Aug 22

Don’t forget to activate the “Oh shit!” circuit

Posted by: Bryan DeYoung  
Tagged in: Everything Talks

Okay. I’m going to say something that will likely have ol’ Bill Bernbach rolling in his grave. I’m going to back him up with science. And Bill hated science. At least the growing reliance on it in advertising.  (I can only imagine what he’d think today.) So, Bill, I’m sorry. I’m only doing this in the hopes that the goofy, the crazy, the mad and the different ideas might find a little defense to live another day.

Long before neuroscientists started peering through MRIs into the brain, Bernbach talked about advertising as “… a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formulization, flowering on freshness, and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

Back in the “Ad Men” days, if a guy like Bill Bernbach blurted out; “the maximum impact of originality,” people on the whole listened. These days, it’s different. And the very intuitive thought of such a thing would have to be processed by a firmly bolted marketing research machine. So, maybe, just maybe, here’s one wrench we could throw in that machine:  Researchers today are finding that “the maximum impact of originality” is more than a nice thing. In fact, if something we come across in life doesn’t have it, our minds miss it entirely. In other words, if we’ve seen it before, we don’t really see it. Really.

In his recent book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman uncovers some pretty interesting stuff about how our brains work, and don’t. More neurologists today know that there’s a rich marketplace of dynamics chatting back and forth in the brain to actually change the story of what we perceive.  This also is called “loopiness,” and the result puts our brain on autopilot most of our conscious lives. (Like when you drive to work and can’t remember most of the journey? Kinda like that, but it happens a lot more than you think.)

As Eagleman puts it, “Awareness of your surroundings occurs only when sensory inputs violate expectations. When the world is successfully predicted away, awareness is not needed because the brain is doing its job well.” He goes on to say, “The brain refines its model of the world by paying attention to its mistakes.” That’s right. The things that break the pattern. Like adding an IKEA showroom to your Facebook page where most people have their personal pics. Or starting a spot with “Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me.”  Or just floating a giant stalk of broccoli in the sky that people can only see with their smartphones.

It’s a scientific fact. If it’s different, our brains take notice.

Wired Magazine had a great article a few years back that touched on this same theme. It was titled: “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.” (So, what is it about science writers that like colons in the title?) Anyway, according to Jonah Lehrer who wrote the article, no matter how smart we are, we don’t truly think till someone or something different “shocks us out of our cognitive box.” That’s because there’s a part of our brain, which, even when it does stop and see something, quickly edits it out if deemed as something that’s already known, or doesn’t square with our preconceptions.

Just tell the science types in your next meeting that it’s all thanks to our energy-saving dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. (They’ll like the acronym.) But there’s another part of the brain that notices errors, contradictions and crazy things that make us stop, listen and take notice. It’s mainly there for survival, but it’s just as handy for noticing an effective piece of communication. And that’s your anterior cingulate cortex. Or as Lehrer calls it; your “Oh shit!” circuit. It’s kind of ironic that the part of our brain that actually notices something is the one most testing tends to ignore.

Are you still reading? Really?? Wow. Maybe your “Oh shit” circuit is saying “Oh shit, I never heard this before!” And that might compel you to drop “anterior cingulate cortex” into the conversation at the next Ad Club meeting. Which will undoubtedly be deleted by everyone else’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and be quickly forgotten along with your name. Still, it’s cool that there really is something strategic, even scientific about just being different. And that Bill Bernbach’s gut still trumps some of the finest advertising minds today.

-- Bryan DeYoung, writer/helper

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