Flying Seraph
How Amateur Spielbergs Kill Advertising

Last week I came across a type of communication research that is sheer, unadulterated nonsense. Pseudo-scientific pretense that bamboozles while it pretends to illuminate.

My colleagues came back from a research presentation absolutely dumbfounded.

Picture this: bunches of people sit there with electrodes attached to their heads. They watch a 30 second TV ad. The researcher notes when and where their brains light up.

Then – like an amateur Spielberg – the researcher starts to take scissors to the ad. Cut this scene or that: ‘It’s not doing anything because their brains aren’t lighting up.’

Which set me wondering about the great plays, sonnets, fairytales, movies we grew up with. Stories that relied on quiet moments to make the loud moments loud. Light and shade, if you will.

I wondered what would have happened had we researched ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ this way – “cut the travelling through the forest bit, it’s not ‘up’ enough”. Or in Jaws – “just show continuous shark scenes, that’s when their brains are firing”.

Imagine we took the scalpel to Shakespeare: “cut the quiet, slow parts. No dramatic pauses, thanks. Let’s just have all the bits where the brain lights up excitedly”.

No shade thanks, we’ll just have light.

Imagine we took the knife to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Who needs the quiet bits? Why not cut this ‘soft’ phrase:

‘But I’m just a poor boy and nobody loves me’

That somber, quiet ending doesn’t really set the neurons blazing either:

‘Nothing really matters.

Anyone can see.

Nothing really matters – nothing really matters to me.

Any way the wind blows.’

Removing the shade is like shooting a zebra in the black part – the white part dies too.

When you kill the shade, the light loses its brilliance. What remains is uniform. Beige. Unvarying. No downs. Therefore, no ups. (Bit like a Harvey Norman ‘30 seconds of excited shouting’ ad, really.)

When everything’s a ‘high’ the piece, by definition, is flat. Nothing stands out. Nothing is noteworthy. Nothing worth processing. No attitude change. No behaviour change.

We’ve seen it all before with the infernal and destructive ‘worm’ – popularised in televised political debates. Entertaining – sure. Reliable? Not a chance. This updated version of the same codswallop pretends to have contemporary credibility by implying it has neuroscience backing.

The underlying premise is defective regardless of whether the ‘worm’ is generated by twiddling a knob or by sticking electrodes to subjects’ heads.

As for the claimed or implied neuro-credentials, Prof Byron Sharp has this to say:

“Neuroscience is fashionably dragged in as support: ‘Oh, look, this part of the brain lights up when people see a brand they know well and buy – this proves that brand preference is due to brands forging strong subconscious emotional bonds.’ This is a gigantic leap of logic! It is worth noting that no serious neuroscientist has made such a claim, nor been willing to support such a claim.”

To me, both the concept of a ‘worm’ as a valid research technique and the pretense that it has scientific sanction (neuro or otherwise) raises false hope in many in our industry.

I cannot recommend it. Nor turn a blind eye to it.

There you have it. My view. In black and white.

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  1. Rob Campbell

    I once had a client tell me ‘Mr Bean’ was a great example of engaging and positive communication.

    They said they wanted their work to be like one of his shows, because he didn’t alienate anyone which meant they were broadening the appeal of their brand.

    This is the sort of idiotic thinking that this “research” is based on.

    The sort of commercial strategy only a 5 year old could believe.

    Actually that’s wrong, because 5 year olds learn from shows like Sesame Street and the producers of that show understand the power of light and shade. [See #8 at

    As we pointed out to the client, if you don’t stand for something, people will fall for anything … but more than that, while some may like Mr Bean because of his [alleged] engaging and positive persona, we doubted anyone would spend $50,000 [the cost of one of their products] on something he recommended because popularity doesn’t automatically equate to respect or pride.

    This is the sort of research designed to appeal to people who can’t make a decision. The sort of research that says more about the people behind the brand than the people they’re trying to connect with.

    Small minded thinking for small minded marketers.

    • odadmin

      Thank you for sharing this story..we agree with you! Being clear about what you want, who your audience is and who they look upto is’s understanding your brand 101. We hope you continue to read our pieces and subscribe to our weekly newsletters if you haven’t already…

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