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Why Adland Needs to Think Smarter About Neuroscience


When it comes to psychology, don’t be a brain-dead zombie, says Laura Swinton

Why Adland Needs to Think Smarter About Neuroscience

The advertising and marketing community harbours a greater obsession with brains than a shuffling horde of zombies. Behavioural economics, consumer psychology and neuromarketing fills up column inches in the trade press and seminar schedules on the merry-go-round of industry conferences. But a recently published study suggests that adlanders might want to think a bit more carefully about the brainy bandwagon.

In the quest to create ever more effective advertising – and flog ideas to increasingly tight-fisted marketing managers – psychology is often treated as a panacea. Pretty brain scans, impressive-looking professorial types and lots and lots of numbers are an easier sell than something so intangible and flowery as a good bloody idea. But when the science is poorly understood by those wielding it or, worse, twisted beyond recognition by those who should know better, it can prove more placebo than panacea.

I’ve written before about the shoddy ‘science’ deployed by some in the ad industry (the infuriating left brain/right brain misunderstanding and the inexplicable persistence of Myers Briggs personality tests A recently published study from the Open Science Collaboration showed that less than half of psychology experiments published in reputable journals stood up to replication – suggesting that even the most diligently carried out studies should be treated with care.

The thing is, I’ve noticed, is that agencies that want to back their work or pitches up with psychology tend to be after hard-and-fast, universal rules. Only, psychology doesn’t quite work like that. In experimental methodology, as many variables as possible are controlled so that the experiment can be replicated by other researchers. However, replicating other peoples’ studies is pretty unsexy and unlikely to advance one’s academic career and so it’s hard to see which studies unearth a consistent ‘rule’ and which are less ground-breaking.

When I was studying psychology, the word ‘proof’ was akin to a swear word. Unfortunately ‘the incremental and non-linear accumulation of knowledge’ is a bit less sexy when you’re trying to sell something into a client. And when a study appears to back up your latest strategy it probably doesn’t pay to look too closely at the methodology and statistics used or search toooo hard for counter-arguments. It also doesn’t do to clog up beautifully designed pitch decks with all those pesky caveats, I guess. 

Despite the growth of effectiveness awards, the industry has a sloppy, messy relationship with the concept of ‘evidence’. Believe or not but when researchers are submitting their latest study to Nature, they need to be a lot more detailed than a three minute case study video and some guff about YouTube numbers (crazy, right?). It’s easy, then, to be impressed and intimidated by ‘real scientists’, though science is as much about doubting and questioning as it is about uncovering the truth of things. Doubt more, think harder and try to prove yourself wrong.

I get that people are hungry to share sexy findings on social media or with clients – everyone in the ad industry is trying to position themselves as ‘TED speaker-in-waiting’. But if you can muster a bit of patience and dig a bit deeper you might find your sprinkling of neuro-glitter works that little bit harder for you. Plus you’re less likely to come across as a brain-dead, brain-hungry zombie. So there’s that.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 02 Sep 2015 16:08:42 GMT