Sophisticated neuroscience research "discovers" what good copywriters have always known


Talk about killing flies with an elephant gun. Nielsen, the audience research company, put together a consumer neuroscience group to help advertisers learn how to “break trough the clutter” of “competing messages constantly fighting for consumers’ attention.” A worthy goal when you consider that in an average day, every man, woman and child in this country is bombarded with 1,800 advertising sales  messages. Over 16 waking hours, that’s 112.5 ad messages an hour, 1.875 a minute, or one sales message every 32 seconds. (It’s almost as bad as spending your whole life watching an endless parade of television :30s.) In a massive deployment of the latest whizzy super high tech, they assembled “a combination of electroencephalography (EEG) and eye-tracking measurements” to “capture people’s reactions, long before they are able to consciously verbalize their thoughts…provide insights that survey-based questionnaires cannot replicate” and “measure not only overall response to a given [advertising] execution but also what captures viewers’ attention, what engages them on an emotional level and what will be retained in memory.”

Then they deployed this Big Brother-like neuroscientific array on behalf of the United Nations World Food Programme to test American and British consumers’ responsiveness to an assortment of print ads. They monitored “eye-tracking measurements” and “levels of memory activation, emotional engagement and action intent.” Let’s forget for the moment that sitting around a lab with brains wired for sound and who knows what else doesn’t exactly replicate how consumers see and react to ads in their homes or in the marketplace and assume that Nielsen’s conclusions were still fairly accurate.

Do you know what those conclusions were? Make sure you’re sitting down for this:

What all this big-time neuroscience technology found [drum roll] was that “including a simple benefit statement allowed viewers to connect how their response would make a tangible impact and consequently was shown to increase action intent.” Translated into simple, everyday, nonscientific language that means that people are most interested in “What’s in it for me?”

This astonishing revelation is something that good advertising copywriters have known for decades, if not for at least a century. Ad makers have always known that sales points can be broken down into a hierarchy of four categories: features, attributes, benefits and end benefits. A feature is something built into the product. An attribute is a quality or characteristic that results from that feature. A benefit is something good that the product or service’s features and attributes do for you, the consumer. And an end benefit is something even better that the benefit does for you. Long before Neilsen started blinding advertisers with neuroscience, copywriters knew that features and attributes were the weakest selling points, while benefits and end benefits were the strongest.

Miller used this knowledge to revolutionize beer advertising in 1979. Before then, most beer advertising was feature-driven, with commercials rhapsodizing over the quality of the hops, barley and water that comprised each brew’s ingredients. The “Miller Time” campaign changed all that by positioning its beer as a great way to reward yourself for a hard day’s blue-collar work. Budweiser shortly adopted the same positioning with its “For all you do, this Bud’s for you” campaign.

Until 2012, Wal-Mart advertising was built around a feature – everyday low prices, with specific examples that updated from week to week. Then, in an outreach to higher-end consumers, they switched to a four-word campaign line – “Save Money. Live Better.” that combined a benefit and end benefit. Saving money was the benefit that resulted from everyday low prices. And living better was the end benefit you could enjoy by virtue of having saved money.

In the most effective ads, you see benefits and end benefits as the brand’s main promise, with attributes and features, if they’re there at all, as support points for the promise. That’s because human beings are hard-wired to look out for their own best interests – something so obvious, it doesn’t take high-tech neuroscience to discover.