An excuse for pointless purchases

10. November 2017, MAXFIVE

Brain researcher Kai Fehse on how advertising works on our brain and what are the processes that play out there. Why he thinks that advertising is simply just an excuse for pointless purchases.


brain research
Kai Fehse


© Klaus Vyhnalek

You studied brain research and wrote your dissertation on the subject of neuro-communication. So how does advertising work on our brain? What are the processes that play out there?
What’s clear is that advertising works differently from how we used to believe it did. The secret seducers are dead as a doornail and “buy buttons” remain elusive, even with the 7 Tesla scanner.
The bad news: Constantly new and colourful campaigns make far less of an impact than some of the more boringly presented brands.
The good news: If you make the effort, it’s possible to use lots of creativity to achieve at least a certain level of attention.

What do your findings mean for advertisers?
They finally have the explanation for their ever-waning influence …

Is that really the case?
Yes! In my opinion, it’s unstoppable.

How does the CASEModel you developed work?
The point is actually quite simple: neural networks are diametrically different as far as conscious, explicit processing is concerned on the one hand and unconscious, implicit processing on the other.
Put even more simply: “Selling” needs the cortex of the brain and consciousness. “Marking” is performed more unconsciously by the midbrain. But be careful: You can’t store much more there than the name and corporate design of the brand. That’s why something like “subliminal advertising” is a contradiction in terms.

Everything that actually conjures up images in the mind is helpful.
The fizzing of a beer bottle, the roar of a Porsche.

What do these studies mean specifically for radio?
Radio is the medium that can have the most implicit effect. That means, I don’t notice it. By comparison, I probably continue to think about everything that I consciously perceive in visual terms.

When I know which processes take place in the human brain when people “listen”, how can I use that for myself in radio advertising?
Everything that actually conjures up images in the mind is helpful. The fizzing of a beer bottle, the roar of a Porsche. The usual funny short stories, on the other hand, are relatively useless. But who doesn’t know that? When I hear the beer fizzing, then I’m mentally already in a beer garden or on the sofa in front of the TV. The roaring of a Porsche is probably mainly picked up on by men who see themselves whizzing past at a hundred miles an hour. There are dozens of examples of these mental images.

When is the human mind at its most receptive?
This is where the wisdom of the brain researchers overlaps the intuition of the media planners. Because the morning rush hour is also our neural prime time. For circadian reasons, however, the evening rush hour would need completely different kinds of ads. In the evenings, our brains are actually in “relaxation mode”. They are almost impossible to reach with aggressive purchase signals, but probably are with soft brand signals.

Most people usually only listen to the radio in their cars. Does that have consequences for the receptiveness to radio advertising? Is incidental listening effective?
Yes – for “marking”. No – for “selling”. That’s why the “0% financing” or the “clearance sale” can actually only be advertised in the morning.

Do the radio spots I hear when I’m shopping also influence my purchase behaviour?
Of course. And especially when they pursue a direct sales target. And communicate a rock-solid benefit that compensates the customer for the “inconvenience”.

advertising is simply just an excuse for pointless purchases

Can you “protect” yourself from the influence of advertising?
For goodness sake, you don’t have to protect yourself!
If advertising wants to “sell” you something, that will only work through your consciousness. If it wants to appeal to your unconscious, it can scarcely achieve more than to do you the favour of pre-sorting the chaotic excess of brands for you. To cut a long story short: The only danger posed by advertising is that it can provide us with an excuse to make pointless purchases …

How do the media differ from each other in how they work, what are the benefits of the individual media?
For an answer to this question, I can only advise everyone to read my book.

We’ll take that to heart. But we have one more question for you: Why does an advertiser suddenly become a brain researcher?
I was bored, plain and simple.

Kai Fehse – and his famous slogans for Media Markt – is considered the “father of all bargains”. He has now left the advertising industry to study brain research. His book entitled “Neuro-Communication – A model for how advertising works in light of the latest findings of brain research” was published in 2009.

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