The Frontal Cortex

Emotional Advertising

I’m always startled by the sheer variety of toothpastes being sold at my local drug store. It’s a classic example of excessive choice: all those different products, most of which seem interchangeable, actually make me less likely to buy anything. I dread the oral health aisle.

So how do corporations distinguish their brand of toothpaste, if they all contain the same active ingredients? The answer is predictable: they spend hundreds of million dollars on advertising:

Procter is backing Pro-Health with a $100 million advertising campaign, its largest spending ever for a new dental product. The campaign, from the longtime Crest agency Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, part of the Publicis Groupe, takes a clinical bent; one TV ad features a real dentist, and another an actor portraying a researcher. The target customer is “quite an information seeker,” said Matt Barresi, Procter’s marketing director for oral health care in North America.

In the other corner is Colgate, which is using Brooke Shields to promote their brand:

Rather than focus on science, the Colgate Total ads with Ms. Shields use glamour and emotion, a shift from the product’s previous campaign, which was centered on its germ-fighting prowess.

In commercials for Colgate Total that began in October on TV and online, viewers see Ms. Shields nuzzling and playing with two children as soft music plays in the background. Ms. Shields, a former model who has a history with Colgate, having appeared in a print ad as a child, says: “Having a healthy smile is important to me. Not just as an actress, but as a mom.” (The children in the spots, however, are actors, not Ms. Shields’s own.)

This is a classic example of the information vs. emotional approach to advertising. One brand emphasizes the facts (using actors in lab coats), while the other brand goes after our limbic system, and shows images of a famous mother kissing her pretend kids.

So which brand will win? My money is on Colgate and Brooke Shields. My justification is an experiment done by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. In 2003, he decided to perform a taste test of Pepsi vs. Coke in his fMRI machine. Each person swallowed sips of cola from a plastic tube while their brain was being scanned. When Coke and Pepsi were offered unlabeled, the subjects showed no measurable preference for either brand. Most of the time, they couldn’t even tell the two colas apart. But Montague’s second observation was more surprising: subjects overwhelmingly preferred drinks that were labeled as Coke, no matter what cola was actually delivered through the tubes. In other words, brand trumped taste. We cared more about the logo than the actual product.

But what was happening inside the brain? When the two soft drinks were offered unlabeled, the part of our brain that processes appetitive rewards, like sugary drinks, was turned on. This makes sense: soda tastes good, and provides us with a rush of sweet pleasure. However, when the subjects drank a cola with a Coke label, an additional brain area became extremely active. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex and our mid-brain emotional areas reacted strongly to the red cursive of Coke, but not to the blue Pepsi logo. (This happened even when subjects were given Pepsi with a Coke label.) For whatever reason, certain brand names are able to excite our emotions, and those emotions influence our decision. The end result is a strong preference for Coke, even though it tastes identical to Pepsi.

Why does Coke trigger our emotions? As Montague notes, Coca-Cola is “advertising incarnate.” The company was the first sponsor of the Olympic Games, gave its cola free to U.S. soldiers during World War II, and is credited with inventing the modern image of Santa Claus. Despite the fact that Coke is the most widely recognized consumer product in the world, the brand is still supported by more than $1 billion worth of advertising every year. Whether it’s animated images of a penguin family, or inspirational shots of a high-school football game, Coke ads are designed to trigger feelings of warmth and nostalgia. They are sentimental, not informative.

So if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Brooke Shields and Colgate. When we are confronted with two seemingly identical products (like Coke and Pepsi, or Colgate and Crest), we rely on our emotions to make a decision. The brand that most excites our feelings is what we end up choosing.

PS. If you find this research interesting, you should definitely check out Montague’s recent book. It’s dense, but good.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob
    January 17, 2007

    Sounds like an interesting book. How is it for the layperson?

    If you are old, like me, you remember taking the Pepsi challenge. The premise was that if you didn’t know what you were drinking, people would prefer Pepsi and the company went around to little small town fairs and stuff. You got two Dixie cups and were asked which one you preferred. My mom and I can always tell the difference between Pepsi and Coke so naturally being a know-it-all 11 year old, I chose Pepsi so I’d get the right answer. Then my mother took the test and picked Coke. I started to tease her and she pointed out that if you picked Coke, you got a coupon for free Pepsi so she picked Coke on purpose.

    I suspect my mother and I both have that “super-taster” gene. Her actual pop preference is for either diet Coke or regular Pepsi. She can’t stand regular Coke or diet Pepsi. Personally I can’t drink non-diet pop. It’s too syrupy and heavy.

    I’m really surprised when people say they can’t taste the difference between the two. They have very different flavors and both are distinct from the cheaper RC cola.

    Maybe I’ll buy a couple of bottles of the different diet colas and have my wife re-bottle them and I’ll see if I can identify them. ;)

  2. #2 Mark P
    January 17, 2007

    I might pick a nit here with the idea that Coke and Pepsi taste the same. It might be semantics, but I suspect that a more accurate description would be that most people cannot distinguish between them in a blind test. I think it was some TV news magazine where they offered a sample of some food and found that people tasted what they were told to expect; for example, identifying the “most chocolate” flavor from a group of foods that included no chocolate at all.

  3. #3 Jonah
    January 17, 2007

    I clearly have a dumb tongue. I recently performed a blind taste test with Coke and Pepsi and couldn’t tell the difference. I guessed the wrong brand 4 out of 7 times.

    As for the Pepsi Challenge…Montague’s experiment was actually an attempt to replicate that brilliant ad from the 80′s. He was suprised by the fact that more people, even when the colas were supplied anonymously, didn’t prefer Pepsi. (According to the original Pepsi Challenge, 58 percent of people prefer Pepsi to Coke in a blind taste test.) This might have something to do with the fact that after the failure of New Coke (which was largely a response to the Pepsi Challenge), Coke tinkered with its classic formula so that it would taste more like Pepsi. This involved toning down the “cola” flavors and increasing the amount of high-fructose corn syrup.

    But you’re right: a more accurate description is that most people can’t tell the difference between the two colas, at least when presented in a blind taste test.

    Finally, I thought Montague’s book was really interesting. However, it does delve pretty deeply into computational neuroscience, and might not be ideal for someone who doesn’t have a background in neuroscience. If you’re looking for a book on a tangential subject that’s a delight to read, I would highly recommend “The Paradox of Choice,” by Barry Schwartz.

  4. #4 Crusty Dem
    January 17, 2007

    Arrgh! fMRI! BOLD signals##!@$ The #$%@ing coke/pepsi paper!!

    Urge to kill, rising, rising, rising.

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