Is neuromarketing making you crazy?

It's hot! It's new! And we've done it for years.

Seems as if every lab with a functional magnetic resonance imaging gizmo has decided that probing consumers' reactions to beer commercials is more fun than finding cures for neurological diseases. The fad has led to several books (most notably Neuromarketing by Patrick Renvoisé and Christophe Morin and Buy•ology by Martin Lindstrom), articles in everything from Advertising Age to The Wall Street Journal and billions of pixels' worth of online buzz.

Their key finding? Your brain is a turducken.

A turducken? Yep. That Cajun Thanksgiving treat: a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. (Get yours at,, or

In the case of your brain, it's an outer brain stuffed with a middle brain stuffed with an inner brain. (The folks with the fMRIs call them the human brain, the mammalian brain and the reptilian brain.)

Although it's vastly more complex than this oversimplification, essentially the outer (human) brain functions primarily in the realm of thought, the middle (mammalian) brain deals mainly with emotion and the inner (reptilian) brain is all about instinct.

The deeper into the cranial turducken a marketing appeal goes, the more powerful it is.

The reptilian brain is extremely difficult to reach with marketing communications. That's "fight or flight" territory, and a thirty-second TV spot or a web page can seldom penetrate that deeply into the brain. In the rare instances in which they do, the appeal is almost always a negative/avoidance message. And also enormously – almost irresistibly – powerful.

Perhaps the most famous commercial to work at the reptilian brain level was DDB's "Daisy" spot for Lyndon Johnson (
click here to view). The commercial triggered a survival instinct response that made the audience afraid to vote for Barry Goldwater. The commercial functioned effectively at the reptilian brain level because it used images and sound, to which the reptilian brain responds, to deliver the message. Since the reptilian brain evolved long before language capabilities and reasoning developed, words and logic are not effective down at that most primitive brain level.

The mammalian brain is the sweet spot for marketing communications. Any reasonably adept practitioner of the craft of persuasion can tickle the neurons at the mammalian level and trigger an emotion to generate a strong response.

Unlike the reptilian brain, which responds predominantly in the negative/avoidance mode, the mammalian brain responds to both negative/avoidance an positive/attraction stimuli.

One enduring example of effective mammalian brain marketing communications is the Coca-Cola campaign that has endured from the 1950s to the present (with a few unfortunate lapses).

The iconic exemplars of the campaign were the McCann-Erickson's "Hilltop" and "Mean Joe Green" commercials and Creative Artist Agency's "Northern Lights" spot. Several remakes of "Hilltop" were insipid failures, but the polar bear from "Northern Lights" has been extended in numerous executions and is likely to reappear this holiday season, 15 years after its 1993 inception.

Music is an especially effective way to generate emotion in the mammalian brain. "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony evokes awe. "Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" stimulates playfulness. Minor key tends to engender poignancy, major key happiness. Up-tempo is joyful or excited, slow can be sad.

Perhaps most powerful of all musical emotional triggers is familiar music – especially from the target audience's teens and twenties. Listeners identify with music they heard in their adolescence and early adulthood. That's why Cadillac used Led Zep's "Rock and Roll" and Microsoft launched Windows 95 with the Stones' "Start Me Up." It's a quick, effective way of establishing an emotional connection.

The human brain is the one to aim at if you're marketing to Vulcans. But, despite the name, not so much if you're marketing to humans. We're just not that rational a species. At least when it comes to being motivated and persuaded.

At the beginning of the television era, appeals to the human brain – the cerebral cortex – worked. The formula for a successful :60 black-and-white TV spot was to offer a problem, a product benefit that overcame the problem and a supporting reason why the product provided the benefit. As in:

Problem: Headache?

Benefit: Anacin fights headache pain fast.

Reason why: Because Anacin is like a doctor's prescription. It contains not just one, but a combination of medically-proven ingredients.

That linear, logical, word-based exposition worked remarkably effectively at the time. It was the apogee of rationally-based, human-brain selling that had been the norm since the beginnings of modern advertising a couple of centuries earlier.

It's not surprising that modern advertising originally appeared in rational, word-based terms. The medium available to carry advertising was print. The target audience was reading a newspaper or periodical when they saw advertisements, so it was natural (and effective) for ads to reflect the tone and style of the medium in which they appeared. At first there weren't many illustrations, so words alone had to do the selling job.

Even radio – despite the addition of music and the possibilities of "theater of the mind" experiences – was a predominantly verbal medium. But music, mainly in the form of jingles, began to add an emotional element to the marketing communications message.

Early television was radio with pictures – often pictures of people standing at microphones and speaking or singing. But in the '60s, agencies realized the possibilities of connecting on an emotional level through visuals. The White Knight and his suggestive lance powerfully zapped dirt for Ajax Laundry Detergent, and Mr. Clean, the brand avatar, protectively eliminated drudgery. Overtly and primitively Freudian though these campaigns were, they created immediate and substantial sales increases. And they were a harbinger of a migration from human brain to mammalian brain in marketing communications.

Of course human brain marketing communications is still a factor. It's the norm in trade magazine advertising, a lot of consumer retail advertising and even some television spots. And it has made a resurgence in many web-based campaigns, although the web's switch to video may presage the same paradigm shift that occurred in television fifty years ago.

The mammalian/human brain combination is tremendously powerful. Decisions which are not triggered instinctively/reflexively in the reptilian brain frequently bounce back and forth between the mammalian and human brains, so messages which resonate positively with both reason and emotion are significantly more effective than those which rely on just one mode of information processing.

The TBWA/Media Arts Lab "Mac versus PC" campaign is a brilliant example of a combined rational/emotional sell. The Mac avatar, actor Justin Long, is likable, contemporary and hip. He's helpful and friendly to the poor, dorky PC character played by humorist John Hodgeman. The Mac persona creates a strong empathetic bond with audiences worldwide (except in Japan). And in expressing sympathy for the lame PC, the Mac character makes clear the rational superiority of Mac over PC – usually in the guise of trying to help his inept competitor. The recent "Bean Counter" spot is a masterpiece. (Click here to view.)

There's much more to the brain and the way it works than the simplified turducken we've outlined here. (The amygdala and ventral striatum are two of our favorite spots to stimulate on behalf of our clients.) It's well worth any marketer's time and effort to learn and understand the geography and circuitry of the 100 billion neurons that every consumer on Earth uses to make purchase decisions.


  1. Anonymous says

    The title of your blog is misleading... Yes neuromarketing is driving me crazy!!! Now I'm even crazier having to read yet another plug for the book written by Patrick Renvoise. Is this some sort of cult?

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