How To Apply The Neuroscience Of Emotions And Memories In Advertising

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In the movie 50 First Dates, Henry falls for Lucy. The problem is, Lucy’s short-term memory resets at each waking day due to brain damage. Undeterred, Henry strives to make her fall in love with him every day.

We may not have short-term memory loss nor a Henry to charm us every day, but we do have commercial ads that try.

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When brands create commercial ads, they are in the business of impression making. Not all are good at it. We’ve all had a vague memory for a commercial. Maybe we remember the story, who was in it, or what it was about, but we can’t remember the brand to save our lives. This is a true failure from a brand’s perspective.

The goal of a commercial is to be remembered in the context of the brand. Ad experiences mean nothing for consumer behavior if they don’t create memories. To boost a commercial’s stickiness, brands should turn to emotion.

As we’ll see, emotion can often serve as a double-edged sword. It’s a potent force, and when it isn’t harnessed correctly, it can produce surprising results. To understand this, let’s see the impact of neuromarketing in emotional memories. 

The Science of Emotional Memories

We all remember our “firsts”— first car, first boyfriend, first job, etc. Why? Because emotion boosts memory. The more emotional an experience, the more likely we’ll remember it later.

Emotion is the super glue to make memories stick.

The brain prioritizes emotional experiences. Whether good or bad, if something is important enough to arouse our emotions, our brain assumes it is important enough to be remembered. That’s why we often never forget our first kiss and first heartbreak.

The prioritization of emotional memories makes evolutionary sense. Highly emotional memories, such as being chased by an animal or eating spoiled berries, are lessons worth remembering to increase survival. Like smart email inboxes, emotions tell the brain which events to tag with an “important!” label, boosting the memory’s encoding.

Neuroscientists call this the memory prioritization effect, and it activates more during emotionally-charged experiences, like being in a car crash than mundane ones. It can also activate with simple stimuli like text.

Words like love, hate, and happiness are encoded and recalled with greater accuracy than neutral words like table, pen, and freeway because love, hate, and joy are emotionally-charged. In contrast, table, pen, and freeway are mundane. So it’s no surprise that emotional words drive attention (and ultimately memory) in different advertising contexts—billboards, video, and digital ads.

From a brand’s standpoint, what matters is not the emotional experience, but the memory associated later. But emotions aren’t just buttons to press to fuel an impression and supercharge a memory. It turns out they’re much more complicated than that.

The Importance of Associations and Emotional Timing

For a brand to be effective, you have to connect the right emotions and attributes in the consumer’s brain, and in such a way that ensures these elements are associated with the brand itself.

To create an implicit association, successful emotional advertising involves creating intentional misattribution of emotion to convince consumers to attribute the emotion an ad stirs up to the brand instead.

One way this has manifested is the classic commercial convention of creating a captivating, emotionally engaging ad that only reveals the brand at the very end. If you can recall an example of a commercial that, although emotional, had nothing to do with the brand’s product itself, you’re on the right track.

Take this ad that aired on national T.V. in the U.K. It starts with a preteen boy opening up a box of items that belonged to his dead father. Eventually, he approaches mom in the kitchen to utter the opening dialogue: “What was Dad like?” The rest of the commercial is mom taking the boy on a walk, on which she answers his question.

Guess what the commercial’s selling. Life insurance? Luxury watch? Financial planning? Not even close. The pair walk into a fast-food restaurant to order a burger. The commercial cuts to a McDonald’s logo. The end. The McDonald’s “Dead Dad” commercial is a blatant attempt at emotion design.

Unfortunately, it was likely a failed one from the perspective of memory. Even if the commercial succeeded in playing your emotional heartstrings and implanting itself into your memory, what good is it if consumers forget which brand it was advertising? Consumers also have a B.S. meter. It doesn’t take much to realize Mickey D’s just used a father’s death to sell you a fish filet.

Studies have found that while this type of advertising effectively grabs attention, viewers are less likely to associate the ad with the brand. When a brand is flashed at the end, the brain only starts associating the commercial with the brand at that instant. And considering you’re likely not thinking about this commercial for too much longer afterward, your brain only thinks about the brand for a few seconds during the end of the ad—not nearly enough to create a strong connection.

If the commercial had revealed at the outset that it was for McDonald’s, at least then, your brain would’ve formed this association for the duration of the commercial, giving it a much greater chance of remembering the commercial. As it is, if this commercial somehow comes to mind, you’d only be able to think to yourself, “Oh yeah, I do vaguely remember that strange, depressing commercial about a dead dad. That was a car insurance ad, right?”

The power of setting up an association in the beginning, if done right, can make all the difference. Take it from Henry in 50 First Dates who got Lucy to fall in love with him every day despite her memory loss. How? By replaying the “Good Morning Lucy” video tape every morning, which recaps everything—from the accident to their wedding. And he did so without abusing the power of emotion.

Brands can learn a lot from Henry.

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