The Public Relations Strategist

Tapping into the Subconscious to Guide Communications Strategies

January 11, 2013

By Dharol Tankersley, Ph.D., and Caitlin Kaluza

Recognizing that approximately 80 percent of purchasing decisions are made below the level of conscious awareness, the marketing community understands the value of scientific advances uncovering what drives the arousal and formation of preference.

Among the findings: People tend to say what they think sounds best or presents them in the most positive light, regardless of what they are actually thinking. And “thinking” often has little to do with people’s actions, since the subconscious mind is really steering the ship.

In order to capitalize on these findings, marketers are now applying methods originally developed for the medical field to address marketing challenges. They have established the discipline of “neuromarketing.”

Subconscious factors

Neuromarketing would not exist if traditional market-research techniques were reliable. However, as psychologist Tor Norretranders stated in his book “The User Illusion,” “During any given second, we consciously process only 16 of the 11 million bits of information our senses pass on to our brains. The conscious part of us receives much less information than the unconscious part.”

Therefore, we should be suspicious of answers subjects give when asked to explain their thoughts or behaviors. Doing so is inherently flawed for the following reasons:

  • “Social desirability bias” acts as an editor, making it difficult for respondents to answer honestly. Instead, respondents consistently answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others.
  • People are not really that in touch with their true motivations. For instance, few respondents admit that they are influenced by public relations or advertising, though their actions speak otherwise. But these respondents aren’t lying; they simply are not aware of the impact that PR and advertising has on their behavior through subconscious processes in the brain.

    We concoct rational, logical explanations for our behavior, even when none exist. As described by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, the role of “the interpreter” in the left hemisphere of the brain is to build theories about our life and establish a running narrative of our past behavior. If we don’t understand something, then we instantly rationalize a made-up explanation for it.
  • Most factors influencing our behavior are not conscious or rational. Therefore, surveys or focus groups that ask people what they think and how they behave can lead to incorrect conclusions and costly marketing decisions.

    Neuromarketing aims to be more effective than these traditional marketing measures by more accurately understanding people’s desires.

Neuromarketing basics

Neuromarketing can be broken into four categories of measurement.

  1. Biometrics/Physiology: Using biometrics, scientists measure heart rate, respiration, pupil dilation, skin conductivity (how much you sweat) and facial coding (studying small changes in facial expression) to assess arousal. Any communicator who wants to attract and hold someone’s attention will benefit from these measurements.
  2. Eye Tracking: When eye tracking is combined with other biometric measures, scientists can assess precisely where someone is looking.

    Nielsen used these techniques to determine that within seconds, website users scan a page in an F-shaped pattern to assess its value. No research has had a greater impact on how websites deliver information, and subsequently on how businesses design them in order to engage consumers.
  3. Electroencephalographic (EEG) Testing: By placing wires on a subject’s scalp, scientists can detect voltage changes beneath the skull that are emitted by neurons’ responses to messages and/or images. This can point to engagement of parts of the brain that we know can influence behavior.

    For instance, the orbitofrontal cortex is involved with preference formation. Greater activity in this area is often an indication of liking something more and possibly indicates a higher likelihood of purchasing.
  4. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI): As areas of the brain become more active, they use more oxygen, and this shows up on fMRI images. Because neuroscientists know that certain brain regions are involved in emotional states, fMRI can measure emotional response and engagement with a given product or communication.

    For example, it can show if the subject is interested. It can tell at what point in the communication they started becoming interested. It can show if they are in an engaging mode or disengaging mode.The insights gained from the use of fMRI may have a profound impact on communications disciplines in the years to come.

    Take nonprofits, for example: How can a nonprofit get attention for its cause and get someone involved? Researchers at Duke University using fMRI discovered that activation of a particular area of the brain can predict whether a person is more or less likely to exhibit altruistic behavior.

    Ultimately, the results suggested that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it. If your nonprofit is targeting people based only on their behavior, then you may be missing those who are most likely to lend a hand.

Brain-imaging techniques

Despite the significant advances in brain science and the recent leaps in understanding how various biometrics and brain activity can measure a person’s arousal, attention and emotional engagement, there is still a great deal of subjectivity involved in purchasing decisions.

Neuromarketing measurement can’t predict with certainty who is going to decide to reach out and put an item in a shopping cart. It takes more than mere arousal to get a consumer to prefer a product or decide to spend their hard-earned money on it.

Moreover, the data from neuromarketing research must be analyzed and interpreted. Brain waves can reveal that a subject pays attention to a message, is aroused by it and perhaps touched by it emotionally, but neuroscientists have to make backward inferences to come up with actionable marketing guidance.

Context can have a significant impact on the findings of any research. When you have someone wired with electrodes or strapped into an MRI machine, you are conducting tests in a strange environment. The smell of coffee and the sounds of dishes clinking might stimulate an appetite for breakfast at a diner; do these same sounds and smells stimulate appetite when the subject is squeezed into an fMRI scanner?

Brain-imaging techniques can be expensive, too, so large brands and media companies are primarily the ones that are using them. Over time, the public relations field can expect the insights gained to seep into everything, from whom we target to how, where and by whom information is presented. It will also affect the images selected, and the colors and sounds used.

Insights that people have gained from neuromarketing have already shaped the Web-browsing experience. It is likely to affect everything public relations practitioners do in the years to come. 

Dharol Tankersley, Ph.D., is a consultant, and Caitlin Kaluza manages corporate communications for Schipul – The Web Marketing Co.


Emily says:

It's great to read about the nonconscious in terms of Communication and PR.Another similar but unique approach is by analyzing personality traits in order to understand the true motivations of consumers.

Jan. 17, 2013

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