they happen to be scrubbing the floor or talking on their cell phones. Whenever we are transplanted into a new geographic region, we slowly adopt the local accent. We even unconsciously copy each other’s body posture in meetings, and are more likely to yawn after someone else yawns. No child is going to learn to successfully forage in the Australian outback, or pick up French without massive amounts of observation and imitation. If we were not gifted copycats, modern society and culture would not exist.

With a few possible exceptions, true imitative learning and cultural transmission seems to be restricted to primates. Consistent with this notion, the work of the Italian neuroscientist, Giacomo Rizzolatti, and others, suggests that primates have specialized neural hardware devoted to imitation. One story goes that while recording the activity of neurons in part of the frontal cortex of monkeys they noticed that the neuron they were recording from started to fire when an experimenter reached to grasp an object. This initial observation eventually led to the description of a class of neurons that fire when the animal witnesses others performing some act, such as bringing a cup to one’s mouth. Amazingly, these neurons also fire when the animal performs the same act. For this reason, these neurons have been termed mirror neurons. The discovery of a mirror neuron system in the brain of primates provided strong support for the notion that the ability to imitate played a critical role in human evolution, and reinforces the notion that we humans are hardwired to imitate each other. And marketing, of course, taps into our universal ability to imitate: the hope of marketers is that upon watching commercials populated with beautiful, happy, successful people enjoying a given product is that we will follow their lead and do the same.

Exploiting the Brain’s Associative Architecture

The brain is hardwired to make associations. Neurons are extroverted computational elements, each capable of chatting with tens of thousands of partners. Which neurons are connected is in part determined by the events that occurred together—a principle often paraphrased as “neurons that fire together, wire together”. We recognize a rose by its smell because we have experienced both the smell and the sight of a rose at the same time. Pavlov famously demonstrated the brain’s ability to create associations by demonstrating that dogs will salivate in response to a bell after presenting both the sound of a bell and the smell of meat together.

When it comes to the world of marketing, we are all a bit like Pavlov’s dogs. Our brains are the target of countless marketing campaigns, many of which vie to burn the associations that best suit the marketer’s purpose into our neural circuits. One way to test the degree to which marketers have been successful in their goal is by playing the free association game again. What do the following words make you think of: red and the real thing? If they do not remind you of Coca-Cola, your neural circuits have not been rewired by the Coca-Cola Company.

Marketing relies on tapping into the brain’s propensity to build associations, but companies cannot afford to let the associations between their products and positive adjectives emerge naturally, they must ensure that we experience these associations through artificial means—through advertising. I ‘know’ that Frosted Flakes are great, and that Budweiser is the king of beers. But none of this ‘knowledge’ was acquired by first hand experience: it crept up on me through repetitive exposure to the taglines.

But the associative architecture of the brain is also exploited in more subtle manners. Perhaps you have noticed the disappearance of the dollar sign from the menus at restaurants. This trend was started by a study that reported that customers spend more when prices are listed without the dollar sign (12 instead of $12)2: presumably the presence of the dollar sign consciously or unconsciously brings money to mind, thus influencing our choices.

Marketing of products, ideas, or political candidates is an essential and important ingredient of human culture, capitalism, and democracy. But we must understand the extent to which our choices and desires are often molded to better suit the needs of others. Like a child who suddenly develops an awareness that her parents have been using reverse-psychology on her, we must develop an awareness and understanding of our brain’s bugs, and how they are exploited in ways that are not in our own best interests.

For more on the how the brain's flaws shape our lives:


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