Neuro-Insight’s Shazia Ginai: Gillette example shows how socially-conscious ads can be double-edged

Aligning your brand with a specific social or cultural cause can be a powerful way to shape your message, connect with existing audiences on a deeper level, and even reach out to new audiences invested in the wider debate.

The challenge for brands is to do this in a way that resonates with consumers on a personal level. There’s no use jumping on the bandwagon at the sign of the first hashtag. In fact, our research at Neuro-Insight has found that socially conscious campaigns that fail to take this into consideration, often fall flat – even if they manage to stir our emotions.

But first, let’s talk about what makes a good ad, from the brain’s perspective.

Our research shows that the best ads are those that drive memory encoding in the brain. Memory encoding is proven to influence future behaviour and purchase decisions. If this vital process is not kicked into gear, brands can find themselves spending money that doesn’t bring the desired returns.

Memory encoding can be achieved in several ways. A strong emotional response, for instance, can help drive memory encoding. It’s this thinking that often underlines brands’ choices when they decide to develop campaigns focusing on a specific cultural or social issue.

Gillette’s recent ‘’The Best Men Can Be’’ campaign, for instance, used various narratives to explore the topic of toxic masculinity, presumably to begin a positive dialogue with its consumers. Toxic masculinity is being talked about a lot on social media and in wider media, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and while this ad was quite a departure from Gillette’s previous campaigns, there was clearly appetite for discussion around the topic.

With this in mind, we researched and analysed the ad, and found that both men and women exhibited high levels of “approach.” This is a strong indicator of likability – as opposed to withdrawal, which indicates dislike. However, eliciting positive feelings is not always enough to drive memory encoding. People must also be able to identify with the issue or messages explored on a personal level. That doesn’t just mean being able to understand that a certain issue is relevant or important; it means being able to feel true empathy.

In the case of Gillette, our study showed that levels of personal relevance in men’s brains declined rapidly after the first scene, with the little boys running around (the original UK ad seems to have been pulled by Gillette.) And as they subconsciously disengaged with the issues being explored, memory encoding declined sharply

This pattern of response seems to have been borne out in the real world. There were certainly positive responses to it. On social media many consumers applauded Gillette for tackling such a contentious issue head-on, and based on this, it would be easy to presume that the ad had hit the spot with at least some consumers. However others were less positive (some promising to boycott the brand) and the company announced subsequently that its sales remained underwhelmingly ‘unchanged’ after the ad’s release.

But there’s an interesting post-script coming out of our research. Looking at women’s responses we saw high levels of personal relevance, suggesting that they identified with the issues explored more than men did. So – amongst this audience at least – the ad was working well. The problem is that Gillette’s target audience (men) did not feel personally affected – at an emotional level they did respond but didn’t see it as being relevant to them and so overall the ad was less likely to prompt action.

So where do brands go from here?

Well, socially conscious advertising still has its value, particularly when it comes to provoking conversation on social media, raising awareness for brands and the causes they’re discussing. There’s no reason why brands should not get involved in important causes – the key is to recognize that even when people are aware of, or claim to identify with a cause, brands need to look beyond what people tell them and truly understand the real motivators of behavior.

Shazia Ginai is head of business development at Neuro-Insight UK.

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