Memories are made of this
By Denise Turner, Insight Director, Newsworks
There are many theories about how advertising works, but essentially they boil down to one simple principle: advertising is there to introduce people to brands, so that when they come to buy in a particular category, they remember your brand.
So far, so good. It’s not that simple in practice. Human beings – and their memories – are complex.
Take the story of Henry Gustav Molaison. Born in 1926, he suffered from severe epilepsy, which got worse over time, so that by the age of 27 he was unable to work. He was referred to an eminent neurosurgeon, who suggested surgery to remove the part of Henry’s brain that was causing his seizures. This was major and experimental surgery, but Henry was so incapacitated by his epilepsy that he agreed to undergo the procedure.
Whilst the surgery was successful in stopping his seizures, it left Henry unable to form new memories. So whilst he still had memories from before the surgery and knew how to walk, talk, eat, ride a bike and so on, he could not remember anything from more than 15 seconds ago.
Despite all this, Henry lived until the grand old age of 82. The unexpected results of his surgery made him the most important patient in the history of brain science and memory research. He was studied by a team of neuroscientists for more than 50 years, yet he could not remember their names or their experiments.
When Henry died in 2008, his brain was removed and scanned repeatedly using MRI. After that, scientists sliced his brain into 2,401 pieces, each just 70 micrometres (millionths of a metre) thick. Their aim was to map the brain in new ways and connect individual anatomical structures with specific functions.
The story of patient HM, as Henry was known in neuroscience circles, demonstrates just how complex, and important memory is. Memory is a mix of both the conscious and the subconscious; people are not always explicitly aware of memories being formed. This has some significant implications for how the advertising industry proves that advertising works, and more specifically, how advertising memories are surfaced in research. We all know that people don’t always just see or hear an ad and then immediately buy the product. There is often a process, a journey to purchase, influenced by many different things (and with great variability across categories).
Whilst traditional advertising research can help, asking people is not enough. People are not always good witnesses to their own behaviour. How often have you been in a focus group where people have claimed not to be influenced by advertising, yet can often cite ads in great detail?
Finding ways of getting round conscious responses is of paramount importance. The neuroscience techniques used to research Henry Molaison’s brain are increasingly being applied to advertising. Using neuroscience can help us to better understand what’s happening in the brain when people are exposed to ads, so that brands can boost their influence in the future. It can also shed light on where is best to place communications for brands.
In a world of limitless choice, does it still matter where ads appear? The growth of audience targeting and programmatic implementation has seemingly downgraded the importance of environment, shifting towards buying audience exposures as the lowest possible cost. But is this resulting in reduced impact, influence and performance?
Imagine for a moment, some scenarios: Beyoncé opening her world tour at The Half Moon pub in Putney; Neymar kicking off the new football season at Grimsby town? It’s just not going to happen.
Yet some brands today seem intent to behave in a similar fashion, ignoring the importance of context in the digital world and appearing in environments that lack relevance, and in some instances, are inappropriate. It’s not just about eliminating bad environments though – it’s vital that we accentuate the positive and place brands in strongly supportive quality environments that will enhance and amplify their message.
Newsworks recently conducted a study in conjunction with Neuro-Insight to investigate digital context. Using neuroscience they were able to understand more about people’s brain responses when they see the same advertising in different environments, specifically quality editorial and social media environments.
The results indicate that context and environment have a significant impact on how ads are processed and acted upon. The good news for advertisers is that quality editorial sites and social media sites elicit complementary response patterns – social media provide a holistic, visual, overall brand impression; while quality stimulates high levels of left brain memory encoding (detail) and engagement (personal relevance). Even better news, both quality sites and social media outperform general free browsing. So, it’s worth paying attention to where ads appear, as well as the audience brands want to target.
If brands are to cut through the noise of the digital world, then they need to focus on creating memories that last, something that the lovely Henry Molaison was unable to do after his surgery. Brands achieve success by drawing on advertising memories.