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Marketing to your reptilian brain

We are used to marketing as a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon, but lately marketers have increased their efforts to target our unconscious "reptilian brains." ad

Marketing can take many forms, from appealing to higher values such as education--think Baby Einstein--to persuasion in the form of clever, sticky messaging.

But it seems lately that many online advertisers are dropping any attempt to appeal to our higher cerebral functions and are aiming straight for the reptilian brain. News sites like CNN,, and The New York Times are peppered with banner ads that feature attention-getting but meaningless animated characters that dance on the edges of the screen. What fascinates me as a former neuroscientist is that these images are crafted to be irresistible.

My favorites (least favorites?) are a creepy baby head with moving eyes that follow your cursor movements, and dancing aliens that recall the original Dancing Baby in the TV show Ally McBeal. These aliens come in several configurations, including one wearing a pink bikini. It doesn't have anything to do with the mortgage refinancing service being offered, but these images are designed to reflexively grab our "reptilian" brain's attention, like a frog that spies a fly in its peripheral vision and automatically turns its head to zero in on it.

These "made you look"-style ads may becoming more ubiquitous on all levels of communication. Al Gore discusses this in his new book The Assault on Reason, drawing on neuroscience research to argue that political messages are being crafted that take advantage of the emotional, fear-reactive pathways that are separate from our higher-order processing.

A new study also shows the effectiveness of branding to reach 3-to-5 year old children. When asked to compare identical sets of food that were either presented in plain packaging or in McDonald's logo wrapping, the children identified the McDonald's-labeled samples as clear favorites. This effect held even for store-bought juice and carrots. One of the study's authors was quoted by The Chicago Tribune as concluding that the kids' perception of taste was "physically altered by the branding."

It's remarkable to see that even these pre-literate children have developed such strong preferences for brands. The new book Buy, Buy Baby explores this process and other sophisticated efforts to market to kids. While companies say that they don't actively "market" products to kids under three, they are nonetheless intensely aware of the ability of toddlers to bond with characters such as Ronald McDonald, the Little Mermaid, or Clifford the Big Red Dog. These bonds may develop into early preferences and long-term brand loyalty, as suggested by the McDonald's wrapper study.

I am not saying that all of these efforts are nefarious or harmful, but with so much marketing being thrown our way, it is time to develop a consciousness about it. If we can see through the efforts to push our unconscious buttons, whether in the form of a dancing alien selling us a mortgage, or a politician playing on subtly racist themes to appeal to voters' fear or violence, we will be one step closer to making truly informed decisions.