I Feel What You Feel: Mirror Neurons and Advertising

07 Apr 2011|Added Value

Creating meaningful advertising is getting harder. These days there is a demand for more content and substance in advertising. Some brands are reverting to proven formula, offering hard cost or product benefits to compel sales. But others are leaning towards communicating more emotional brand experiences in a bid to hook viewers on a deeper level.

eBay, the online auction and shopping brand, has been using the latter strategy successfully for years. For example, their 2007 award winning “3, 2, 1…Mine!” campaign in Germany tapped right into the emotional heart of their brand experience. Picture this: every day people shaking with excitement in front of their computer screens, sending out last minute bids, forgetting about the world around them and finally rejoicing in a successful purchase. A classic example of a brand showing consumers what a great experience they offer. And done so cleverly that viewers almost have the feeling they are part of the bidding process.

The feeling of being there is not imagined. It’s surprisingly real, and is explained by the discovery of remarkable brain cells – mirror neurons.

Watch one of the ads here.

The way mirror neurons work is deceptively simple: they help us experience what other people are feeling. Through the observation of visual and verbal cues, mirror neurons help to simulate in the observer the same emotional state of the observed. According to many scientists, these neurons are the source of many of the yet un-researched building blocks of the common human experience and could be responsible for traits like imitation, compassion and understanding. Mirror neurons help to explain why we yawn when others yawn, brake when others brake and suffer when others suffer.

Tapping into this idea of communal experience can be profitable too. eBay’s campaign was so successful that they not only extended the reach and use of the brand in Germany, they also significantly increased the value of their brand in that market too. And earned themselves a well-deserved Effie award in the process.

What are mirror neurons and how do they work?
Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1990s by Vittorio Gallese and Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in their research on monkeys. They noticed that when one of the monkeys saw how one of the researchers reached for a nut, the same brain activity was registered as when the monkey reached for the nut itself. Later studies showed that these mirror neurons were not only active in the part of the brain that controls movement, but specifically those parts where bodily experiences, pain and emotions are processed.

These mirror cells make it unnecessary for us to develop complex explanations for the way in which people behave and react to others. Rather, they make it possible for our brain, with very little effort, to answer the questions critical for survival: “What is that person feeling and why?”, “Is he positively disposed towards me?” and “What is he up to?”

This ‘neural comprehension’ gives us the ability to intuitively understand other people. This kind of mirroring is especially powerful between people who are close.

What happens when we watch?
Let us stay with eBay. When we watch the characters in the ad our mirror neurons help us to establish what an eBay auction feels like. We take part in the thrilling tension of the auction and we feel the joy when the deal goes through. In this way we can mentally ’try out’ eBay and form an opinion about it.

Contrary to verbally communicated value propositions, products that engage people by helping them to feel as others do or to co-experience product usage, clearly have a greater ability to convince – and clearly have the advantage. Showing and demonstrating has – just as in real life – an important role in advertising. Ads that help us connect in this way are far more likely to influence choice. And often, this is the only way certain kinds of content be communicated efficiently and in an animated manner.

Why aren’t there more ‘mirror neuron ads’?
There is a lot of opinion about mirror neuron advertising. Some say it’s just a nice theory. But essentially this kind of advertising isn’t anything new; the strategy has been used in commercials since the dawn of time. The only difference is, now we know more about why – and how – it works.

But when looking at past examples it quickly becomes apparent that mirror neuron ads in their purest form are found only rarely, and that only regularly in certain categories. For instance, classic users of emotive mirroring are the pharmaceutical industry (pain vs wellbeing), the FMCG industry (scenes of pleasure) as well as the body care industry (feelings of indulgence). Apple also make good use of this kind of communication, particularly for iPod.

But this begs the question: why are mirror neuron ads so rare?

It starts with the concept
The answer again is relatively simple. If people specifically want to use the mirror neuron connection, then it has to be become central to the creative process; otherwise it will not be as effective. There are a number of key questions which need to be answered at the start of this process:

– Which central benefit do I want to convey?
– Can the benefit be “mirrored” at all?
– Who do I cast for this assignment?
– What is the central emotional tension I want to create with the ad?
– Are there any other emotional tensions that could conflict with the central aim?

Once these central questions have been answered, the next step is to think about creating the right communication framework. Despite the striking simplicity with which mirror neurons work, there are still rules to using them effectively. A typical mirror neuron ad should:

– Create closeness and identification
– Put the brand in the suitable context of meaning
– Focus on the main character
– Put the product at the centre
– Link the benefit directly to the product, or the brand
– Show clear and consistent gestures and actions
– Not aim at verbal judgements about the benefits
– Say nothing about the price
– Use language only in support of the visual

In this way brands have the opportunity to get close to their viewers and to connect with them in a very direct way. A commercial becomes more than a 30 second spot, but rather delivers a sensation of emotion that that the viewer feels intimately, identifies with, and owns. It’s obviously a far more elegant and enduring way of winning customers and tying them into a brand. And definitely preferable to overwhelming them with endless cut-price offers.

Changing the game
Knowledge about mirror neurons has begun to change the way brands communicate their products and services. Imagine how mirror neurons could help with communicating:

– The launch of a chocolate product
– The emotional realignment of a mobile phone manufacturer
– A new innovation in a familiar tool
– The introduction of a new household appliance

In Germany, Icon Added Value has been working to establish the effect of different kinds of commercials on mirror neurons. And the effect is measurable. Using our Ad Effect and Ad Performance tools to look at the mirror neuron response in ads*, we’ve been able to see a clear effect on brands and consumer interest. The more each commercial spoke to the mirror neuron, the more positive the respondents were inclined towards the advertised brand and the stronger their interest to purchase. Likewise, the commercials showed an increase in both direct interest, appeal and likeability and also in the potential for follow-through and recall.

The bottom line? Used skilfully, mirror neurons can help brands to create far more engaging communication strategies that can powerfully deliver their emotional proposition.
For the article in German, click here.

For more information: contact Icon Added Value or Dr Hildegard Keller-Kern on +49 911 9593-254

*Internally funded study. Survey period: 1st Quarter 2008. Representative online survey across Germany with 2 500 participants

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