The Advertised Mind: Ground-Breaking Insights into How Our Brains Respond to Advertising

by Erik du Plessis, Millward Brown Johannesburg

Book review by Mark Truss, JWT. Reproduced with kind permission of the Journal Of Advertising Research

As the rate of understanding about human physiology increases, old paradigms and models are getting tossed out at an increasingly exponential rate. In the past five years, this process has been most apparent (with the possible exception of human genetics) in the area of human brain function. And unlike other areas of human advancement, the implications for this new understanding are rattling practitioners far beyond the fields of medicine.

Erik du Plessis - CEO of Millward Brown South Africa - has penned a comprehensive, yet cohesive and coherent history of the understanding of the human brain, the human mind, and how it all relates to advertising and marketing. In this journey, du Plessis covers an immense amount of material and builds a strong case for a new model of how the human mind reacts to advertising, focusing on the key role played by emotion.

Du Plessis begins by discussing how sensory information (input) gets interpreted in the brain. Here he echoes the theme recently articulated by Gerald Zaltman of "co-creation" - that "incoming stimulus can only be interpreted by recall of the information required for interpretation from long-term memory" (p. 32).

He supports this idea with a fascinating explanation of the physiological process of what actually happens in the brain, explaining that as an input reaches the brain (a brand logo, a word, an image, etc.), one (or more) neurons fire, and this neuron then attempts to "recruit" other neurons based on previously established links between them. Some of these newly recruited neurons also look to establish new connections. The process continues "until the system settles into a 'neuronal cloud' or reverberating... neurons."

Imagine that you hear the words "The Ultimate Driving Machine." Those who have heard this phrase before may immediately conjure in their minds the image of a BMW, which then may conjure the image of what a BMW's driver looks like, then perhaps Germany, then perhaps the Autobahn, then perhaps wealth, etc. The process may continue with connections to new ideas, or stop at some that are deemed irrelevant to the original stimulus. The more experience someone has with BMWs, the more connections might take place. Or perhaps the phrase "The Ultimate Driving Machine" has been so keenly crafted and consistent over the years that the resulting memory connections are fairly small and contained.

Du Plessis then adds that "It is typical... that the (neurons) that started the process are not part of the final cloud of reverberating (neurons). It is also typical for the resultant cloud of reverberating neurons to contain a lot more neurons than were involved in the firing at the beginning of the process" (p. 48). Or said another way, the advertising message that an advertiser believes a consumer is taking away may not in fact be what the consumer ultimately takes away.

Further on the topic of "co-creation," du Plessis suggests that the likelihood of these neurons connecting to other neurons is determined by past experience, or the number of times in the past that these two neurons have connected. This suggests that consistency and frequency of message play an important role in what the consumer ultimatelytakes away from the communication.

"Learning" suggests that once something has gained our attention, we actually remember it and commit it to long-term memory. Du Plessis focuses on the processes of "incidental learning," that is, "the kind of learning that involves our just happening to acquire a memory, or knowledge" such as when we watch a television advertisement, as opposed to purposefully studying for an exam. While little material exists regarding how "incidental learning" takes place, du Plessis points out that there is no evidence to suggest that the actual mechanism of learning in the human mind is any different from the process where one purposefully studies for an exam, an area where there is much material.

The book provides compelling cases and experiments that illustrate that "learning" has a lot to do with repetition. In effect, "learning" is neural memory - reinforcing the connections between neurons in the brain - whether it's a guitarist "learning" the fingering of a song by repetition, a first-grader "learning" the alphabet by repeating the alphabet song, or a consumer "learning" what a brand is about by hearing and seeing consistent brand messages that emotionally engage them.

The core of du Plessis’ argument begins to take shape in his discussions of "emotion". He acknowledges that, like beauty, emotions are easy to spot but difficult to define, and so turns to Oatley and Jenkins (1995) for a summary of what an emotion is: "The major step forward for science, is that a necessary condition for an emotion is the change in readiness for action" (p.84). Or articulated another way, emotion is the starting point, not the end point.

This is a radical game changer for many advertising practitioners, and likely to be debated and (quite possibly) ignored for a time, as is often the case with paradigm shifts. To hammer the idea home, du Plessis further offers from Oatley and Jenkins (1995, p. 84): Advertising does not first get attention, and then create an emotion. Advertising creates an emotion, which results in attention.

Du Plessis dutifully points out the stubborn misperceptions about the relationship between the "emotional" mind and the "rational" mind. Referencing the famous work Descartes Error by Antonio Damasio (1994), he pleads with readers to accept that the old concept of left brain/right brain (rational/emotional) is wrong. The error of Rene Descartes was in thinking that the emotional and rational parts of the brain are divided and opposed, whereas Damasio argues that in fact they work together - a notion supported by learning in 2005 by the ARF Emotional Response Study.

Damasio argues further that not only do the two functions work together, but emotion is in the driver's seat and generally informs decisions that people make. Rational arguments tend to be post-justifications of emotive decision making.

Du Plessis offers scientific support for this notion by explaining that, "There are more dendrites (synaptic connections) leading from the limbic area (emotive area) in the brain towards the frontal lobes (rational area) than there are... leading the other way" (pp. 89-90). However objective we believe we are being when making decisions, the emotional context colors and in many cases determines the decision we make. Spend some time debating highly emotional topics like religion or politics with someone and see how far you get with rational arguments.

Think back to advertisements you've seen on TV. Which ones can you remember best, nearly scene for scene, some years later? Do you remember the advertisements that blasted loud music, bright colors, or some other attention grabbing technique at you? Or do you tend to remember those that spoke to you on an emotional level and stuck a chord with you, like the famous "Mean Joe Green" spot for Coke, or "Wassup?" spot for Budweiser?

Impact for Advertising
While du Plessis’ presentation of the science is intriguing and quite interesting, tying the science to advertising is where he lays down the gestalt of his new model (p. 107): Emotion in advertising is important in getting our attention. And what we pay attention to gets remembered. And what we have paid attention to and remembered in the past, makes us more likely to pay attention to in the future. But, for an advertisement to be noticed and remembered is not enough. The advertisement still has to shape the consumers' buying habits, and in order to do that, must transfer the positive emotional response from the advertisement to the brand, product, or service.

Think about MasterCard's "Priceless" campaign. These spots created strong emotional resonance with consumers, stayed consistently "on-message" over the years, and created an almost continuing series that people couldn't help but watch each time a new execution aired. It made people pay attention, because they remembered it, because it caught their attention long ago, because it resonated with them on an emotional level.

Du Plessis rounds out the second half of the book with some high altitude explorations of marketing theories and how his new model might impact different aspects of the marketing world. While they certainly provide interesting reading (and essential reading for the uninitiated), I kept finding myself drifting off, pondering the implications of the earlier learning on my own business and the industry at large, and what I need to do differently as a result of it.

The Advertised Mind is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the confluence of brain science and marketing, or interested in having a job in the advertising industry anytime in the next 10 years.

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About the author

Mark Truss
Director of brand intelligence
JWT New York
Related information

The Advertised Mind - Cover