MarketingData-Driven MarketingNeuromarketing: Why Fear Sells, Sex Doesn’t

Neuromarketing: Why Fear Sells, Sex Doesn't

A new book explores how marketers can make the most of our natural instincts.

    The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. –H.P. Lovecraft

Tell your 18-year-old niece who wants to get into advertising to skip the media and communications degree and study science and math instead. In last month’s column, I briefly mentioned “BusinessWeek” senior writer Stephen Baker’s new book, “The Numerati,” which introduces us to the mathematical gurus who are creating predictive algorithms to decipher our next move based on our data trail. It’s not hard to imagine, considering everything we do can be traced back to some electronic data pool that includes our credit card purchases, cell phone bills, and online browsing behavior. Someone once told me that if I wanted to understand a person’s values, all I needed to do was examine her credit card purchases. Try it with your own credit card statements, and see what you uncover about yourself.

Now another interesting book has come out that has convinced me that I need to go back to school. “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” by marketing wizard (and former ClickZ columnist) Martin Lindstrom, is based on a research project that Lindstrom conducted over three years. Lindstrom and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) technology to understand what happens in consumers’ brains as they are exposed to advertising and specific brands. This research falls under a body of marketing called neuromarketing.

“Neuromarketing,” a term coined by market research professor Ale Smidts in 2002, refers to a new field of marketing that explores consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli. According to Wikipedia’s description of neuromarketing:

    Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain, and electroencephalography (EEG) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one’s physiological state (heart rate, respiratory rate, galvanic skin response) to learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what part of the brain is telling them to do it.

In simple terms, neuromarketing looks at physiological responses that consumers have to advertising and brands to determine its effects and the likelihood if one will purchase a product. The consumers’ reactions will be specific to colors, tastes, sounds, and so on. The findings can help marketers create products and services that are more focused to the brain’s responses, the subconscious — not the conscious, rationale mind that is usually triggered in focus groups.

Lindstrom’s research is the largest compilation of neuromarketing data available, and the results are impressive and surprising. There are several main takeaways that link back to what it means to be a human being and our primal needs and associations:

  • Fear sells, sex doesn’t. Our primal instinct as human beings is to survive; therefore, fear and sex are key. Fear relates to our survival: Do I have enough to eat? Will I have enough money when I retire? Is that product safe? Sex relates to procreation. In this respect, Lindstrom claims that political fear-based advertising is effective because it taps into our primal concerns of survival. Sex-based advertising, however, overwhelms us physically, so all we take away is the sexual part and we disregard the brand associated with it.
  • Pass the cigarettes, please. Did you know that global cigarette smoking has increased 13 percent and that warning labels are part of the reason? In fact, Lindstrom’s findings suggested that the warning labels stimulate the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain that increases cravings. Tobacco companies have actually been able to increase sales even though cigarette advertising has been banned in most countries.
  • Forget product placements. This is a hard one to swallow, but according to the research 99 percent of product placements are completely ineffective. What about the 1 percent? The only effective product placements integrate into the content in a completely meaningful way. Here’s a way to test it out: if your brand can be replaced with any other brand and it wouldn’t make any difference, your sponsorship or product placement is probably a waste of money. However, if the addition or removal of your brand would affect the environment’s context, you’re probably on the right track. Think of “American Idol.” AT&T is a good integration, Coca-Cola is ok, but Ford isn’t good at all.
  • Logos are meaningless. In many cases, it’s preferable to not even have a logo on your advertising.
  • Advertising agencies should hire rabbis, priests, and imams as consultants. Lindstrom claims that strong brands are like religions and how a Catholic feels when viewing an image of the Virgin Mary is how a brand evangelist feels when experiencing his brand affinity. Brands should try to create rituals that are similar to religious rituals. Think about green bean casserole and Thanksgiving. The two are so connected that one of the key ingredients, French Fried Onions, probably wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for this holiday and the classic American dish.

Lindstrom states that by the time we reach age 66, most of us will have seen approximately 2 million television commercials. As my five-year-old niece would say, “That’s a lot of commercials.” As a result, we all have the attention span of a 3 year old and the retention span of a 70 year old. As marketers, we must explore new strategies to reach our consumers on a personal, innate level that they will respond to physiologically and in some cases will have us saying, “Out with the new, in with the old.”

For those interested, WNYC’s Leonard Lopate conducted an interview with Martin Lindstrom, which can be found on the station’s Web site.

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