Image: Allan Ajifo
Image: Allan Ajifo

Most of us assume that we are rational, but are we really? Understanding this may be the key to successful selling and marketing in business.

As a species we come with baggage. Over a billion years of evolution makes us who we are, and around five million years of evolution differentiates us from the rest of the primates.  We have existed as Homo Sapiens for around 200,000 years, and for less than a fraction of 1% of that time we have sat behind desks or driven cars. The inbuilt urge to take flight because there might be a leopard nearby, is perhaps a greater force than we realise. We no longer need to worry about a leopard – not usually – but the urge to take flight if we are watching Jaws, for example, may a manifestation of this inbuilt tendency.

Robert George Heath, an Associate Professor of Advertising Theory, University of Bath, talks about the Limbic System, what he calls a primitive defence mechanism that causes us to react when a baby cries or makes us jump back onto the pavement to avoid an oncoming car.

We are able to react to stimuli, even when we are not paying attention.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning economist, who wrote “Thinking Fast and Slow” says that there are two forms of thinking. There is a rapid form, in which we react in a certain way, form views, or judgements very rapidly, and a slower more deliberate form of thinking. He says that that the faster form of thinking is more dominant that we realise, and while we like to think of ourselves as being logical, in reality our slower form of thinking often does little more than seek to justify our actions and impose a rational explanation, when no such explanation is accurate. It tries to impose rationality on instinct.

This is why the field of behavioural finance is so pertinent. We know, for example, that anchoring can influence people. If you ask someone to guess the size of a something, but previously had them say a number out loud, the size of the number they previously stated can influence the totally unrelated guess.  So if you ask someone how many stars there are in the universe, and then ask them to estimate your height, their estimate will usually be higher, than if instead of previously asking then about stars in the sky you had asked them to guess the length of an ant in inches.

We are not rational, and can be influenced in ways few of us like to admit to.

Robert George Heath says that an advertisement can influence us, indeed its influence can be especially strong, when we are not paying attention.

He says that the Limbic System can lead us to form a view about a brand, and we effectively become seduced.

He said;  “In 2005 I showed that ad recall doesn’t correlate with ad effectiveness; in 2006 I discovered that the message in advertising has hardly any influence on brand favourability, which is driven almost entirely by emotive content; and in 2009 I demonstrated that ads high in emotive content, despite being shown to be consistently more effective, are invariably paid less attention than ads with evident messages.

Why is this? Well, we tend to like ads that are emotive and creative, and so we don’t see them as a threat. Because they are not a threat we don’t feel the need to pay attention, and because emotion operates subconsciously, paying less attention actually makes the ad even more effective.”

He cites brands such as Renault, Andrex, Nike, Stella, McDonalds, Audi, Bosch, Coke, BMW, VW, Tesco, M&S, British Airways, McDonalds and Marlboro employed subconscious seduction.


For more on how the Limbic system can make advertising effective see Why advertising can influence us when we are not paying attention.