On Advertising: Better ads with MRIs?
Eric Pfanner International Herald Tribune
SUNDAY, MARCH 26, 2006
A television advertisement set to appear in France next week spoofs one of the memorable moments in French politics, when President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, having been defeated by his Socialist challenger, François Mitterrand, bid the nation farewell in a solemn television address in 1981. At the end of his speech, Giscard intoned a funereal "au revoir" and strode away melodramatically as the cameras lingered on his empty desk.
In the ad, an actor with the number 12 emblazoned on his shirt mimics Giscard, saying goodbye and walking away. After a few seconds of silence, a pair of wacky characters in curly wigs and 1980's-style aerobics outfits bound onto the scene, displaying the numbers 118 and 218.
They represent a new directory assistance service reached by dialing 118-218, one of several challengers to France Télécom's service, which has long been accessible via the number 12. As of April 3, that number will no longer be valid, as France joins other European countries in deregulating directory assistance.
At a time when protesters are taking to the streets of Paris over a proposed employment law and politicians are posturing before presidential elections next year, the lighthearted satire seems timely. But there are other reasons that, from a marketing perspective, the ad presses the right buttons.
The spot, the latest installment in an introductory campaign for the 118-218 service, which is owned by a subsidiary of Infonxx, a U.S.-based company, embraces ideas gleaned from scientifically studying how the brain responds to advertising messages. Marketing experts are paying increasing attention to such neuromarketing as researchers employ more sophisticated tools, including functional magnetic resonance imaging, or functional MRI.
Gemma Calvert, co-founder and managing director of Neurosense, a neuromarketing firm in Oxford, England, said science can provide insights that cannot be matched through conventional marketing research methods like focus groups. Those panels, often convened by marketers seeking feedback on new products or ad campaigns, are easily tainted by group dynamics or by leading questions, she said.
"What you really want to do is look inside the black box and find out what is actually happening in the brain," she said. "This technique gets at insights that focus groups can't begin to explain."
One disciple is Robin Wight, chairman of the London-based ad agency WCRS, which developed a British advertising campaign that served as a template for the Giscard ad and other French spots promoting 118-218. The British campaign has run since 2002, when it introduced the British equivalent of 118-218, which is reached via the number 118-118 in Britain.
The British ads, initially featuring a pair of long-distance runners in cheesy 1970s' getups - flowing wigs, droopy mustaches and high- riding shorts - have been enormously successful, helping 118-118 carve out a market share of more than 40 percent. It bypassed the former monopoly, BT, when its service under the number 192 was switched off in 2003. Though BT now offers directory assistance under the number 118-500, it still trails the newcomer.
How did 118-118 do it, and how does neuromarketing play into it? While the company's ad agencies did not run functional MRIs on consumers, they did employ ideas gleaned from such studies.
"It's not easy getting into people's minds," said Chris Moss, European chairman of the Infonxx unit that runs 118-118, 118-218 and a similar service in Italy. "People never like to learn new numbers, but you can train them to do so if you personalize the numbers. People always remember a person before they remember a number."
To make sure that consumers associated its numbers with faces, WCRS ensured that its runner behaved in an attention-grabbing - some might say annoying - manner. In the TV spots, the runners pranced around in a variety of places, escorting an aging actor bearing the 192 number into retirement.
The British campaign, planned by another agency, Naked Communications, was extended into the real world, with the 118-118 actors appearing in shopping malls and at sporting events. To jog the brain into remembering that the sequence of numbers consisted of two equal parts - 118 and 118 - the two actors appeared to be twins, another powerful mnemonic device.
The campaign eventually became a pop-culture phenomenon, with consumers doing free advertising - dressing up as the 118 runners for costume parties, for example.
In the French campaign, created by Agence V, a subsidiary of Omnicom Group's DDB division, similar tactics were employed. French regulators, having seen that the 118-118 number provided an unfair competitive advantage because of its mnemonic nature, decided not to award that sequence to any of the companies seeking to operate directory assistance.But Infonxx acquired 118-218 in a lottery and modified its campaign accordingly.
Instead of playing identical twin runners, the French actors appear slightly different - one blond, the other dark-haired - but they are similarly dressed, and constantly repeat the numbers they wear on their chests. In an effort to capitalize on the brain's positive associations with nostalgia, some of the spots in which they appear are a sendup of a 1980s' television fitness show, "Gym Tonic," which was hosted by a pair of aerobics instructors.
Wight of WCRS said the success of the campaign in Britain could have implications for many advertising problems. Many advertisers are worried about a loss of effectiveness from television advertising, for instance, as viewers increasingly use digital video recorders to fast-forward through the ads in shows. Neuromarketing research suggests that even ads seen in fast-forward mode can leave an imprint in the brain, since few consumers give advertising their undivided attention in the first place.
Are all of these mind games fair play? Or is neuromarketing an insidious way for advertisers to manipulate consumers into buying things they don't need?
Calvert said neuromarketing can aid consumers by ensuring that marketers understand what they really want.
"Because so much money is being lost in marketing, people are being called to account," she said. "This is a way to provide some of that accountability."
Eric Pfanner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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