Our brains are sort of… well… stupid

I’ve long heard people complain about how commercials represent the basest forms of humanity. Yesterday, I was reminded of this again, as Twitter was all ablaze with people in outrage over the latest GoDaddy.com commercial run during the Super Bowl.

All of this tends to make me roll my eyes a bit, and go, “Well, duh… of course commercials represent the basest forms of humanity. That’s why they work!”

Science has long told us that the brain is largely indiscriminate in terms of forming and retaining information (what we tend to simply call “memory.”) For instance, if you like and remember the song that played when you proposed to your wife, you’ll also tend to remember where you were when you heard the song, what the weather was if you were outdoors, details about what your intended was wearing, maybe even what you ate. That’s because along with the song itself, your brain carried along all the accompanying context.

The thing is, the brain’s not really that smart. It doesn’t realize that the two eggs on your plate in the diner really aren’t as important as the beautiful girl sitting across from you when you heard that new Norah Jones tune that made her go wild and accept your marriage proposal. In theory, those eggs don’t matter… nor does the awful plaid shirt you’d spilled coffee on. But the brain can’t discriminate. Instead, it just throws everything into “memory.”

Super Bowl ads prove this, once and for all. With ad revenue topping 206 million bucks (in a recession!), we were hit with ad after ad, all having next to nothing to do with the actual products in question. That’s because, well, the ad guys are smart. They payed attention to all the available data, which essentially says it’s better to trick the brain than to appeal to it rationally.

What works better? Slapping a logo across a stretched t-shirt, curving around some surgically enhanced porn star’s chest, or lauding the wonderful features of hosting at GoDaddy.com? Getting everyone to laugh at the fire-breathing/belching dude on a date, or trying to convince the world that the Budweiser hops are better than the Michelob hops?

It’s a trick. And, once again… duh!

So here’s your “the brain is stupid” exercise for today. Call it a little reverse engineering.

1. What Super Bowl commercial from this year do you best remember?*
2. What product was being advertised?
3. What Super Bowl commercial from last year do you best remember?
4. What product was being advertised?
5. What Super Bowl commercial do you best remember from any year?
6. What product was being advertised?

* Note the question: “best remember” as opposed to “like the best.” This becomes self-evident as you think back a few years. We remember things we don’t like in many cases.

I’ll bet good money that you’ll easily recall the answers to (1), (3), and (5), and that the products attached to each answer come pretty quickly after. Only in the poorest ad placement situations do the product lines not get carried along by our brains in the “making memory” process, due to our brain being indiscriminate about what is carried along by a memory.

Last question, and this is the important one:

Why did these commercial stick out? What made them “memorable?”

More good money says the commercials you remember have no correlation to products that are important to you, except by dumb luck. You’re reacting to the commercial, which in most cases has almost no relation at all to the product.

Let me re-ask the question like this: taking the three commercials you came up with above, what’s common? What do you think grabbed your brain by the throat (yes, the metaphor is breaking down. Just roll with me, here) and said, “Remember me!”?

How would you make a good Super Bowl commercial?

  • davidm

    Super.. bowl? Is this another Phelps story?

    That Apple ad was funny, it ironically made me think Apples weren’t overpriced controlled communities… isn’t it a bit out of date though?

  • commenter

    You might find the book called “The Culture Code” very interesting..

  • David-

    Yeah, the Apple ad is very old. The reason I posted it is because it does just what I’m talking about: creates a memory that has almost nothing to do with the product. (Yes, I know Jobs would talk about crushing the past, revolution, etc., but nonetheless, we’ve still got bouncing breasts and tanktops attached with surprise, memory, etc.).

    That commercial, along with the Coke spot (that got redone this year), are great examples of ads sticking in the brain.

    Commenter- (catchy name, that one)

    I haven’t read “The Culture Code,” I’ll check that one out.

    Everyone else-

    Come on, folks, still waiting to see what you’re all remembering :-)


  • jebb dykstra

    In a conversation with Dr. Robert Bilder of UCLA, a neuroscientist, he shared with me that the brain is “always” seeking the lowest energy state possible. To that end, that is why the brain is stupid and the ad guys are smart. Even alpha geeks like pretty women.

  • I wonder how well this actually works, I think it’s possible that too much attention grabbing can actually reduce the amount of retention. There was some particularly interesting research on this done a few years ago:

    From the abstract:
    ” Lower transfer performance also occurred when the authors added interesting but irrelevant details to the narration (Experiment 1) or inserted interesting but conceptually irrelevant video clips within (Experiment 3) or before the presentation (Experiment 4). This coherence effect is consistent with a seductive details hypothesis in which the inserted video and narration prime the activation of inappropriate prior knowledge as the organizing schema for the lesson.”

    It seems like one would need to walk a fine line between too much stimulation and not enough. Depending on the amount and type of material you want people to remember.

  • I remember a guy getting thrown out of a building, a guy hit in the crotch with a sno-globe, a guy getting run over by a bus, a woman insulted by a talking box, and a cadaverous Ed McMahon selling all his worldly possessions.

    The only product I can quickly recall is Doritos, but I’m not about to eat any soon.