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The Myth of Marketing: How Research Reaches For The Heart But Only Connects With The Head

Douglas Van Praet discusses the importance of emotion in decision making (and everything else) and how his agency’s blockbuster "The Force" may not have made it through the traditional research process.

Marketers are supposed to be the experts on connecting emotionally with customers. But ironically, their current market research practices make it almost impossible to do so.

Despite lip service paid to emotions, businesses routinely make multimillion-dollar marketing decisions on the false premise that respondents in survey research can consciously explain the unconscious origins of their actions. They fail to recognize that most of the business of life happens through our emotions, below the threshold of awareness.

As the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor puts it, "We live in a world where we are taught from the start that we are thinking creatures that feel. The truth is, we are feeling creatures that think."

The word "motivation" and "emotion" share the same Latin root, "movere," which means to move. Emotions are automated actions. They evolved not for our amusement but as purposeful behavioral responses to ensure survival. The challenge for marketers is that they originate without our knowing. We don’t consciously choose our feelings. They often choose for us.

For too long, standard marketing theory has had it backwards. The most startling truth is we don’t even think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions. They constitute the foundation on which they’re made!

Neurologist Antonio Damasio observed this phenomenon through the peculiar behavior of one of his patients. Elliot had suffered brain damage to a part of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in the risk and benefit analysis of decision making.

Elliot ostensibly seemed normal, with one glaring exception. He lacked the ability to make decisions, deliberating endlessly in the face of simple, mundane choices such as whether or not to use a black or blue pen or when to schedule his next appointment. Because brain damage had severed the connection between his emotions and his rational thinking, Elliot was strangely devoid of feeling and even emotionally numb to his own tragic inability to make decisions.

When we ask respondents in traditional copy, tracking, and concept tests to report their emotional motivation to buy brands, we are asking their chatty, limited, linear mind to interpret the responses of their immensely more powerful, holistic, creative mind. Cognitive science experiments have shown that our left brain rationalizes stories in attempt to organize and categorize the sensory experiences of the right brain. As Taylor explains, "My left brain is doing the best job it can with the information it has to work with. I need to remember, however, that there are enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know."

The left brain speaks in words and numbers, and the right brain communicates in feelings and images. So asking someone to reduce their emotions to numerical ratings and explain the causes of their feelings in verbal accounts is like asking someone who only knows English to interpret Mandarin. Describing joy or sorrow as an arithmetic mean is like describing a van Gogh painting as a binomial coefficient.

Emotions, not words, are the innate universal language of humans and the primary means by which we learn new behaviors. We learn best kinesthetically, through feeling not thinking, which is why "a picture is worth a thousand words" and "talk is cheap."

The left brain creates an intellectual understanding of "self" and a sense of separation from others. Our right brain creates a feeling of "we," that wonderful sense of connection with one another and the ineffable awe of living in the moment—the essences of better lives and great brands.

We need to generate smiles, tears, or goose bumps—not significant differences correlated at the 95% confidence interval! These are the things that these data tabulations will never capture, but they are also the things that make us buy brands.

I have created a 7-step process on how to inspire ourselves so that we can inspire customers. These are the seven steps:

1) Interrupt the Pattern
2) Create Comfort
3) Lead the Imagination
4) Shift the Feeling
5) Satisfy the Critical Mind
6) Change the Associations
7) Take Action

Step 4 is: Shift the Feeling. If you want to generate action, you have to generate emotion.

Take for instance a commercial we created for Volkswagen for the Super Bowl. Traditional ad testing indicated that the spot generated a below-average persuasion score—the measure of stated purchase intent that has achieved exalted status in the industry despite its weak correlation to actual sales.

That ad was the story of a miniature Darth Vader who comes to believe in the power of The Force when his dad uses the remote-start feature of a Volkswagen. And it might never have run if we only relied on these tests and measures.

But in another study, this same ad received the highest "neuro-engagement score" in the annual Sands Research Super Bowl Ad Neuro Ranking, which measures not what people say but how they feel through electrophysiological activity in the brain. As Dr. Stephen Sands, chair and chief science officer at Sands Research, announced, "This year [Deutsch LA’s] Darth Vader advertisement elicited such a strong emotional response, it ranks as the highest we have ever tested."

Volkswagen’s decision to run "The Force" paid off. It became among the most beloved and shared Super Bowl ads ever, amassing a staggering 56 million views on YouTube, earning a reported 6.8 billion impressions worldwide and more than $100 million in earned media. And it helped the VW brand achieve the best market share stateside in 30 years in 2011. So much for purchase intent.

I’m not saying we must measure ads through brain scan research to determine their effectiveness. But we should recognize the shortcomings of traditional approaches and heed the lessons from cognitive science.

What we need to do is to rouse hearts, not heads. And inspire the part of us that seeks connection, not separation—through that elusive emotional relevance that marketers say is so critical but also make so difficult to create.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also executive vice president at agency Deutsch LA, where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for the Volkswagen account. Van Praet’s approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to business problems.
Read his previous pieces:
Research—You’re Doing It Wrong: How Uncovering The Unconscious Is Key To Creativity;
I’m Not Your Consumer: How Research Misses The Human Behind The Demographic

We’re Marketers, Not Soliders: How Combative Competition Is Killing Creativity.

[Images: Flickr users Johnny Leung, Donna Cymek, and Mark Miller | Van Gogh Bedroom in Arles via Wikimedia]

Add New Comment


  • Jodie Lord

    I'm afraid I have to respectfully disagree with your views on
    "traditional" copy testing.  We actually tested this ad as well, and our findings were very consistent with the neuroscience data. We also uncovered additional insights
    that neuroscience was unable to glean. 1) Our traditional performance metrics rated this as one of the best ads we tested both on Attention and Motivation; 2) our
    Flow if Emotion clearly showed that it
    was the emotional power of the ad that drove Motivation and
    demonstrated that audiences empathized with Little Darth and felt triumphant in
    his success; 3) our Flow of Meaning clearly showed that the real brand message
    of the ad was "power"-- which is a finding one cannot get from brain wave research. In fact, after sharing these results in an ARF webcast, the tagline became "the power of German engineering" the following year.


    It's clear that you have an appreciation for effectively measuring
    emotion in advertising. If you're at all interested in how we approach this I’d
    be happy to share a copy of the results.



    Jodie Lord

  • Mike W

    Gosh Douglas.   What a terrific idea...   based on tremendously skinny fact...   summed up with your close, "(The Force) helped the VW brand achieve the best market share stateside in 30 years in 2011."

    The Super Bowl was played on February 3rd, 2013.  For January 2013, VW sales were up 9% vs. 2012.  For February, sales were up  10% vs 2012.  Not bad, but both were actually very good months for the industry.  Where VW's share was unchanged from previous periods, and growth was actually behind the likes of Ford at +23%, Dodge +21%, Misubishi, Subaru, Audi...  and others.

    It's a shame you ended such an inspiring thought with so little demonstration of legitimacy.  (Though I'm still curious what research had to do with it anyway.)

  • Douglas Van Praet

    We seem to be talking about separate years. This spot ran in the Super Bowl in 2011, not 2013.

  • Ira S. Kalb

    Interesting article and well-written. Regarding emotion, you talk about left and right sides of the brain. That is not enough. There is the reptilian brain where humans act at a basic level below emotion to protect themselves from harm and seek pleasure.

    Emotions can, and should, be accounted for in branding (positioning and corporate image branding) if marketers dive deeply enough.

    Also the interesting thing about the Volkswagen commercial to which you refer. When tested, most did not know the product being advertised and many did not even recall that the company was Volkswagen. Looking at sales of the Passat after the commercial ran, they went down.

    To be effective at marketing more often than not, marketers need to appeal to the emotional as well as rational and reptilian parts of the central nervous system. You are correct that we need to look beyond what we can measure, but your client is paying you to sell their product, and that can be measured and attributed to the promotion that generated the sales if you have the right system in place.

  • Douglas Van Praet

    Thanks for the feedback. The sales you reference were for an older, smaller and more expensive model. The Passat featured in this commercial didn't launch until September of 2011. When it did launch, it sold 17,942 units in the fourth quarter. That was a huge increase in sales compared to the previous year, when 956 units were sold in the fourth quarter of 2010.

  • Tom Ewing

    Interesting piece - and I'd agree with most of it, despite being (boo! hiss!) a researcher. The one thing I'd disagree with is that despite the impassioned denials here, numerical ratings of emotions actually work rather well at detecting strong ads.

    It doesn't surprise me at all that "The Force" ad tanked on persuasion metrics, but when the very same ad was tested using purely self-reported emotional measurement, it scored the highest possible ratings. (Source: "Feeling The Force", Contagious Issue 30) Can emotional measurement - or neuroscience - truly capture the precise subjective feelings of a viewer? No. Can it provide a close enough approximation to guide decisions without killing great ads? Emphatically yes.

  • kkorostoff

    Good makret researchers fully know that there are limits to what conventional methods--such as surveys and focus groups--can do to reveal emotions.  Which is why many market researchers have been testing and validating new methods that are far better for such purposes.   Please don't propagate the myth that market research is synonymous with surveys and focus groups--we have over a dozen methods that are routinely used by today's practitioners.

    I strongly agree that, "When we ask respondents in traditional copy, tracking, and concept tests
    to report their emotional motivation to buy brands, we are asking their
    chatty, limited, linear mind to interpret the responses of their
    immensely more powerful, holistic, creative mind"  which is why the market research field has embraced and in many cases funded the "research on research" for various observational methods, biometric methods,  and more.

  • BradA

    I love this. I design narratives and ads for an engineering firm. Although engineers are also human, it is quite difficult to convince them otherwise. I also tend to use psychological data and anecdotes to help tip the scales in favor of utilizing more emotion in our marketing overall. 

  • Evelyn

    Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational provides a fascinating series of case studies that clearly demonstrate the right brain is in charge of decision-making. The diverse set of circumstances in which Ariely tested the theory leaves no doubt that the left brain is adept at justifying our choices, fooling us into believing that we acted rationally!     

  • Brain Molecule Marketing

    We don't know if emotions are merely correlated or causal with buying stuff.  Likely they happen way after (seconds) the "decision" to "get" something (milliseconds).  That is what the research suggests.

    Even later are the subjective experiences and reports of feelings.

    Brain science suggest subjective experience and consciousness is trivial i.e., not predictive of buying behavior.

    "I think/feel, therefore I buy." is very old fashioned.  It's all unconscious, probably.

    For a longer discussion join our Linked In group -

  • Aaron Olsen

    So how do we shift the paradigm? How do we convince business leaders who are drunk with data to think with the right brain when making these marketing decisions?

  • Stuart Glendinning Hall

    Fascinating article, loved the quote “We live in a world where we are taught from the start that we are thinking creatures that feel. The truth is, we are feeling creatures that think.” I think there are valuable insights here, too, for social media analytics. As with marketing we need to better connect the approach to data analytics - to the actual behaviour that creates that 'data' - namely with online consumers who “tend to ignore most information available and instead ‘slice off’ a few relevant information or behavioral cues that are often social to make intuitive decisions,” as Brian Solis puts it.