I wrote recently about why marketing people need to read more social science. Now I realize that I should have just made it about “science,” because Canadian psychologist Bruce Hood’s new book about neuroscience is also blowing my adman mind.
The Self Illusion is about how our brains construct a sense of “self” by making sense of our senses, memories, and interactions with others. It’s very interesting stuff because it challenges the very idea of who we think we are. Neat stuff, but what does it have to do with advertising?
In Chapter 3, Dr. Hood explains why babies can’t form coherent memories that can be accessed later in life. He says it’s because they have not yet developed the mental ability to put memories into narrative context. That is, they have no stories, only disconnected experiences. Then he explains:
In contrast, most of us can recall what we had for breakfast yesterday by actively reconstructing the event in our minds. That requires a different kind of memory, one that psychologists call episodic—it reflects the actual experience of remembering the episodes that punctuate our lives. Memories of those episodes are crucial for constructing the self story, and those that are particularly personal are known as autobiographical memories—those events that we can recall in which we are the main player.
What I find interesting about this is that it backs up the whole idea of storytelling in advertising. People who think they are immune to marketing wiles, and consider themselves completely rational consumers, would do well to read the book. It not only talks about the power of storytelling to help recall the past accurately, but also shows how our storytelling minds can be made to play tricks on us by making us think stories we heard actually happened to us.
Think about why video (formerly “television”) advertising is so powerful. If all we needed to make our purchasing decision was the basic facts about the product attributes, a simple classified-style print ad would do the job. But we are faced with so many brand choices, irrational notions creep into our heads about which brand makes us feel best. Since the 1950s, these brand experiences have been played out as micro-dramas on TV (and now the internet) in which characters we can identify with enact a little story that creates context for the product features or differentiators.
Dr. Hood states that parents who talk often with their young children about their experiences as toddlers can help those kids reconstruct some of their earlier memories by providing a narrative. But this can also be dangerous, because inaccurate storytelling leads to false memories. (Which is why kids make terrible court witnesses.)
Ads work the same way. Even adults can be subconsciously persuaded to personalize a marketing story to the point at which they don’t really know why they prefer Brand A over Brand B. They just do.
Back in the 1950s, big ad agencies employed psychiatrists to develop new ways to get inside people’s heads. But the most effective formula they came up with was the oldest one in the world: Just tell a great story that matters to people.
Storytellers have always been integral to human culture. At one time, they were the shamans in firelit caves, weaving the legends that explained hunting seasons, weather, and fertility that would eventually become the great myths of world religions. Today, they’re a bunch of men and women in boardrooms, creating the myth that McDonald’s is all about love, or the icon images that explain how Nike (the shoe, not the god) helps people achieve their best performance.
It’s not all bad, though. Those same storytelling skills can be used to help people make better decisions for their health and society as well.
That’s why the guy who brought you a chicken slave for Burger King:
Can turn around and use his powers for good:
Because whether you’re selling junk food or personal health, the craft is the same. And so is the brain you’re talking to.
Want help telling your story?
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]