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The neuroscientists are coming (and I don’t mind)

03 Apr 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
The neuroscientists are coming (and I don’t mind)

Some people argue neuroscience is turning ad creativity into a manipulative, painting-by-numbers game, but Dominic Mills only sees more effective advertising. Plus: Grey plays gesture politics.

Last week I was invited to the Neuromarketing World Forum, a two-day gathering of neuro boffins in London.

My first reaction was: who knew such a thing existed? Who knew there was a tribe of neuroscientists who specialised in advertising and marketing?

Answer: not many, because the Forum has only been going for five years. And you can tell because, unusually for the type of conference I attend, agency people were thin on the ground, as were media owners. There were, however, a smattering of clients - I counted Tesco, Coca-Cola, Red Bull and a few others.

But there were tons of neuroscientists and market researchers. They were a truly global bunch - I heard French accents, Spanish, American, Israeli, Dutch and yes, even a few British ones.

What they represent is the collision of academia with the world of marketing - a new frontier. I assume the scientists are attracted to it because a) it’s intrinsically fascinating b) it’s more fun than, say, researching psychopaths and c) it’s a potentially lucrative market where it’s a damn sight easier to get money out of corporate marketing budgets than it is to find academic and research money.

You can see how these different worlds are coming together by looking at the job titles of some of the speakers. Take Dr Hilke Plassmann (speciality: marketing placebos), who is both an associate professor of marketing at INSEAD and linked to the brain and spine unit at the Sorbonne.

I first wrote about the appliance of neuroscience to advertising three years ago, but it seems to me that more recently, as the scientists have approached the ad industry, so the ad industry has opened up to their particular offering.

One delegate told me that, whereas agencies used to resist neuroscience on the grounds that it had nothing to offer them (meaning they were scared of it), now they can see its use. She said that two UK agencies now regularly came to her to test their ads, and the likes of Millward Brown, Neilsen and Ipsos employ their own pet neuro boffins.

So while the fit between neuroscience and advertising is still new, it’s coming.

So where does it fit in our world? In a nutshell, I suppose, it’s about understanding attention, engagement, stimulation and motivation. Ah, you say, isn’t that what advertising has always been about? Yes, but up to now it’s been down to a combination of gut feel, experience, (educated) guesswork and quasi-science.

Take Procter and Gamble, which turned to Professor Rafal Ohme to find out why its bid in 2010 to crack the market for deodorants that also moisturised not only died, but increased sales of Dove.

Dear old P&G took an entirely rational approach to both creating the product, combining its existing Secrets brand with Olay, well known for its moisturising qualities, and advertising it. At the time, this was typical P&G. Flog the hell out of the scientific rationale, and carpet bomb the consumer with TV.

When it failed, Ohme wired up some consumers with headsets and found that even though their brains were activated by the Olay moisturising message, they still chose Dove. The reason: in their heads, they sub-consciously associated Dove with moisturising, and so by pushing moisturising it was pushing consumers to Dove. The more P&G advertised Secrets with Olay, the more Dove sales rose. Rationality and repetition didn’t cut through the implicit associations.

Ohme didn’t say, but I wonder whether this setback hasn’t had a profound influence on P&G advertising, which is now much less explicitly rational - just look at the wonderful Old Spice ads from a few years ago - and much more implicitly emotional.

One advertiser that now worships at the altar of neuroscience is Coke. You can see its influence on its latest offering, ‘Pool Boy’, below.

It’s a classic Coke offering; son and daughter lust after the pool boy (yes, it’s thoroughly modern in its approach to sexuality...but where’s Dad?) and rush to offer him an ice-cold drink. Only they find Mum’s got there first.

According to Adam Palenicek, Coke’s western Europe insight manager, it uses neuroscience to understand the non-conscious processing of ads on a second-by-second basis, and thus maximise emotional engagement. All the body gizmos are used: EEG, bio-metrics, eye-tracking and face-tracking.

Thus in ‘Pool Boy’, Coke incorporated the following: product sips work better than product shots; shorter sips are better than longer ones; sips are from a full bottle, not an empty one; get the first sip in early; longer scenes work better than shorter ones (too much brain processing trying to figure out what’s going on); slower rather than faster; more light, less dark.

Now some people might be horrified by this. They’ll argue it turns creativity into a painting-by-numbers game; that it commoditises the creative art; that it encourages uniformity; that it dehumanises; or that is dark, manipulative and devious.

Me, I don’t mind it so much. If it makes ads better, if it forces advertisers to focus on emotion and bin their prejudices, I’m ok with it. And rather than acting as a dehumanising force, by uncovering our real, sub-conscious, feelings it does the opposite.

Grey plays gesture politics

So Grey London has rebranded itself as Valenstein & Fatt in a bid to promote diversity.


There’s a rationale. The New York founders of Grey were one Lawrence Valenstein and Arthur Fatt. Faced by anti-Semitism, agency history has it, they branded their agency by the dullest name they could think of.

As Grey celebrates its centenary, and as the UK exits Europe, the London agency has decided to do it its bit for diversity and tolerance by re-invoking the names of its founders. Good for them, you might think, especially as the name change is accompanied by a series of initiatives - working with schools, mentoring 50 students, and setting up a bursary scheme for two interns. The detail is here.

Great, except that the name change will last just 100 days. After that, Valenstein & Fatt will be consigned to history.

To me, it’s a bit like the carnivore who, worried about the proliferation of methane gas, gives up burgers for Lent. Or the passer-by who witnesses an accident. “Can I help?”, they ask as the paramedics rush around. Answer comes there none, so with relief they fade back into the crowd.

The name change is a PR-generating gesture. If Grey was serious, if it was committed, it would make the change permanent.

Imagine, on day 101, a new client coming into the agency. “Didn’t you used to be Valenstein & Fatt?”, they say.

“Er, yes,” the Grey apparatchik replies. “But it was only a temporary thing. We didn’t really mean it.”

“Hmm...”, the client wonders...” is that the kind of agency I really want?”.

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