The limbic system, a naturally occurring defence mechanism that is built into all of us, means that an advertisement can be highly effective even when we are not paying attention, suggests Robert George Heath, an Associate Professor of Advertising Theory, at the University of Bath.

The limbic system supports a variety of functions including motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. But, Heath describes it as a primitive defence system which is “permanently alert, perceiving stimuli and assigning meanings to them.” He said that “It is this system which wakes us if our baby cries, or makes us jump back onto the pavement if we see an approaching car in the corner of our eye.”

Presumably, it is the same mechanism that makes us jump when watching a horror film, even when our conscious tells us such a reaction is totally irrational.

According to Heath, when the limbic system perceives an advertisement for a brand we make an instant judgement on its value, and can absorb its emotional message, become attuned to brand values such as whether a brand is presented as sexy, warm or kind, and without being aware of how we are being influenced, become seduced.

The famous behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman argued in his book 'Thinking Fast and Slow' that are two types of thought: there is fast thought, which is instinctive and emotional, and a much slower more logical form of thinking. He suggests that the fast form of thinking is far more dominant than we appreciate.

Heath's findings chime with Kahneman's concept of thinking fast. Once our subconscious associates certain values to a brand, our more logical form of thinking seeks to justify these associations.

Heath cites the examples of 02, which saw sales surge after an advertising campaign showing the blue water with bubbles flowing through it. He said that the ad communicated the idea that O2 was calm and serene.

Heath previously claimed that some advertising works best when people don’t pay too much attention to it. he calls it Low Attention Processing. He said that this conclusion was “applauded by creative ad agencies, but hated in equal measure by market research companies. Low Attention Processing disturbed them because they had spent years selling metrics based on recall – how well a consumer can remember an ad – and recall works best at high attention.”

He said that we “make an instant judgement of” a brands “emotional value and store this subconsciously as a marker for future reference. . . We are not aware this happens, which means we can’t argue against it. But when we come to making a decision involving the brand, we find ourselves ‘seduced’ in favour of it, and provided there is no strong reason not to, we buy it.”

He said “Of course if someone then asks us why we bought it, we invent all sorts of rational reasons for ourselves to do with price, features, performance, of the item in question.”

For more detail on our irrationality, see Quirks of evolution and why we may not be as rational that we realise


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