Advertisers invest a lot of time and money trying to find creative ideas that will break through clutter and engage the attention of the consumer. In the digital age, this important attention-getting activity is frequently described as feeding the top of the “sales funnel.”

But as marketers, we should never forget that what lies at the bottom of the funnel is, from a business standpoint, not just sales—it’s the brand.
A brand should be thought of as a complex set of memories built up over time. If the memories are lost, the brand is lost. Or more importantly, if new advertising fails to leave behind any memories linked to the brand, in what sense can we say that that advertising is “effective?”

From a psychological standpoint, if the top of the funnel is about Attention then the bottom of the funnel is about Memory. And, as the most recent findings of neuroscience have shown, neither attention nor memory is as simple as we think.

For one thing, emotion plays a key role in both mental processes, linking the top to the bottom of the funnel. We are more likely to both pay attention to, and remember, the things we care about. A better understanding of the role that emotion plays in the attention-getting system, or engagement, is what has motivated advertisers in recent years to invest in some of the experimental technologies like brain waves, skin conductance, facial response, eye-tracking.

But ironically, one of the reasons that advertisers have not paid as much attention to the subject of memory is because of a failure to appreciate the role that emotion plays in memory formation. In part, this is a legacy of an era when most advertisers thought that the best measure of advertising effectiveness was a recall test. One of the great lessons of the TV era, discovered by companies like P&G, was that high emotional ads frequently test poorly on a recall test. And more importantly, recall tests show limited correlations with sales. The reason for this, we now know with hindsight, is that a recall test is based on an overly simplistic view of memory—something that is, in fact, a very complex subject.

Neuroscience has now taught us that there are three distinct memory systems in the mind—and recall testing only measured one of them.
The simplest way to describe the differences between the three systems is in terms of the classic advertising hierarchy of effects model: Think, Feel, Do.

  1. Think—(Semantic Memory) The memory associated with the rational part of the brain. (It’s also the part a recall test measures.) It’s where concepts, facts and figures are stored. Its role is the traditional view of what we think of as the “head.”
  2. Feel—(Episodic Memory) The memory system associated with personal or autobiographical experiences. Its role is to extract meaning from the many subjective and social experiences that we have. So, think of this as the “heart.”
  3. Do—(Procedural) The oldest, most primitive memory system that has to do with body memories—e.g., driving a car, playing a guitar, or holding a spoon. Physical sensations, such as our sense of touch, are linked to this system. Think of this as the “hand.”

Head, heart, hand—or think, feel, do—these are the three planes of experience that circumscribe our worldly existence, and each of them creates it’s own types of memories.

To see how this three part system can be used to explain how advertising works, let’s look at a famous Volkswagen commercial that aired on the Super Bowl a few years back—an ad that not only got a lot of attention, but also sold a lot of cars. It’s one we call “Little Darth.”

The ad opens with a sequence showing Darth Vader marching toward the screen to the music of Star Wars. It takes us only a moment to realize that this isn’t the real Darth Vader; it’s a little boy dressed like Darth. In a series of funny scenes we see the boy trying to harness the power of the Force—trying his power out on a washing machine, a dog, a doll—all to no avail. Disconsolate at not having any power, Darth is having lunch with his Mom, when Dad comes home driving a brand new Volkswagen Passat. Darth rushes out the door one last time in his quest for power, when, back in the kitchen we see Dad start the car with his radio-controlled key. The car starts with a roar, startling Little Darth with his newfound power over the Force. The commercial then fades to black with information about the surprisingly low price of the new car.

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At Ameritest, we know from our many years of copy-testing, that commercials are stored in memory in chunks, so that some moments in visual storytelling stand out more strongly than do others. These “peak images” are the keys to understanding how long term brand memories are created. Importantly, we now understand that brand memories come in the three “flavors” described above.

As you can see in the exhibit, most of the peak images from this commercial fall into the Feeling category, as the boy struggles to find the Force in his interactions with the objects and other characters in the story. But two of most powerful memories, which go into the Do memory system, are about the sensation of touch—the Dad pressing the radio key to start the car remotely and the physical roar of the car as it starts, surprising Little Darth. And finally, there is one peak image that is a Think memory, the price of the car.

So, one of the secrets of this commercial’s success is that its plugging emotionally charged meaning into all three memory systems of the brain: Feel + Do + Think.

Chuck Young is CEO at Ameritest.
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