How Your Brain Forces You to Watch Ads
…and how you can learn to ignore them
Posted October 30, 2014
Every day we navigate through a cluttered media environment of thousands of ads vying for our precious time and limited attention. Studies in North America have shown that on average we are exposed to 3,000 ads per day. If you think you can simply choose to ignore these messages, think again. The best ads are designed to slip through your best defenses.
That’s because every consumer, i.e., human, has an automatic hardwired process for attention and awareness. And our decision to pay attention to stimuli in our environment (such as advertising) is often determined by our emotions, not our thoughts. But here is the challenge for viewers. We don’t choose our emotions. They happen unconsciously. We can only try to choose how to think about our feelings after the fact. So when an advertisement triggers a strong emotion, brands can rise to the top of shopping lists and markets. Because at this stage of human evolution, our feelings influence our thinking way more than our thoughts influence our emotions.
Think of emotions as automated actions programs that guide us through our (media) environment without having to think. Ads that trigger emotions can literally hijack critical thought and conscious awareness. Research has shown that ads processed with high levels of attention are six times more impactful at driving brand choice as compared to ads that aren’t consciously recalled. And cognitive science experiments corroborate that familiarity breeds affection through mere exposure.
Every second your senses are taking in about 11 million bits of information, but you are only aware of about 40 of those bits. Because our conscious mind is so limited it works on a need to know basis. Think of the human brain as a survival machine vigilantly scanning the environment always making predictions about what will happen next. It works by recognizing and responding to patterns. Cognitive science tells us we don’t notice the world around us when it’s reliably predicted away, when what we are experiencing in the moment matches our intuitive predictions.
However, missed predictions fire a hardwired neural response that biologically commands our attention. This reaction is what neuroscientists technically call the “Oh Shit!” circuit. When we expect something to happen and it does not, a distress signal is released from the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is closely wired to the thalamus, a dual-lobed mass of gray matter beneath the cerebral cortex that plays a critical role in awareness by helping direct conscious attention. Nothing grabs our attention better than the element (and emotion) of surprise. Advertisers do this best by interrupting expected patterns.
In addition, novelty primarily activates the dopamine system in our brain, which is responsible for wanting behavior. The dopamine system also has a close relationship with the opioid system of the brain, which produces pleasurable sensations. Since learning is so important to human survival it makes sense that natural selection has also instilled within us feel good emotional responses to novel stimuli.
For instance, the Old Spice brand completely transformed its old-fashioned image thanks to an infectious effort that was brimming with pattern interrupts. This campaign embedded a much cooler and contemporary brand image in the minds of people by introducing the world to the charismatic hunk Isaiah Mustafa, or “the man your man can smell like.”
The magic behind this amazingly impactful campaign is not just the smooth pitchman of Old Spice body wash, but the equally smooth interruptions. The introductory commercial featured a series of seamless transitional pattern interrupts as Isaiah directs the viewer’s attention from unsuspecting scene to scene. He goes from his bathroom, to dropping in on a sailboat, and finally ending up atop a horse. Our brains are surprised and delighted with a blast of dopamine and the pay out of attention again, again, and again. The decision to watch this ad is not a conscious choice. It is the neurobiological equivalent of a forced exposure. Not surprisingly, this campaign generated an amazing 1.4 billion media impressions and a 27% increase in sales during the first 6 months post launch.
Similarly, there are certain stimuli—such as babies, for example—that come prepackaged with positive emotional responses. We don’t consciously choose to find babies adorable. No more than we choose to feel the "aww" reaction that commandeers our thoughts or the impetus to post pictures all over Facebook. The decision to find babies so compelling has been made millions of years ago through evolution and natural selection. If our forbears were not instinctually compassionate towards these innocent helpless creatures, they would have never survived. And our DNA and species would eventually cease to exist.
So when ads add novel twists to these mini mush magnets, attention and engagement soars. Take for instance the computer-generated Evian babies on roller skates who break-danced and back-flipped their way to what the Guinness Book of World Records declared was the most viewed online ad in history. More recently, the most watched ad on YouTube in 2013 was another spot by Evian called “Baby & Me." This approach featured grown ups dancing while unexpectedly discovering their inner babies dancing in sync as their reflections in a mirror.
Just because you are aware of seeing an ad or buying a brand doesn’t mean you are aware of the unconscious forces that prompted you to do so. The only way to avoid the trap of becoming glued to these types of advertising is to become aware of the patterns. So much of today’s ads are based on interrupting patterns and generating deep primal emotions because our attention span is an increasingly rare resource. By becoming aware of these patterns your mind will intuitively learns to predict and ignore them in the future and you’ll gain back precious seconds of your busy life.
And remember to push the pause button in your mind and rationally contemplate what draws you to advertising and products in the first place. When it comes to buying brands we often don’t have free will, but we do have free won’t. We can’t help having the feelings tugging at our heartstrings and desires. But we can also rationally reject these suggestions come shopping time if it doesn’t make sense.
For more information check out my book: Unconscious Branding