« A bit quiet | Main | Pre-testing, part II »


Robert Heath

I think it is worth noting that Nigel Hollis’s quotes from Damasio are more than a little misleading.

The first quote he uses - “Consciousness must be present if feelings are to influence the subject having them beyond the immediate here and now.” - is simply meant to state the obvious, which is that if a subject is unconscious then they will not be able to think about and debate the feelings they have experienced. Clearly in an advertising situation if a subject is not conscious then the feelings will not be linked to anything. But it does not say that a high level of consciousness is necessary, just that some level of consciousness is necessary. It is perfectly possible to have a low level of consciousness, process emotion in advertising, link it to the brand, and change your buying predisposition without ever thinking hard about or recalling the emotion you experienced.

The second quote - “When consciousness is available, feelings have their maximum impact” – appears to suggest that feelings are dependent upon high levels of consciousness in order to have the greatest effect. Read the full quote and you will see that this is not true. What Damasio is talking about is how we can best use our reason to combat what he calls the ‘pervasive tyranny’ of emotion. Here it is in full:
“The pervasiveness of emotion in our development… connects virtually every object or situation in our experience. Whether we like it or not that is the natural human condition. But when consciousness is available, feelings have their maximum impact, and individuals are also able to reflect and to plan. They have a means of to control the pervasive tyranny of emotion: it is called reason. Ironically, of course, the engines of reason still require emotion, which means the controlling power of reason is often modest” (Damasio 1999: 58).

So what Damasio is saying is that it is only when we are fully conscious that we can counter-argue the effects of emotion. In other circumstances – for example, when low levels of consciousness are present, as in most TV viewing – emotional influence runs riot.

The third quote - “I did not suggest, however, that emotions are a substitute for reason or that emotions decide for us.” – seems eminently sensible. After all, it is conscious thinking that controls the muscles that pick the pack off the shelf, not emotion. But again, what Damasio is really talking about is the critically important power of emotion in decision-making. Here is the full quote:
“I suggested that certain levels of emotion processing probably point us to the sector in the decision-making space where our reason can operate most effectively. I did not suggest, however, that emotions are a substitute for reason or that emotions decide for us. It is obvious that emotional upheavals can lead to irrational decisions. The neurological evidence simply suggests that selective absence of emotion is a problem. Well-targeted and well-deployed emotion seems to be the support system without which the edifice of reason cannot operate properly. These results and their interpretation called into question the idea of dismissing emotion as a luxury or a nuisance or a mere evolutionary vestige” (1999: 42).

Incidentally, ‘The Feeling of What Happens’, published in 1999, is not Damasio’s most recent book. His most recent book is ‘’looking for Spinosa’ (Damasio 2003), where on page 149 he shows a diagram of decision-making with a path A which is rational and a path B which is emotional. On the same page he states quite categorically: “On occasion, path B can lead to a decision directly, as when a gut feeling impels an immediate response.” The ability of emotions to direct decision-making has been validated empirically both in experiments and in real life (See Heath Brandt & Nairn, Journal of Advertising Research, 2006). Not least you should note that the recent IPA report by Les Binet and Peter Field, referencing 880 successful advertising case studies, concludes that ‘overwhelmingly the most effective campaigns are those that focus on the emotional rather than the rational’ (Marketing magazine 13th June 2007: 28).

In his blog Nigel says ‘So, in reference to Jason’s criticism of pre-testing, I would suggest that one reason it (pre-testing) works is that people must be conscious of their reaction if an ad is to have a lasting effect on them.’ That’s absolute nonsense and simply isn’t what Damasio is saying. Indeed, if anything he is saying that if people don’t pay attention then emotions run riot and rule their subsequent behaviour. After all, it is emotions, not reason, that mostly underpin consumer decision.

Dr. Robert Heath
[email protected]

Nigel Hollis

Hi Jason,
I agree that it is great that Robert has joined the debate, even though I cannot agree with his proposal that I am quoting Damasio out of context. While Robert frames the quotes to benefit his argument I stand by my interpretation.

Only Damasio really knows what he was trying to say and whether it is applicable to our discussion, and, with that in mind, I sent an e-mail asking for his interpretation. I will let you know if I hear back.

Meanwhile here are my thoughts which can be found in full at http://www.mb-blog.com/index.php/2007/05/18/in-defense-of-pre-testing/ along with those from a couple of colleagues:

As I said, I stand by my interpretation of the Damasio quotes. I firmly believe that what he suggests is that unless an emotional response is available to introspection it will not have a lasting effect on a person’s predisposition toward a brand. I do not say that someone must reflect consciously on that response at the time of viewing. Rather I think they need to be conscious enough of their feelings that they could reflect on it if prompted to do so.

I think we must make a distinction between the emotional response that directs our attention to an ad and the emotional response to a brand at the point of purchase. The stronger the emotional response, the more attention we pay to the ad. The more attention we pay, the more memorable the content will be. Provided the memories and feelings evoked by the ad are firmly linked to the brand in people’s minds, then they have a chance of influencing subsequent purchase decisions.

Do I believe that emotional response has a direct influence on peoples’ brand choice? Absolutely, and I said so in the original post. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous, and I would recommend reading some of the Millward Brown papers that confirm that emotional campaigns tend to be more effective than rational ones (for established brands).

The real issue here is not whether emotions influence behavior, it is whether higher attention to an ad at the time of exposure improves the likelihood of effect. You only have to recall your own memories of emotional events that happened years ago to realize that they are far more vivid than those of mundane events that happened yesterday. I do not deny that TV advertising can have an effect when viewed with low attention. My point is that such exposure is likely to have little long-term effect unless the ad was viewed with some attention at an earlier time.

Jon Howard (Living Brands)

An old post, but seems the best place to offer up this thought...

Despite being someone who worked with Robert on the development of the initial LIP thinking, and with sympathies that sway in his direction, I've always felt that a more interesting and constructive discussion would be for him and someone like Nigel to park their differences (and commercial agendas), stop rehashing old arguments, see where they agree on these issues (probably more than they would like to admit), and build on this to take advertising research somewhere even better.

So go on Jason - issue the challenge and be the Kofi Annan (or whoever the new fella is) of ad research. Burnetts must have the muscle to get them round the table!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Big pencils, big ideas

Stats and stuff