Too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as it skews how you see the world. Nielsen’s Carl Marci explores a study that his organization undertook with Honda and RPA, which shed light on the topic.

In today’s complex media environment, where brands compete for consumers’ shrinking attention spans across multiple platforms, marketers need every advantage they can get. A threat that is close to home (and often overlooked) is the threat that marketers pose to themselves - expert blindness.

Expert blindness happens when we subconsciously develop a bias as a result of our intimate and extensive knowledge on a particular subject. Your expertise fuels your success; it also creates “expert blindness,” skewing how you see and react to the world. And that bias can hinder marketers’ ability to assess a topic and develop communications through the unbiased eyes of consumers - an ability that is critical to developing successful advertising.

Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience teamed up with Honda and RPA Advertising to expose the impact that expert blindness can have on a campaign and show how the tools of consumer neuroscience can identify components of this bias before a campaign goes to market.

In the study, two separate groups - a group of Honda dealers (the “experts”) and a group of automotive shoppers - watched an hour of television with the same programming and ads, in the same order and environment. Both groups were exposed to a variety of advertisements in a natural television context: two half-hour sitcoms which featured non-automotive ads (for food, household cleaners, etc)), automotive ads for car manufacturers other than Honda and Honda specific automotive ads. Both groups viewed the content while wearing biometric sensors to measure their emotional engagement and eye tracking equipment to measure their visual attention.

The results were surprising. Both groups had nearly identical responses to everything they saw on the screen: the TV programs, ads for non-auto categories, and auto ads that were not for Honda. However, as soon as the Honda ads were shown that similarity in response disappeared. For example, during an ad for the Honda Civic, the group of Honda dealers had strong emotional engagement with the vehicle and lease deal, as reflected in changes of their skin conductance and heart rate. Conversely, the group of automotive shoppers had stronger emotional engagement with the ad’s overall story.

When we looked at eye tracking, though the experts were looking at the same screen they were watching completely different creative elements than the shoppers. For example, the Honda dealers consistently ignored the characters, paying attention to the car instead. In addition, their level of visual attention during the lease deal information increased, while shoppers displayed significantly less attention to this aspect. The higher levels of emotional engagement with the deal, combined with their higher visual attention, exhibits a perfect reflection of nonconscious bias from the Honda dealers: as experts, they value vehicle and lease information more than the auto shoppers they are trying to reach.

Since our brains use emotions to tag information for relevance, it’s not surprising that experts and normal shoppers would afterwards described the ad differently. The shoppers talked about an ad as “cool” and “exciting” — the experts said it was “good” and “reliable.”

This study highlights the challenge of expert blindness that marketers, as the experts of their brand, product or service, must overcome if they want to address their customer’s needs. So what can experts do to overcome expert blindness? Below are three recommendations to get you started:

  1. Biases can be controlled. We don’t have to be prisoners to our expert blindness. Research has consistently shown that making people aware of their biases is a powerful tool in mitigating their effects. If you make the conscious mind aware of the limits of the subconscious, the conscious mind can begin to override them.
  2. Recognize your personal biases. We are alike in that we are all experts (on something), yet the biases of our expertise are highly varied. In the same organization, the strategist has a different set of biases than the technologist, the producer, the brand expert and so on. Knowing your role can inform your type of bias and gets you one step closer to controlling them.
  3. Have a “consumer-first” point of view: We are all consumers at heart, even the experts. The key is to learn tricks to let go of your expert biases and channel your inner consumer. Consider meditation or mindfulness, which you may use in your personal life, as tools for the workplace that enable you to block out your expert concerns, suspend snap judgements and try and take the point-of-view of the consumer. Is a new idea interesting? Will consumers really be intrigued? Having empathy for our target audience can have a positive influence on our decision making.

Marketers need to make decisions that are better aligned with their customers. Using the tools of consumer neuroscience is one way to get closer to consumers. Recognizing your expert blindness is another.