One of the most effective television campaigns of the last decade is the advertising that introduced the iPhone.. It showed a disembodied hand holding the phone comfortably in its palm, while the forefinger of the other hand touched the icons on the screen,
activating one app after another, flipping through pages of information, pinching images to shrink or expand them. The voiceover was almost unnecessary; the visual demonstration was so compelling. The point was that the Internet could now be like an
extension of your body.
Of the five senses, touch is the first sensory system to develop and the last to leave us after taste and smell, sight and hearing have failed. The touch of a newborn baby is pure joy to its parent and a hug is the final expression of love in old age.
Marketers acknowledge its importance when they talk about the “touch-points” of a brand.
Neuroscientists now know that the image your mind has of your body is not bounded by the surface of your skin. In fact, your brain maps the space around your body out to roughly arm’s length—called your peripersonal space—so in a neurological sense this
mental space suit is an extension of you.
This invisible bubble of personal space that you wear is elastic; it expands and contracts and changes shape to fit your goals and intentions. When you drive a car your peripersonal space grows to envelop the car so with practice you instinctively know
where the bumper is when you make a tight turn. When you hold a fork, your mental image of your body grows beyond the tips of your fingers to the tines of the fork so that you directly feel the texture and freshness of the food on your plate even though
your fingers are really only touching metal.
When you play a video game your imagination and your mental maps of your physical self interact in a complex simulation of reality that, to many players, becomes indistinguishable from real world experience. The reason for this is that mental simulations
of physical activity fire many of the same neurons in the brain that are involved in actual movement. This is why athletes engage in mental training—e.g. visualizing a golf swing before actually making it—to complement physical practice. From the standpoint
of rehearsing the body maps in our brains, imagining doing something is almost the same as actually doing it.
The appeal of watching sports on television is that the emulator systems in our brains make us feel like we are actually playing in the game. These “mirror systems” in the brain may be key to understanding at a deeper level how advertising works. When
we watch someone in a television commercial enjoy eating cereal or washing their hair or driving a car our mirror system is engaged so that we mentally rehearse doing the same things. In the context of advertising, it’s a concept we call “virtual consumption.”
Mirror neurons are what allows us to adopt another person’s point-of-view when we watch them perform some kind of action. By firing a subset of the motor neurons in the brain that would be involved it’s how we learn to perform the same action ourselves.
But there are also mirror neurons that are linked to other kinds of receptors—those in our skin, for example. As a result, when we watch someone else being touched, in the very real sense of causing parallel neural activity in our own brain, we can
feel the touch ourselves. The mirror neuron system is, therefore, not only a key system in the mind for learning, but it may also provide the mechanism that enables us to feel emotional empathy—to feel connected to others.
For the cartographers of the brain, the fMRI scanner is the key instrument of exploration today. One that is now being widely used to study how different parts of the brain responds to advertising. But before the invention of this new technology, one
of the oldest maps of the brain was done in the 1930s by Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon, who spent hours probing the brain tissue of awake patients with an electrode. By putting together the patients’ self-reported information about what sensations
were being stimulated with the location of the brain he was touching with his electrode, Penfield was able to create the well-known body map shown in figure 1.
What the map shows is the body redrawn according to the amount of brain “space”—the number of neurons—devoted to each body part. It’s kind of like one of those oddly distorted maps of the world you’ve seen where countries have been resized to reflect
the portion of the world’s oil reserves they contain, with the Middle-East looking much bigger than Europe. Not surprisingly, on Penfield’s map the face is the largest body part, because that’s where the largest density of neural receptors resides.
In contrast, the torso is only a small region on the map.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Penfield’s map is the size of the hands, which are nearly as large as the face. On one level this clearly reflects the importance of our hands in determining our evolutionary high status as a “tool-making animal.”
On another level it reflects the importance of our hands, like our faces, in communication.
When we talk about “non-verbal” communication and “body language” we are largely talking about the emotions and ideas we display on our faces and sculpt in the air with our hands.
At Ameritest we spend a great amount of time trying to understand the non-verbal part of an ad, what is being communicated visually. Using our on-line Picture Sorts® techniques we identify the key moments in an ad, both in terms of attention on and emotion,
that are most likely to be encoded into long term memory to build a brand’s image
When we do a content analysis of the kinds of images that rise to the top of consumer consciousness and stick in long term memory, we frequently see across a given product category recurring patterns of certain types of images that seem to be characteristic
of effective advertising. One recurring theme is the importance of the touch of a hand.
In food advertising, for example, showing a pair of hands tearing a loaf of bread apart is a powerful way of creating appetite appeal on camera and signaling the freshness of the bread. As shown in Exhibit 3a, the audience can almost feel the warmth of
the crust in their fingertips, the softness of the bread inside. Similarly, visuals that show a pair of hands pulling apart a cheesy slice of pizza, or fingers snapping a crispy taco chip in two, or licking yogurt from a fingertip are sure to be focal
points of interest.
In personal care advertising, as another example, a close-up showing a model touching her hair (Exhibit 3b) is the best way of dramatizing softness, which cues healthy, beautiful hair. In general, product-in-use visuals which show the product actually
being used on the body—shampoo being massaged into the hair, cream being applied smoothly to the skin of a leg—are not put into commercials to teach consumers how to use the product; such eye-catching visuals are there to make these intangible claims
of these products tangible, so that the consumer can feel the products working.
With over-the-counter drugs, the most important visuals are usually those that physically express the kind of pain the drug relieves. They operate from the principle, the bigger you make the problem, and the more important you make the solution. In a
study of over fifty pain relief drug ads, we consistently found that the most emotionally impactful way to show the idea of pain is to show hands touching a hurting head (Exhibit 3c).
What all of these examples illustrate is the power of touch in building a brand’s image. You might think of this as the “embodied meaning” of the brand.
Too often, some advertisers think of communicating the meaning of a brand only in the abstract, by trying to convey verbal promises or news about the brand. Taking it a step further, better advertisers will also try to associate emotions—e.g. joy or confidence
or excitement—with their brand’s image. But the best advertisers understand that advertising has to sell the Whole Consumer—head, heart… and hands.
Blakeslee, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, Random House, 2007