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How Brands Addict Us

It's done through through broken promises and spikes of dopamine

There’s a reason why marketers spend billions of dollars on advertising every year. It works! That’s because humans, and by extension, all consumers, are wired for the joys of anticipation more so than the pleasures of actual experience. It is this electricity of outlook more so than the pleasure of product that drives our desires to buy more and more.

As the brilliant scholar and best-selling author Robert Wright reveals in his latest book Why Buddhism is True, “Natural Selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.” In other words, our satisfying feelings evolved not for our enjoyment, but rather for the survival of ourselves, and our DNA. This is why it should come as no surprise that we possess fanatical emotional devotion for activities involving food and sex.

Wright points to a seminal research study wherein scientists monitored dopamine-generating neurons of monkeys as they were administered sweet drops of juice. As expected there was a release of dopamine when the juice made contact with the monkeys’ tongues. The experimenters then trained the monkeys through classical conditioning to anticipate the arrival of the juice after turning on a light. As the researchers continued, again and again, to associate the turning on of the light with the imminent arrival of the juice, they found that more and more dopamine was being generated in anticipation of the juice, and less and less came after the monkeys actually tasted its sweetness.

It’s not a leap of faith to see how these findings might play out in consumer markets. As advertisers invest more heavily in sales promotion and advertising, consumers become more and more addicted to new pleasurable ‘goods’. As Wright says, “If you encounter a new kind of pleasure—if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it—you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in. But later, once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it…”

Consumer decision-making is about making anticipatory judgments, and our brain does this largely through the release of dopamine. This “gimme more” neurotransmitter is responsible for wanting, craving, and motivating us to do nearly everything, including sex, drugs, gambling, playing video games, even shopping, and yes, bingeing on doughnuts. The dopamine system also has a close relationship with the opioid system of the brain, which produces pleasurable sensations.

The neuroscientist Read Montague demonstrated that merely seeing a Coke label was enough to activate the brain’s pleasure centers without even taking a sip, by elevating the levels of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical produced by the brain that signals feelings of reward. The way we plan future behavior is based upon present feelings that signal future expectations: The more rewarding it feels, the more likely we are to engage in that activity.

Dopamine is also the feel-good “drug” of anticipation. We do not need to experience the product to get the rush of dopamine. We only need to imagine and anticipate it in our minds by activating our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that lets us envision future possibilities. Montague’s team used magnetic resonance imaging of the brain to fairly accurately predict participants’ preferences before they would even take a sip! “We were stunned by how easy this was,” Montague said. “I could tell what they were going to do by looking at their brain scans.”

Dopamine is also the chemical responsible for making value judgments that guide decisions. This choice just “feels better” than the other choice. Preference and enjoyment of Coke is derived from not just the sweet taste but also the “sweet” emotions. Marketers are in the business of selling good feelings. And when we are exposed to a logo or an ad again and again, we become conditioned in a Pavlovian sense to enjoy the brand independent of the product itself. We love the brand, not just the sugary, effervescent liquid.

Advertisers lean into this human truth by focusing their efforts on what is known in the industry as ‘The Brand Promise’, more so than the actual product. As a result, they often spend far more on marketing the brand than developing the product. It is this ‘Brand Promise’ to consumers that is at the centerpiece of the marketing strategy and campaign.

If we borrow from Robert Wright’s powdered doughnut analogy, we can imagine how this line of thinking might play out in-market as we’re increasingly conditioned and triggered through media exposure. As Wright points out, “The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise – or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising. To the extent that you bought the promise – anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself – you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.”

Now it is important to note that it is evolution that it is doing the “misleading” here in the first place and not (necessarily) the advertisers. The marketers are leveraging the way consumption happens and advertising works by spending a great deal of money in the ads and media that facilitate market share growth, one dopamine spike at a time. But is that the way forward?

Now that you know how the ad game really works, you can also resist buying into the temptation of (over) promise, by focusing more of your attention on how the product actually delivers. And when you buy into a brand that really over promises and under delivers you can vote with your wallet next go 'round, and take to social media to inform your peers, and vice versa. The more and more we judge brands and write reviews based on product experience, the more consumers can convince marketers (for a change) to spend their millions on developing better products as opposed to creating better ads.