It All Boils Down to Mind Control

At a grand confab like Cannes Lions, some sessions are the equivalent of what newspaper editors once quaintly called a “think piece.” This is not to say that such a session is trifling. On the contrary, it can be quite substantive, even if the point is to provide not a clear course of action but rather an intellectual backdrop for one’s work.

That’s essentially what came out of the presentation titled “Nailing Jelly to a Tree & Other Wild Goose Chases,” featuring a leading forensic scientist and a brainy branding expert.

Itiel Dror is a cognitive neuroscientist who teaches at University College London. Nir Wegrzyn is the founding principal and CEO of BrandOpus. Together they made the case that consumers are driven to act—that is, to buy a brand—almost exclusively by emotion, and not by rational thought. Does it matter if objective testing shows that more people think Pepsi tastes better than Coca-Cola? We all know the answer.


“Four times more people buy Coke than buy Pepsi,” Wgrzyn said. “How come we have this disparity? Branding takes over. It frames what the brand actually is. It puts a layer of context over and above the perceived, rational facts, and switches them around so that they become something quite different.”

Wegryzn acknowledged that he was pointing out the obvious, that he wasn’t offering a new idea. But Dror addressed the underlying factors—human perception, cognition, and the motivation to take action for reasons other than rational thought—with unusual anecdotes, including one from his work as a behavioral consultant in law enforcement and medicine, as well as from his personal life.

“At home with my kids—I can tell them over and over again, ‘Do not open the door for a stranger,” he said. “I started reminding them: ‘I’m leaving. I’m going shopping for two hours. Please remember, do not open the door for strangers.’ After two minutes, I come back, and I put my hand over the ‘spy hole,’ and I knock. And they say, ‘Who is it?’ I don’t answer. They ask again, Who is it? And I don’t answer. I do it again and again and again. After two minutes, they can’t take it anymore, they open the door.”

And then all hell breaks loose. Or as Dror put it: “I give them an experience.” He roared into the microphone, sounding like a wounded dragon. “I scare them. They get tears in their eyes. The are upset. That one emotional experience is more effective than 100 [rational] ones.”

The lesson for creatives is never to forget the power of emotion to create lasting memories and shape behavior.

Dror also cited a study he did with fingerprint experts who had testified that prints found at a crime scene matched those of a defendant on trial. He noted that during legal proceedings, the experts also learned, for instance, that the suspect had confessed, or that a witness had placed him at the crime scene. Those details are what Dror calls “contextual emotional information.” When Dror reinterviewed the fingerprint experts and presented them with facts contradicting the defendant’s guilt, he said, 80 percent of the experts “found that the prints didn’t match anymore.”

“These scientific, objective, rational people—80 percent of them said the same fingerprints did not match,” Dror said. “Supposedly this is a scientific, objective, rational process.”

At this point Wegrzyn chimed in. “What I’m hearing here is that people have serious fantasies about how they think about themselves and how they make decisions,” he said.

Now Dror was on a roll. He told another story, adding some gore for good measure.

Acting as a consultant to an organization that was training surgeons, Dror suggested, “Let’s set them up for failure.”

Doctors in training simulate procedures over and over again, in order to master the mechanics of an operation. At Dror’s suggestion, the doctors operated on realistic medical mannequins—ones with functioning organs and blood in their veins. But the procedures were designed to go wrong, unbeknownst to the men and women wielding the knife. “We let the simulated patient die,” Dror said. “The doctors remember when the patient died and they made a mistake. It’s more powerful—the emotional memory sticks—than doing the procedure correctly 100 times in simulation.”

Wegrzyn pulled the session out of the faux surgical suite and back into adland. “The news is that we still think of the consumer acting in some sort of rational way,” he said. “But if the consumer acts in a way that is not rational, what does that mean? What does it mean when people make decisions in another way? Because we are overly concerned about the way in which people think about the way they think, and think about what they are going to do. Perhaps that restricts the way in which we structure our creativity. Perhaps it restricts our capability to bring emotive arguments, to influence the way in which the consumer actually buys things.”

In other words, the way into a consumer’s heads is through the heart.


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