Neuroscience is great, but advertising needs more rule-breakers

Graham Fowles
(FILES) Undated file photo showing skull
The new quickly becomes convention, and convention constantly needs to be broken (Source: Getty)

As a species, humans hate uncertainty and love rules. When it comes to the big questions in life, such as “why are we here?”, history shows that we’d far rather make something up, or at the very least develop a theory, than simply admit to ignorance. Uncertainty is a disquieting feeling.

However much we might feel like free spirits individually, as soon as we gather together we start making rules. Some rules form almost organically, like standing on the right-hand side of an Underground escalator. Others are written formally into law.

Now we’ve new rules to take the uncertainty out of making TV advertising. By measuring brain responses to 150 ads, neuroscience research company Neuro-Insight has established six links between advertising and long-term memory encoding. The findings certainly seem to make sense. For example: music is important; the ethnicity of actors has no impact on memory encoding; and the hard-sell is rarely effective.

However, two problems arise from this attempt to codify the components of a memorable TV ad. Firstly, an understanding of the rules doesn’t make the really tricky part of creating spots any easier. And secondly, widespread adoption of these rules would weaken the relationship between those rules and memorable advertising.

Successful TV campaigns solve a paradox, in that they are consistently distinctive. There is a consistency to them over time that makes them recognisable. And yet each spot needs to be both distinctive from its predecessor and everything else in the ad break. From Stella Artois’s reassuringly expensive work through to Aleksandr the Meerkat, the common characteristic of truly outstanding campaigns is that they solve the consistent/distinctive paradox.

Advertising doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists relative to the wider trends in popular culture, and each campaign is viewed in the immediate context of others. So if advertisers were all to follow the same rules, we could reasonably expect homogeneity, not distinctiveness. The research finding that the ethnicity of actors makes no difference to memorability is probably a consequence of the fact that most advertisers are making use of ethnic minorities to reflect the diversity of their customers, and not to challenge stereotypes. But to cast minorities in unexpected roles could certainly be memorable. In fact, each of the six rules could successfully be broken to achieve distinctiveness.

Advertising needs rule-breakers. Because the new quickly becomes convention, and convention constantly needs to be broken.

In fairness to Thinkbox, who commissioned the research, they readily concede that there is no recipe for successful TV advertising. However, it might not be in the industry’s interest to suggest to clients that there might be.

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