Buyology: How much do we know about what we buy?

Buyology Neurormarketing

Following the book Buyology, written by Martin Lindstrom, we will dive into a neuromarketing analysis of advertising’s influence on modern society.

Buyology – At what level is our unconscious affected by the advertisements that bombard us every day?

The author of this book is trying to analyze how consumers’ brain react to the media advertisement that surrounds us. We receive daily inputs from thousands of brands and media; we react consciously to some of them, while we absorb others completely unconsciously.  So when we decide to buy a common product like a shaving razor, and opt for a higher-cost Gillette brand, versus a less expensive generic brand; to what extent has advertising influenced our decision?

The work of Neuromarketing, the science that combines Marketing with Neuroscience, is precisely to analyze this.

Let’s take, for example, the experiment conducted by Lindstrom together with a team of neuroscientists on tobacco. In 2004, 2,081 volunteers from the US, UK, Germany, China and Japan, participated in one of the major Neuromarketing experiments in history. The purpose of the experiment was to analyze why, even though that public health spending had reached 5.763 billion in campaigns against tobacco consumption in 2006, this had not decreased at all. How was it possible that all the warnings about the multiple diseases caused by tobacco use could not stop people from buying cigarettes?

The experiment was conducted with the use of two machines: Functional Magnetic Resonance, which studies the concentration of red blood cells in specific areas of the brain in reaction to external inputs. And the Steady State Typography (SST) which tracks cerebral waves in real-time.


All participants initially had to answer a questionnaire. One of the questions in it was whether the warnings on cigarette packets affect the person and lead them to smoke less. Most of the attendees answered affirmatively. After that, it was the turn of the analysis using MRI, (Magnetic resonance imaging). The volunteer would be shown an image with the anti-smoking warnings, and he would have to qualify his desire to smoke, while the machine was analyzing the areas of the brain that were activated as a result of the message submitted. The results were incredibly revealing. The anti-smoking messages appeared to activate the Nucleus Acumbens, an area of ​​the brain called the Anxiety Point. This part of our brain contains neurons that are activated when we desire something like alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling etc … So when this zone is activated, we try to satiate anxiety with consumption. So to sum up, it was discovered that not only did the ads not keep consumers away from smoking, but rather they induced them to consume more. Thus, why had all the volunteers answered affirmatively about the preventive effects of the advertisements?
It was because the conscious part of themselves felt guilty that such informational messages about all illnesses caused by smoking could entice them to continue smoking.

Therefore, experts understood the difference between the conscious and unconscious responses of our organisms to advertising messages. In fact, whenever we receive an external input, we can process a rational reaction to it, but unconsciously have a distinct one. This concept was instrumental in understanding the mind of consumers. Knowing this, companies could optimize their advertisements while saving millions on their campaigns.

Another decisive aspect discussed in the book concerns the constant decrease in the memory retention of advertisements by consumers. Lindstrom, explains that in 1965 consumers have a percentage of memory retention on ads equal to 34%, while now this value has literally dropped.
Most people don’t remember advertisements!

This has to do with:

  • The increase in the number of advertisements.
  • The accrued feeling of hatred towards advertising (that is considered persuasive and ostentatious to the sale).
  • The lack of creativity of publicists. (Advertisements in the same sector are often looking too similar).

Do you like Neuromarketing as we do? – Read our Patagonia Neuromarketing Case Study HERE.


So if we remember fewer and fewer advertisements, which effect do they have on our purchasing behaviour?
Well, as previously demonstrated, the fact that we do not remember an announcement in a rational way does not mean that it does not have an impact on the unconscious part of ourselves and therefore will influence our future purchasing behaviour.

From this point of view, it is interesting to highlight the connection between memory and emotions in recalling advertisements. Regarding this particular aspect, we can consider the two following experiments.

The Apple vs Samsung Neuromarketing experiment. This fMRI study, conducted in 2007 by Neuroscientists, Dr. Jürgen Gallinat and Dr. Simone Kühn, had the goal of discovering if there was a different brain response in the head of the participants in respect of the two brands. After showing pictures of the two brands to the 25 participants, the Scientists discovered that when showing Samsung products, the brain’s frontal cortex was activated (the area connected with decision-making and rational thought). On the other hand, once showing Apple products, it was activated an area of the brain responsible for liking people. That showed clearly how the Apple brand was able to generate more emotions in the volunteers.

Okay, but how does this impact the memory recall of the brand?

Let’s analyze this with another experiment conducted by Lindstrom. This time, the objective was to understand the impact of advertising placement in TV shows and cinema movies. In fact, from a PQ Media research, in 2006 companies spent a total of 3.360 million dollars to place their products in Tv Series, Musical videos or movies. For this reason, the major corporations were interested to find out if this type of Ad was a good investment or just a waste of money. The experiment in question was carried out on one of the most popular programs in America during those years, American Idol.

In the program appeared advertisements, in a more or less subliminal way, of three companies:

  • Coca-Cola, with its characteristic glasses, the presence of red colour and sofas in the shape of Coca-Cola bottles.
  • Cingular Wireless, with the 30-second traditional commercial, the inclusion of products in the program and the display of the logo during the television vote.
  • Ford: Only through the classic 30 seconds of commercials.

The experiment was conducted through the use of SST (Steady State Topography), a technology used in Neuromarketing able to measure the grade of emotional commitment, the action on memory and the attraction/rejection of what the candidate is seeing.

There are numerous examples of advertising by placement in history. And in some cases, they have generated huge profits for the publicists. Take for example the case of the RayBan Aviator glasses worn by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, they recorded a 40% increase in the line after the release of the film. But in others, they had a nil effect on viewers’ memory; such as the announcements placed by FedEx, Omega and Sony in Casino Royal, which almost no one remembers.

So what is the factor that makes us remember a brand or not?

In the experiment conducted on American Idol, the neuroscientists showed an episode of the program, in which the logos in question appeared, together with an episode of another program. They then showed the candidates the logos in the same sequence three consecutive times, in order to see which of them they had noticed in the program. At the end of the experiment, the scientists were able to determine that most of the volunteers remembered the Coca-Cola brand and to a lesser extent some of them Cingular, but none remembered Ford.

Thus, it was understood that the effectiveness of the advertisements inserted in the films / TV programs depended on the role they played in the program itself. The announcements were effective if they played an essential part in the program.

In this sense, we can understand that the effect on the memory of a particular advertisement leverages emotion. The more an ad stimulates an emotion, the more we will remember it. In this sense, the association/interpretation of the brand/product with the character is fundamental in order to generate in us an association and therefore an emotion that thus activates the memory. Emotions play a key role in memory. If you think about it, you can probably remember vividly in detail brands that marked exciting moments of your youth.

What is the role of mirror neurons in choosing a brand?
neuromarketing mirror neurons

Do you think you bought an iPhone for its technical qualities?

Most of the time, we choose a specific brand with respect to another just for the idea that this product/service is associated with. In this case, the iPhone improves our image, generating social confidence and security. Often, we buy it just to feel equal to a specific group of people.

Today, such behaviours are defined in part by the action of mirror neurons.

Mirror Neurons were discovered for the first time by Giacomo Rizzolatti, an Italian neurophysiologist who works at the University of Parma. After numerous experiments on monkeys, the professor’s group found that the monkeys responded to guided gestures managed by the team, and at that time an area of ​​the brain was activated between the inferior frontal cortex and the superior parietal lobule.

The action of mirror neurons can be easily seen in children when they imitate a tongue, or in ourselves when we tend to smile at those who happily smile at us. But at the same time, they act more unconsciously even in our most intimate perceptions, leading us to emulate behaviours or buy objects in order to get closer and closer to a coveted image of ourselves. So we end up buying a Range Rover to feel stronger on the road and a Rolex to remind us that we belong to a wealthy social class.

Image Source.


In this article, we saw that many of our purchasing behaviours are not rational; Frequently, these actions are guided by our unconscious mind, which is conditioned by our latent aspirations and emotions. Marketing and advertising continually leverage the most intimate and unconscious part of ourselves in order to push us towards the purchase of a product or the affiliation with the brand. Several cognitive biases come into play when we make a purchase decision; being more aware of how our mind is conditioned by advertising stimuli makes us more rational and attentive consumers, so to optimize our future shopping habits.

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