Why Advertisers Target Emotions

November 8, 2010  |  brain

Your brain can be thought of as having three major divisions – the primitive, instinctual brain that we share with reptiles and amphibians,  the more highly developed limbic, or emotional, brain that we share with other mammals, and the “thinking cap” cerebral cortex that sits on top of the other two, and is much more highly developed in humans than in any other creature. The three brain divisions are intricately interconnected, and impulses at each level often affect the other two. Thus, someone or something may attract or repel us at an emotional, or even instinctual level and later we will try to rationalize and explain that feeling.

Advertisers are well aware of this “bottom up” motivational pathway and design ads that are aimed at first engaging the emotional brain. They know that if there is a strong emotional attraction to an ad, the attractive images and the product may be tied together in the brain. When the emotional brain likes what it sees, the logical brain will often find a reason to justify a purchase. That’s why pretty girls dominate beer ads, beautiful women hock cosmetics, and happy-looking people sell products ranging from pharmaceuticals to automobiles.

Your thinking and feeling brain divisions are not always in agreement, and conflicts about purchases are a good everyday example. Have you ever really wanted something like a fabulous pair of shoes, or piece of jewelry, or a sports car, where you just “had to have it” even though you knew it was way too expensive or impractical for you? Did you agonize about the purchase, going back and forth between the reasons that tell you “no” and the craving that tells you “yes?”  That was a conversation between your thinking brain and your feeling brain.

The emotional decision takes only 12 milliseconds, while the rational decision takes twice as long. Once the emotional brain has decided it wants something, it takes a lot of rational argument to change its mind. That’s why the advertisers target the emotional brain first.

If our thinking and feeling brains are in agreement, we buy or don’t buy, we go out with the guy or not, we stay in our job or leave it, and life is congruent and relatively simple. When our reason and emotion disagree, however, we find ourselves uncomfortable and conflicted. It turns out that in those situations we aren’t just of “two minds” about the issue, we are probably of “two brains” about it as well.



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