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How the Brain Screens Advertising
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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Face it, consumer advocates — consumers are not as dumb or as swayed by advertising as you would like to believe. According to research published in the Journal of Marketing Research, it suggests that there is a two-stage brain process where consumers can weed out believable advertising, moderately deceptive advertising, and highly deceptive advertising. It further suggests that understanding this new finding could help researchers understand how aging or injuries could make people more prone to poor decision-making.

The researchers of the study, a combined effort of professors from NC State University, University of South Florida, Fordham, and USC, used advertisements that were pre-tested to make sure the subjects would find the products equally interesting and desirable so the only significant variable would be the believability.

The findings were interesting. In the first stage of the deliberation, the researchers saw that the more deceptive the advertisement, the more brain activity there seemed to be. Does this mean that consumers are more drawn to deceptive ads? Not at all. The increased brain activity means that the consumer is trying to figure out if the ad is fair or foul; like if we see a stranger at our door, and we are trying to figure out if they are a friend or foe. In the second stage of the process, the part of the brain that includes the "theory of mind" (ToM) reasoning is activated. Meaning, the consumer is know deciphering whether the advertisement is true and if it applies to them. The result? The activity focuses more on the moderately deceptive ads and totally screens out the highly deceptive. Call it a moral victory for consumers, and a nice "I told you so" from AdLand. And lastly, if in some way, the ToM reasoning process is interfered with, the consumer is more likely to find the moderately deceptive ad believable.

What does this tell AdLand? First, as long as the consumer's decision-making isn't interfered with, they will more often than not screen out bad advertising. Which means we should be motivated to create advertising that avoids deceptive practices. Unfortunately, if practitioners wanted to practice deceptive advertising, all they have to do is interfere with the ToM reasoning of the consumer, and make it difficult for them to define the ad's intention.

Is the consumer easily misled? No. The better question is, is the distracted consumer easily misled? According to the study, it seems so.

Does that mean the deceptive advertisers in AdLand get a pass, that they can use the "distracted consumer" clause as an excuse? Absolutely not. It is our job; nay, our duty — to make sure that advertising is easily understood, appealing, and truthful. We know that a distracted consumer can make below-average decisions, so it should be up to us to create advertising that can cut through the clutter and assist them by giving them the knowledge and awareness they need.


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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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