March 21, 2018, posted by Christian Durrett

SXSW Recap: Curing Expert Blindness

You’re an expert. Admit it. Don’t be so modest now. The truth is everyone happens to be an expert at something. Your expertise might be action figures, astrophysics or advertising. It doesn’t matter—you’re still an expert whether you have a degree to show for it or not.

But while expertise helps you see the world differently, it can also blind you. This is subconscious bias according to neuroscience. To put it plainly, everyone is innately prejudiced. Why does this matter? As client and agencies, we’re always trying to reach people who are unlike us in a lot of ways. So it matters one heckuva lot.

As an advertising or marketing person, you make decisions on a daily basis based on intuition fueled by experience. But being skilled in a particular area colors your intuition significantly. If you make decisions purely with your subconscious and don’t try to think like your target market, you could swing and miss entirely.

But you don’t have to take our word for it (hat tip to LaVar). Listen to Dr. Carl Marci, who spoke at SXSW 2018. He’s the Chief Neuroscientist at Nielsen and holds degrees from Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard.

We heard Dr. Marci deliver a thought-provoking lecture with Richard Bina, a strategy director at RPA in Santa Monica (Honda’s long-time agency). Dr. Marci’s lab at Nielsen (yeah, those global consumer insights people) is not about TV ratings, but scientific measurements. He and his associates own a lot of high-tech toys that let them go far beyond normal focus group testing.

From what we picked up, they do a lot of things like literally strap brainwave readers to heads and track tiny pupil movements. Basically, they use an elaborate lie-detecting brain reader. This is obviously much more accurate than the easily-led nature of your standard focus group.

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Here’s the case study they conducted with the RPA strategy group, in a nutshell: Honda dealers and potential Honda buyers watched the same ads with their vitals and eyes tracked. It turns out that the readers responded in a much different way than the consumers they wanted to reach.

This type of testing is costly for anyone outside of a large car company to conduct on their own, but here are a few universal takeaways:

Scientific Fact #1: It’s All About the Story

The results of the test were somewhat predictable but illuminating. In this order, the dealers were most stimulated by:

  1. the deal
  2. the car
  3. the story

Meanwhile, shoppers were clearly “turned on” by the story. And coming in second and third place:

  1. the story
  2. the car
  3. the deal

In essence, science confirms that storytelling rules in messaging. Marketers (naturally) concentrate on the product and the offer. There’s nothing wrong with that because those things are ultimately important. But, shoppers prioritize storylines. And without a story, interest can drop off quickly. Sure, buyers always want to save a buck, but if your idea isn’t interesting enough, maybe they never pay enough attention in the first place.

Scientific Fact #2: Your Product’s Not That Exciting

Constantly-running biometric graphs during the spots also showed that people don’t respond to a product in videos quite the same way marketers do. While dealers saw the “new” (heavily in parentheses) 2015 Honda Civic and got super excited, consumers didn’t care that the front grille trim changed a little bit.

Want to make people watch your ad and not count ceiling tiles? Don’t cut your casting budget. Science (as measured by high-tech instruments) shows that people pay attention to faces in TV spots. We’re social animals after all.

Scientific Fact #3: Ease Up on the Dang Copy

As much as copywriters like to think their words are king, if you try to cram too many on an art card even the sexiest copy becomes Greek.

Dr. Carl’s tests showed that people zone out rapidly with too many words on an end card. Less Is More isn’t merely a fussy art director rant. Viewer eyeballs have a visual bias towards the center of the screen and literally wander with excessive text.

Scientific Fact #4: Make Them Look Up

Second screens aren’t the end of the world for traditional TV spots. In fact, evidence shows that people skip fewer ads because of second screens. All evidence points to people being too absorbed in their phones and iPads to change the channel.

Audio then becomes a more critical queue than ever to get viewers to look up and see your ad. Not to get obnoxiously jingle-y on them, but think about audio cues at the beginning of your spot.

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Got It. But How Do I Check My Bias?

Think about this way: the first step to undoing your blindness is acknowledging it exists. Always keep in mind that science says your end consumer has an entirely different emotional reaction to your ad than you do as a marketer.

We need to continually rethink whether the consumer cares at all about the type of details we obsess over, as we focus more on the details we leave out that might pique their interest.

As someone in the creative department, I am biased to think that some of these can be solved by better creative decisions when producing work. But, I have to let go of my own bias and remember that these lessons are equally applicable to strategy, UX, media buys and the account team’s management of client expectations.

If you don’t have the budget to have your ads reviewed by a team of neuroscientists, paying attention to the four scientifically-based facts above could help you produce better (more effective) work.

Our expert blindness inevitably skews how we see and react to the world. But stepping back from our bubble and going “dumb” (maybe “normal” is a nicer word) might be the best way to see. Our status as advertising/marketing experts probably depends on it.

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