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Is neuroscience ever wrong?

Opinion, 01 June 2011

Many years ago I was doing creative research for a company called Silhouette, makers of women's corsetry and worn, as you will imagine, by overweight middle aged women. The first response of such a group to the press ads which showed fairly slim women as models was - "why do they always show thin models rather than real women?" I took this observation seriously and duly returned to the next research group with ads showing moderately chubby models. Their first response was - why are you showing fat women when we want to dream about how we will look? So conventional wisdom had triumphed and back we were to slim, glamorous models.

Through my entire career such arguments raged given various degrees of feminist spin. Misogynist art directors, fashion photographers, male clients, men in general, and global capitalism were all blamed for women's eating disorders. Until Dove broke the mould with a campaign deliberately shattering the convention that women prefer seeing inspirational rather than real models.

A recent neuroscience experiment, however, suggests that conventional wisdom may be right.

Women were shown two ads, one for Pantene with a beautiful model and one for Dove showing 'real' girls. Brain imaging showed significantly more emotional brain activity for the Pantene ad. Indeed, had this experiment been done when the Dove campaign was in development, it might never have seen the light of day. Yet, as we know, Dove has been a spectacularly successful campaign, the lessons of which are important to learn.

I think the key lesson is this. Brand positioning is about much more than a single advertisement. The thinking behind Dove encompassed an entire philosophy – sincere, empathetic and trustworthy. The campaign generated vast quantities of editorial coverage, the website and other digital activities maintained interest and commitment and the entirety was much bigger than the impact or not of a single advertisement. The brand spoke sensitively and persuasively to the psychology of body image and the conflicts modern social and other pressures create in young women.

I am a fervent supporter of what can be learned from neuroscience – which provides sound evidence to underpin the way I've always believed advertising works. It highlights the dominance of emotion in how people perceive communication, how brand loyalty is developed and how purchasing decisions are made.

Yet, as the Dove case shows, the discipline we call brand positioning is a complex activity. Ultimately, it is more of an art than a science.

About the author

Judie Lannon is a world-recognised expert in the field of market research and marketing strategy. She was appointed by J. Walter Thompson (JWT) London to establish their Consumer Research Department, then appointed to the Board of J Walter Thompson as its Director, Research and Planning. In l989, she became Research & Development Director for JWT Europe. She is extremely experienced in all aspects of consumer research and brand communications strategies through work with major international companies.

She established her own planning and research consultancy in l991, and in addition to this consultancy work, Judie designs senior management courses in the marketing communications, brand positioning and market research realms. She is particularly interested in the evolution of brands and the development of communications beyond advertising.

Judie Lannon is also a recognised writer, editor and speaker in the field of marketing. She serves as Editor of the Strategic Marketing Journal and Market Leader magazine (the Journal of the Marketing Society, Great Britain) and is Features Editor of the International Journal of Advertising.