Books: Subconscious glow that makes us buy

This book makes a coherent case for the importance of science in capturing and keeping our attention, says Cilla Snowball.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Advertised Mind

Erik du Plessis

Kogan Page £25

MT price £23

To order, visit

One of the joys of working in advertising is that most people express some interest in the discipline.

Whether across the boardroom or dining table, nearly everyone has a perspective on the ads they believe hit the spot and those that miss the mark.

The industry attaches a great deal of significance to understanding how and why advertising works. The objective of all agencies and clients is to produce advertising that attracts attention, is memorable and influences consumer behaviour. A plethora of research companies exist precisely to help us understand, articulate, predict and measure this process.

Erik du Plessis has a long, distinguished career in this field. In The Advertised Mind, he demonstrates extensive knowledge and takes on a big subject - making a coherent case for how the brain works and how this impacts on advertising. The book is genuinely interesting and painstakingly researched, though at times the author appears anxious that the reader will not stick with it. There is some repetitious summarising and reassurance as the thesis reaches its conclusion.

In addition, the hand of Millward Brown - one of the world's largest market research companies, the author's employer and the sponsor of this book - is heavy. At times, it reads like a sales pitch and, at others, a research debrief offering hints about how to improve brand linkage and the benefits of copy-testing. More significantly, this work revolves around a central premise that advertising works through emotions; but as the author's instincts as a researcher kick in, he proceeds to provide an extraordinarily rational framework in which to explain his revelation.

These observations should not overshadow the fact that this is a good book. Understanding and influencing the way people think has always been the aim of advertising, but the advancement of science towards understanding the human brain has led to an acknowledgment of the increasing importance of science in advertising.

Recent industry journals have focused on the latest findings from neurobiology, and our sister media company, PHD, has developed a science-based neuro-planning technique. In a broader context, Malcolm Gladwell has followed his best-selling book The Tipping Point with Blink (reviewed this month), a text that makes some interesting points about our subconscious, instantaneous reactions to brands.

Du Plessis explains that contrary to Descartes' thinking, instinctive and involuntary emotions govern our thoughts and behaviour. Emotion affects decision-making and is the most important aspect of human behaviour. The first emotional response is the truest. The job of advertising is not to grab the attention and then touch the emotions. Rather, it must evoke this involuntary, emotional response in order to receive attention.

Du Plessis argues that consumers will give more attention to an advertisement if they like it, and only those things the brain has deemed worthy of attention will go on to become memories. What determines whether people buy your brand are memories (neuronal activity throughout the brain) of that brand. Memories derived from ads are among those available at the point of purchase as the brain pulls out relevant associations.

So in order to get noticed and be remembered, agencies must produce work that creates a positive emotional response. Du Plessis has spent the past two decades studying why 'ad-liking' is so important in establishing memory of ads by consumers, and his assertion that the most effective ads are those that are liked will attract discussion. However, the book would have benefited greatly if this idea had been taken to the conclusion of what this means for advertising, rather than what it means for pre-testing.

Du Plessis sets these theories in a broad context of neurological and psychological evidence. Using clear examples to distil complex scientific principles, he explains how the brain deals with the huge volume of sensory stimuli it receives, how our attention works, how we learn, build memory, remember and forget.

Students and academics, researchers and practitioners alike will find The Advertised Mind a fascinating read. It takes us another step forward in our understanding of how advertising works. But it will be remembered perhaps more for the insights and questions it raises than the solutions it offers.

- Cilla Snowball is the chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

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