This Ain’t Brain Science — or
Is It?


We all know advertising isn’t rocket surgery. But what if it turns out to be brain science?

In his book “Descartes’ Error,” neurobiologist Antonio Damasio takes a shot at the famed philosopher, claiming that reason and emotion are not separate, distinct things. Rather, Damasio argues, emotions are a central part of our decision-making process.(His theory is called the Somatic-Marker Hypothesis, and it’s available online if you’re looking for a bit of light reading — or something to discuss with your seatmate on your next cross-country flight.)

Since Damasio’s book came out, publications like The Atlantic and Psychology Todayhave put forth articles about the varied roles of emotions. (“Like it or not, emotions will drive the decisions you make today,” Marie C. Lamia declares ominously.*)

What does this mean for advertisers?

Well, if you’ve ever had a gut feeling that you wanted to drive a Maserati more than a Pinto, you’ve got some idea. But it’s not as simple as telling people that happiness arrives in the form of a truckload of Coca-Cola. (PS: It does.) Ads can draw on a host of other emotions.

Tim, for example, is feeling pretty sad about the fact that everything he touches turns to Skittles. 

And the protagonist of this classic “Got Milk?” spot despairs over his lack of that very thing.

The Starbucks “Glen” spot uses humor (and an aging rock band) to memorable effect:

And, finally, in “Piñata,” a man rages over the fact that he looks like a piñata … and has to buy his Skittles downstairs like everybody else.

Why are these spots successful? Because they attach specific somatic markers to a brand in a memorable fashion. So the next time you recall that brand, your brain relives that particular emotional experience — for better or worse.

In this way, neurologists like Damasio tell us that emotions actually help our decision-making: Rather than misguiding or distracting us, our feelings can help inform us as we make choices. And studies have shown that provoking an emotional response to an advertisement is twice as effective as parlaying facts and information — and even that might be an understatement.

So whether you make people feel ecstatic, amazed, surprised or full of rage — make them feel something, and your campaign will be more effective for it. But don’t just take our word for it; we’ve got science to back us up.


* Calm down, Marie.