FEATURE14 December 2012

Memory stick


Studies of the brain suggest that memorable ads are the most effective. Brian Tarran meets Professor Richard Silberstein, the man who wants you to remember that.


Richard Silberstein has spent 30 years studying the brain. He’s heard all of the promises and all of the claims about the awesome potential of neuromarketing and the various methods employed. But set aside the hyperbole, he says, and it all boils down to just two key questions: Are the metrics you want to measure valid? And can they be measured correctly?

“We’re moving to a state where the excitement of neuroscience has given way to hard-nosed questions,” he says. Clients need to have confidence in the validity and utility of neuromarketing methods. But the research should also be telling them something they don’t already know, says Silberstein.

“We’re moving to a state where the excitement of neuroscience has given way to hard-nosed questions”

His work, for example, offers a new perspective on the subject of emotion in advertising. Studies commissioned by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising have found that emotional ads outperform their more rational counterparts when it comes to effectiveness. Yet for Silberstein emotions are just a means to an end. The real determinant of an ad’s effectiveness is its ability to have its message encoded within the brain’s long-term memory. Emotions simply prime the brain to accept that a piece of information is important and that it is worth remembering.

Quick thinking

Silberstein is chairman of Neuro Insight, an Australian firm that has been operating commercially as a market research company since 2005 and has offices in the UK, the US and Germany.

In his three decades in neuroscience he is credited with co-developing Steady State Topography (SST), a method for recording and measuring electrical signals at the scalp in order to build a second-by-second picture of activity in the brain.

SST is perhaps not as widely known within the market research space as other methods of brain imaging, such as EEG or fMRI, however it was used by the neuroscientists who worked with Martin Lindstrom on his best-selling book Buyology.

Neuro Insight’s website describes SST as “essentially a refinement of EEG”. “We are not trying to measure how big a signal is,” Silberstein explains. “SST measures the speed at which different parts of the brain operate, and we know that speed is linked to activity.”

Study participants wear a headset and goggles. In the periphery of the goggles, participants are presented with a visual flicker that provides the researchers with a reference signal – an oscillatory brain electrical response known as the Steady State Visually Evoked Potential (SSVEP). When stimulus materials are shown, researchers look for changes in the delay between the stimulus and the SSVEP response.

Using SST, Silberstein says there are five things he can measure: long-term memory encoding, engagement (which is signalled by activity in the frontal region of the brain), an approach/withdrawal response called emotional valence, emotional intensity and visual attention.

For Silberstein, the most important metric among those five is memory encoding. Brand owners and advertising researchers might be focused on measuring emotional response, but Silberstein’s work has shown a clear link between ads that trigger a spike in activity in the long-term memory regions of the brain and in-market success for the advertised product. What’s most effective is when memory encoding takes place at the point at which a brand or web address appears within an ad. That’s most likely to affect behaviour, Silberstein says.

Real payback

No matter how great the creative, it’s likely that only one or two moments within an ad will be truly memorable. Silberstein says it is important to identify these moments, possibly for use in other campaign collateral – as print stills or digital clips, for example – as they can act as an aid to recall, helping the brain piece together and replay the ad in the mind of the consumer.

“What we found in nearly every case was that those ads that scored highly for long-term memory encoding and emotional response also performed best in market”

Think of your favourite film, says Paul Newton, Neuro Insight’s UK director of business development. Chances are you’ll immediately recall several key scenes, around which the brain reconstructs the rest of the film. This ‘chunking’ of information is how the brain stores memories – and understanding this process is important to ensuring an ad is as effective as it can be.

“Between these chunks, the memory doorways close briefly,” says Silberstein. Were an ad’s moment of branding to occur within this gap, the effectiveness of a campaign might be undermined. Elements of the ad might be recalled, but the brand association might not have been stored in the memory.

Time it right, though, and the results can be startling. Working with TV advertising body Thinkbox on their Payback study, Neuro Insight used their brain imaging technology to see whether there was a correlation between brain measures and ad ROI.

Thinkbox had already worked with the econometric modelling firm Ebiquity to identify one high-performing ad and one low-performing ad in each of nine product categories, and these eighteen ads were given to Neuro Insight to test.

Consumers that were in the market for the various product categories were recruited to take part in the SST studies. “What we found in nearly every case was that those ads that scored highly for long-term memory encoding and emotional response also performed best in market,” says Heather Andrew, Neuro Insight development director.