3implicitEngineers and scientifically trained people are usually rolling their eyes if they get offered things that are not exactly measurable. No wonder then that marketing has for them the image of a pathetic pseudo-science, although at least digital marketing finally starts measuring almost everything as well.

Forget being able to decipher a consumer’s secret buying motives

Consumer insight is a beautiful formula that leads to believe that it is possible to intelligently get insights into the human brain in order to decipher a consumer’s secret buying motives.

Brain researchers that stoop to dealing with populist neuro-marketing in order to boost their career, try to impress with their brain photographs in which active areas are shown in color. But it is as if you would want to guess the electric power consumption of a computer from its data content.

In the magnetic resonance tomograph, a commercial of Carlsberg beer can bring brain regions to rapturous excitement and generate an irrepressible thirst for beer? Forget that! How advertising works depends more on the cultural context, which can be influenced only slightly.

Sometimes branding is misunderstood as burning targeted advertising into the unconscious brain of the consumer, based on the erroneous metaphor that the brain is a storage organ. But the brain is not a passive hard drive that stores engrams (impressions), as only Scientologists still think that way. The brain and our entire nervous system are operationally closed. Via our sensory organs, stimuli can be processed and no one can influence thoughts or feelings targeted from outside.

Seduction is never a secret

Implicit brand management argues that all brand impressions must be designed carefully, as they also act unconsciously. This postulation is not wrong in principle, but an unconscious processing of brand messages doesn’t exist. It does not mean that the brain is not working unconsciously as it is doing just that most of the time. It's just naive to think that brand communication caters more determinedly to the unconscious than to the conscious. The argument that the critical awareness would be ignored is simply not sustainable, but it was often cited in conjunction with the promotion of advertising and brand research.

On the corporate side, psychological and neuro-biological ignorance could be expected, although all reputable insights from neuroscience confirm the instability of such concepts. The hidden persuaders have just been a PR stunt of the motif researcher James Vicary during the 1950s.

Implicit is what’s not directly measurable

The argument that brand management can introduce the brand to the human brain is simply nonsense, because in terms of neurobiology even the one who launches the brand has no rational control of his/her decisions. Same as the consumers, that person isn’t free of his/her emotional decisions, as everybody is making decisions unconsciously and emotionally. Through reflection, decisions can be rationalized and questioned, but that in turn is based on emotional decisions. Just because someone is showing brain activity on a screen, doesn’t mean that this person is better qualified to manipulate the decision of someone else.

In other words: The manipulation of the unconscious is a fairy tale. People from advertising and neuro-marketing do and know as much or as little as any other person who flatters, electrifies or exasperates someone.

However, marketers and consumers should be aware of the way hidden messages can be used in advertising. This way, consumers won’t be manipulated by sneaky advertisements that may be out there and marketers don’t get into mischief. Because the question nonetheless still remains kind of unanswered, "Do subliminal messages exist in advertising or not?"

By Daniela La Marca