The Myth of Marketing: How Research Reaches For The Heart But Only Connects With The Head

Douglas Van Praet discusses the importance of emotion in decision making (and everything else) and how his agency’s blockbuster “The Force” may not have made it through the traditional research process.

The Myth of Marketing: How Research Reaches For The Heart But Only Connects With The Head

Marketers are supposed to be the experts on connecting emotionally with customers. But ironically, their current market research practices make it almost impossible to do so.


Despite lip service paid to emotions, businesses routinely make multimillion-dollar marketing decisions on the false premise that respondents in survey research can consciously explain the unconscious origins of their actions. They fail to recognize that most of the business of life happens through our emotions, below the threshold of awareness.

As the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor puts it, “We live in a world where we are taught from the start that we are thinking creatures that feel. The truth is, we are feeling creatures that think.”

The word “motivation” and “emotion” share the same Latin root, “movere,” which means to move. Emotions are automated actions. They evolved not for our amusement but as purposeful behavioral responses to ensure survival. The challenge for marketers is that they originate without our knowing. We don’t consciously choose our feelings. They often choose for us.

For too long, standard marketing theory has had it backwards. The most startling truth is we don’t even think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions. They constitute the foundation on which they’re made!

Neurologist Antonio Damasio observed this phenomenon through the peculiar behavior of one of his patients. Elliot had suffered brain damage to a part of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in the risk and benefit analysis of decision making.


Elliot ostensibly seemed normal, with one glaring exception. He lacked the ability to make decisions, deliberating endlessly in the face of simple, mundane choices such as whether or not to use a black or blue pen or when to schedule his next appointment. Because brain damage had severed the connection between his emotions and his rational thinking, Elliot was strangely devoid of feeling and even emotionally numb to his own tragic inability to make decisions.

When we ask respondents in traditional copy, tracking, and concept tests to report their emotional motivation to buy brands, we are asking their chatty, limited, linear mind to interpret the responses of their immensely more powerful, holistic, creative mind. Cognitive science experiments have shown that our left brain rationalizes stories in attempt to organize and categorize the sensory experiences of the right brain. As Taylor explains, “My left brain is doing the best job it can with the information it has to work with. I need to remember, however, that there are enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know.”

The left brain speaks in words and numbers, and the right brain communicates in feelings and images. So asking someone to reduce their emotions to numerical ratings and explain the causes of their feelings in verbal accounts is like asking someone who only knows English to interpret Mandarin. Describing joy or sorrow as an arithmetic mean is like describing a van Gogh painting as a binomial coefficient.

Emotions, not words, are the innate universal language of humans and the primary means by which we learn new behaviors. We learn best kinesthetically, through feeling not thinking, which is why “a picture is worth a thousand words” and “talk is cheap.”

The left brain creates an intellectual understanding of “self” and a sense of separation from others. Our right brain creates a feeling of “we,” that wonderful sense of connection with one another and the ineffable awe of living in the moment–the essences of better lives and great brands.


We need to generate smiles, tears, or goose bumps–not significant differences correlated at the 95% confidence interval! These are the things that these data tabulations will never capture, but they are also the things that make us buy brands.

I have created a 7-step process on how to inspire ourselves so that we can inspire customers. These are the seven steps:

1) Interrupt the Pattern
2) Create Comfort
3) Lead the Imagination
4) Shift the Feeling
5) Satisfy the Critical Mind
6) Change the Associations
7) Take Action

Step 4 is: Shift the Feeling. If you want to generate action, you have to generate emotion.

Take for instance a commercial we created for Volkswagen for the Super Bowl. Traditional ad testing indicated that the spot generated a below-average persuasion score–the measure of stated purchase intent that has achieved exalted status in the industry despite its weak correlation to actual sales.


That ad was the story of a miniature Darth Vader who comes to believe in the power of The Force when his dad uses the remote-start feature of a Volkswagen. And it might never have run if we only relied on these tests and measures.

But in another study, this same ad received the highest “neuro-engagement score” in the annual Sands Research Super Bowl Ad Neuro Ranking, which measures not what people say but how they feel through electrophysiological activity in the brain. As Dr. Stephen Sands, chair and chief science officer at Sands Research, announced, “This year [Deutsch LA’s] Darth Vader advertisement elicited such a strong emotional response, it ranks as the highest we have ever tested.”

Volkswagen’s decision to run “The Force” paid off. It became among the most beloved and shared Super Bowl ads ever, amassing a staggering 56 million views on YouTube, earning a reported 6.8 billion impressions worldwide and more than $100 million in earned media. And it helped the VW brand achieve the best market share stateside in 30 years in 2011. So much for purchase intent.

I’m not saying we must measure ads through brain scan research to determine their effectiveness. But we should recognize the shortcomings of traditional approaches and heed the lessons from cognitive science.

What we need to do is to rouse hearts, not heads. And inspire the part of us that seeks connection, not separation–through that elusive emotional relevance that marketers say is so critical but also make so difficult to create.


Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also executive vice president at agency Deutsch LA, where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for the Volkswagen account. Van Praet’s approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to business problems.
Read his previous pieces:
Research–You’re Doing It Wrong: How Uncovering The Unconscious Is Key To Creativity;
I’m Not Your Consumer: How Research Misses The Human Behind The Demographic

We’re Marketers, Not Soliders: How Combative Competition Is Killing Creativity.

[Images: Flickr users Johnny Leung, Donna Cymek, and Mark Miller | Van Gogh Bedroom in Arles via Wikimedia]