The brain's take on magazine advertising - why does it work?
Heather Andrew, CEO of Neuro-Insight UK, explains the neuroscience behind the enduring popularity of magazines brands.
As the debate about the changing nature of content evolves to embrace the multitude of free digital experiences, it would be easy to overlook that 73% of the UK are reading a printed magazine every month for an average of 52 minutes and that these environments provide unique opportunities for advertising.
Research into subconscious responses to ads indicates that magazines actually offer a highly effective context for placing ads. At Magnetic's recent Spark North event I discussed how the brain responds to magazine reading, and why audiences are especially engaged by the medium.
This was clear when we created a study for Bauer Media to explore the engagement of readers with its Heat brand. We tested the actual brain responses of 180 women aged 18-34 to seeing, hearing and reading Heat across its four platforms - print mag, online, radio and TV. Respondents saw editorial content and advertising campaigns for a number of products.
The results showed that the Heat brand elicited strong responses across all four platforms. A significantly higher level of activity was seen in most brain regions when looking at the advertising campaigns within the Heat context, compared to multimedia campaigns across mixed media brands.
What our research uncovered was the beneficial effect of consistent branding in creating a 'brainstate' that was uniform across platforms, and this effect was driven by the overwhelming strength of the magazine brand.
These results are echoed by work done by our Australian division for Australian magazine publisher ACP (now part of Bauer). They tested responses of 200 women to the content and ads of 11 ACP titles. High levels of emotional engagement and memory encoding were detected as soon as our subjects began reading.
But what was really interesting for the purposes of this research was how, in a similar way to the Bauer study, the women were particularly engaged with advertising encountered in the context of a strong magazine brand.
So what's going on here? What it is about the unique media context of a magazine that makes its ads so well-received?
For an ad (or any piece of communication) to be memorable, and so to stand a chance of influencing behaviour, our brains need to allow it to become encoded into our long term memory. Many factors are involved in memory, but there are three key drivers that can boost the effectiveness of a campaign creative - emotion, narrative and personal relevance.
Emotion plays a hugely important role in our brains. In many ways our emotions perform now just as they did thousands of years ago, when remembering events that had a strong emotional impact, was linked to our survival.
Nowadays when we experience emotion, part of our brain is still programmed to remember this response because it indicates something big and important is going on. Advertising that elicits a strong emotional response - whether positive or negative is more likely to be remembered than ads that don't.
Narrative allows us to easily process a piece of communication by creating a structure that our brains can relate to and follow. (Our brains store away the information needed to make sense of what is going on). In advertising, this means that branding which is closely linked to an ad's narrative is more likely to be encoded into memory.
The third key driver of memory is personal relevance - put simply, we remember information which is relevant to our particular lives.
Magazines attract us because they tap into three drivers. More closely targeted than many other media, the skill of an editor is to boost this targeted effect by designing content which will tap into the target readers' emotions because it is personally relevant to them.
The effect is further enhanced by the power of context - which plays to the brain's need for narrative and structure.
If a piece of advertising is a good fit with the context in which it is being seen, its impact is all the greater. So a fashion ad in a fashion magazine is likely to attract more attention than the same fashion ad in, say, a national newspaper, even when it's seen by the same person.
Consumers' openness to magazine content is something quite unique in the media world. Our brains are wired to reject messages that are felt to be too intrusive.
Part of the brain called the Orbital Frontal Cortex protects us from being over-susceptible to what we see and hear, and this tends to put up a metaphorical 'shutter' in response to a hard sell.
This can effectively block over-intrusive advertising, however, it is likely to benefit magazines which are (generally) not perceived as a 'shouty' medium.
Our consumer neuro-research findings show that, particularly for advertisers who incorporate the three key drivers of memory encoding - emotion, narrative and personal relevance into their ad - and keep it subtle, magazines will continue to provide a positive context for brands to be communicated to and remembered by consumers.