Consumer neurosciene in advertising. Disruption, encouragement or standardization?

Published by Maja Michieli, Head of NeuroLab (Valicon) on

Originally published in Marketing Magazin (no. 431)

It seems consumer neuroscience is finally getting the role it deserves. After the first wave of enthusiasm and the subsequent silence, we can now see a glimpse of hope and it seems we are finally stepping beyond skepticism, which was in many ways a consequence of over expectations. No, we cannot read minds (yet), there is no single buy button in the brain and yes, neuro-optimized ads are more effective. Proven. Several times. Above all, consumer neuroscience is an exceptionally complex field that requires an interdisciplinary and a constructive team of experts. We know that neuro-optimized stimuli can raise communication efficiency. Nevertheless, a dialogue of all those involved is needed as well. The result of a research that measures the neurophysiological response is a dynamic analysis in which we can observe a reaction for each second of the stimuli, which opens up a whole series of different questions and possible options. And the result is usually only as good as the team of experts working on it.


One of the key factors that initially led to the rise in interest in neurological research in the field of consumer behavior is the shift from the “rational” consumer paradigm into an “intuitive” consumer, which is partly a consequence of Daniel Kahneman’s theory of behavioral economics about two types of human decisions – fast “intuitive” and slow “rational”. The basic premise of Kahneman’s theory is that today’s consumer is more often driven by emotions, intuition and irrational factors than logical and rational factors. An important part of the decision-making process – especially when it comes to shopping – is often unconscious, however most of the research tries to understand and explain it by methods that are extremely rational. This is where consumer neuroscience steps in, a type of research that uses medical technologies to measure the neurophysiological reactions of the brain with regard to stimuli at the exact moment of occurrence.

And exactly this, a direct reaction at the moment of the event, is also one of the biggest challenges of such measurements, since the conditions must be the same or at least extremely similar to the real-life environment. The genuine reaction of our gray cells is measured, not a fictional scenario. Due to the assumption that the brain responds to what it sees and hears exactly as it is, the presentation of sketches or storyboards does not make sense, the most appropriate methods for this remain those related to introspection. With consumer neuroscience there is only a direct response to the stimulus, and this is where the magic of this approach is hidden – there are no socially desirable debates, no embellishment, it is only a raw response.

Neurological measurements in this context are intended to create better audio-visual content and more appropriate consistency of the various elements used in creating them, optimizing the initial idea and making decisions, with what to go in front of the buyer. This is a tool that deals with basic initial reactions, which are often inconspicuous and unconscious – in many respects evolutionary – with reactions that are above (or, to be more precise, under) our cognition. EEG helps us measure the asymmetry of the alpha wave in the prefrontal cortex, indicating the valence of emotional reaction while the electrodes that monitor the activity in the occipital part of the brain tell us the degree of attention that was present at a given
moment. In addition to these data, eye movements are analyzed decoding the physical focus.


Over the past year and a half, Valicon and BLCKB Applicable Neuroscience measured over 500 audio-visual stimuli in Slovenia and the wider region, which is probably one of the largest, if not the largest, such database in Europe. We participated in approximately 100 projects and with more than 40 brands. This huge database of knowledge is already offering us some patterns that show an important distinction between excellent and good ads.

What we are seeing is that over performing ads draw their inspiration from the local environment. They refer to local contexts, local tales, legends, stories, national identities and / or local music. The best performing ad so far is “Dobro jutro Džezveri« for Doncafe brand,

transforming a famous Bajaga song Dobro jutro džezeri using a nice twist, making strong associations to the category and use-occasion. In fact, we can see that all strong performers strongly refer to stories that connect us on one level or the other, those that touch us – somehow. In a way multinational companies have a harder job to do, especially if they have the same communication strategy on different markets. The data clearly shows significant (cultural) differences between the markets, which means that adapting to the local environment is highly recommended. Even if this means adapting one single frame, for example showing a local element, one that instinctively makes the advert more domestic and at the same time more attractive. Evan small adjustments, shortenings or (even slightly) twisting a story can lead to a significant improvement in the way the ad is perceived and finally effective. For example, a scene can be shortened because a reaction to a particular actor was more negative or a different type of animation is used. All this is extremely important, even though they can “only” be referred as production details. We also noticed that people are fed up with bull-shit. Any type of dishonesty, either in a story or with actors, evokes a negative reaction.


Currently, the best performing ad in Slovenia, Spar’s 2017 New Year’s ad “Najlepše darilo ste vi” 

is a good example of sincere acting and of an ad to which the viewers responded in an expected positive way practically throughout the story. There have been many ads in Slovenia that have done their job excellently. For example, NLB’s ad for the Mastercard Pre-Payment Card – “Jedi”

Witty with good acting and unexpected ending over performed in terms of emotional reaction. Or Telekom Slovenia’s ad “Za najbližje gremo najdlje”

with one of the highest measured mental attention scores, which in practice means that it needs less media investment to achieve the same effects as average ads, because its foundations for standing out of the crowd are initially better. Or Argeta’s “Kako jo imaš ti najraje”

and Poli’s “Nikoli ji ne recite hrenovka”

which are currently achieving the best scores in the brand section. The former from the positive emotional reaction to the brand in the ad, while the outstanding performance of Poli comes as a result of an excellent visualization and synchronization in the brand section (end animation).


At the same time we also noticed several untapped opportunities. There are many instances where by just using micro animations, or simply by synchronizing audio-visual content in certain sequences, attention could have been activated more thoroughly and, as a rule, this could have helped improve the effectiveness of the ad. Also, emotional dynamics of the ad could have been improved by just replacing certain scenes or sometimes even by excluding them completely. Even if the viewer (in a cognitive sense) does not notice the difference, neurophysiological results show that such subtle details distinguish a good ad from an excellent one.

It is always difficult to find a dialogue between intuition and science, when discussing the effectiveness of the content. What we definitely know is that we need a dialogue. It is bad for everyone, if it does not exist but it is even worse if the dialogue is bad. Consumer neuroscience is an additional disrupter in this context, as it does not merely change the research platform, but it changes the whole paradigm. Every change is disruptive. Whether it will encourage creativeness or standardization is a matter of choice. We know that it brings a change for everyone involved – in the long run (hopefully), for the better.

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