Attention Shoppers!

Life is frantic, the economy sucks, and attention spans are at an all-time low. It’s no wonder companies are increasingly competitive when it comes to staying afloat. In order to do so, many have turned to branding. They realise it’s the only way to steal a spot in our hearts and minds (not to mention charge premiums for products sporting nothing more than logos their unbranded brethren do not).

But even with billions spent on marketing, not everyone is a success. Consumers queue for days on end to buy an iPhone but shun other “breakthroughs” like the Segway or New Coke. Birds in London are heard chirping the Nokia tune while 97% of Japan’s new products fail within the first three months. And Top Gun creates a 500% rise in Navy recruitment while the incessant brand cameos in Transformers do nothing but annoy us to bits. Something’s not quite right.

Research, We Have a Problem

Even though neoclassical economics has brought mathematical foundations to social sciences, the approach has been criticised for its reliance on faulty assumptions of a clean and static world of certainty, equilibrium, and ultimate perfection. But our minds don’t work in neat little files nor are the decisions we make always rational. We simply don’t have access to complete information and unlimited computational power. Life is far too complex.

The connections we make are messy and the decisions we make cannot always be explained in concrete terms. Why else would we knock on wood to avoid bad luck or prefer to have $15 today over $20 next week? Why else would we shop when we should save or smoke when anyone with half a brain knows it will kill? And why else would so many people spend hours in the sun working on a tan despite the risk of cancer and the certainty of one day looking like a wrinkled leather purse?

Most of our decisions are made using shortcuts simply because trying to pay attention to absolutely everything that happens to us all the time would be too much. So we go with Japan for electronics, France for cosmetics, or Germany for Cars. We only focus on what matters most to us at any point in time and don’t bother about the rest.

If you’d like proof, try spending the next day or so consciously looking out for anything and everything red. The colour’s all over the place! And no, it’s not because you somehow willed it into existence by employing the preternatural powers of your mystical mind. It’s simply because you chose to pay attention. You saw what you wanted to see. And unless this kind of peripheral and “subliminal” stimulation is strong enough to engage our senses, it might as well not exist.

We aren’t really accurate when it comes to explaining what we do because we either don’t remember (and guess) or we simply don’t know. And even if we do have an idea of why we do what we do, we might choose not to say so. We could give answers we think we’re “supposed” to give in order to be seen as responsible or smart. Plus our moods could also be affected by getting stuck in traffic or the researcher’s weird clothes. The only thing that always tells the truth is the part of ourselves we can’t control.

The Bad, The Ugly, and The Good

For those who feel nervous about companies using neuroscience to prod into our heads and control our thoughts, you’re not alone. In Buyology, Martin Lindstrom acknowledges the risk that these tools will be used to make us nothing more than slobbering Pavlov’s dogs in an Orwellian world:

“I predict that we’ll see more and more marketing based on fear in the years to come [because] the more stress we’re under in our world, and the more fearful we are, the more we seek out solid foundations. The more we seek out solid foundations, the more we become dependent on dopamine. And the more dopamine surges through our brains, the more we want, well, stuff.”

But neuroscience isn’t about making us do what we don’t want to. It’s about understanding why we do what we already do and ultimately taking back our power. It’s about companies no longer bombarding us with annoying adverts that overuse celebrities or sex when those don’t always work. It’s about new levels of creativity, products we want, and happier lives for all:

“A world in which you face the onslaught of advertising with a better understanding of what drives and motivates you, what attracts and repels you, what gets under your skin. A world in which you are not a slave to the mysterious workings of your subconscious, nor a puppet of the marketers and companies that seek to control it…. That is a world in which we, the consumers, can escape the tricks and traps that companies use… and take back our rational minds.”

(For more on neuroscience and
behavioural economics, see Integrating Qualitative Methods with Biometrics as well as the January and March issues of Admap respectively.)