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Fake news still has the power to persuade

orange cut in half painted blue

Now that fake news has been exposed, has it lost its power to influence?

In a nutshell

  1. Much of what we see and hear, including advertising, is absorbed at a subconscious level. We call this 'low processing'. 
  2. Low processing uses an emotional gut level response to what has been unconsciously seen, and stores it in the emotional hub of our brains where memories are laid down. This means that even though we may not remember seeing an ad, it will be stored in our subconscious. 
  3. Recall is not the full measure of the effectiveness of a brand’s communications. Better measures are sales, and how strongly brand memories are triggered at demand moments and what brand associations are attached to these memories.
  4. To measure this, we need to adopt methods that circumvent people’s conscious thinking and capture instead our fast, intuitive and emotionally-driven thinking.

When ‘fake news’ made the non-fake-newspaper headlines, awareness among the general public of this practice was raised so surely that even if this practice continues, it will surely be less affective... right?

But that assumes that people consider and analyse the information, whereas we know that much of what we see and hear is absorbed at a subconscious level. It’s called ‘low processing’ which means we don’t exert any conscious effort to process the information but nevertheless it can trigger an unconscious emotional response that gets stored in memory. A very large proportion of the advertising we are exposed to is subject to unconscious low processing - which is not to say that it is not effective. Indeed, there is a body of knowledge (much of it generated by Robert Heath of Bath University working with the IPA) that shows low processing is a highly effective way of embedding memories and that have a longer term decay rate than more conscious cognitive processing.

Counter intuitive, but true not fake

It sounds counter intuitive that something you can’t remember can be effective, yet experiments with a variety of different media demonstrate the truth of this.

An example is an experiment which shows that after people had read a magazine containing an advertisement their ratings of the brand changed vs prior to reading - even though they didn’t remember seeing the ad. And, what’s more, their ratings remained at the new level some weeks afterwards. By comparison, those who had the ad pointed out to them and were asked what was being communicated also showed an immediate and similar shift in ratings of the brand. However, they did not show the same long term change, instead they reverted to their pre exposure ratings.

Why? Because low processing uses an emotional ‘gut level’ response to what has been unconsciously seen and stores it in the emotional hub of our brains which is the place where memories are laid down. These are the memories that we access when we then think about a shopping category, so they determine whether the brand is triggered at relevant demand moments. This is the same concept that Ehrenberg Bass refers to as mental availability.

In comparison, an ad that our brain considers consciously involves our cognitive analytical brain which, after having worked out what’s going on, decides if it is important enough to remember. And by important, our brain means important to sustaining life, not important to buying the right brand of yoghurt.

These principles demonstrate why fake news is of concern. Most of it appeared around the edge of the screen that contained the content people were actively viewing/reading, which of course is where ads appear. Research has shown that the ads around content are absorbed even when there is no conscious awareness of seeing them – indeed people will confidently deny the ads were present but still show shifts in their rating and descriptions of the brand’s associations.

Lessons for brand communications

The clear message here is that recall and especially spontaneous recall is not the full measure of the effectiveness of a brand’s communications. It’s a hard tale to tell to a marketing director who has just spent millions on a campaign. Better measures are sales, obviously, but also how strongly brand memories are triggered at demand moments and what brand associations are attached to these memories. Traditional research methods have a poor record in this regard as they have rely on cognitive responses which will always fail to capture emotionally based memories.

Measuring what people don’t know

From a research perspective we need to be looking at methods that capture unconscious processing and the emotional networks that lead to long term brand memories. In essence we need methods that circumvent people’s cognitive or conscious thinking and capture instead our fast, intuitive and emotionally-driven thinking.

Instead of trying to get people to concentrate we should distract them, or grab them at relevant moments which is easily done with the ability to geo track, for example. We know when someone has just walked past an outdoor ad so what better time to ask them to rate the brand and compare it to their previous benchmark rating. High penetration of smartphones has made this possible.

We can also use speed (for example TRA uses < 2 seconds response time) to force an emotionally driven memory retrieval. Even these fast responses can be further graded and we have found significant insights from mapping response times in increments of 0.1 seconds. We’ve been able to see the strength as well as the prevalence of these ‘gut’ responses.

For a client in the food industry, we were able to identify a nascent but very positive brand association that their communications was creating. Only a minority of people associated quality with the brand, but when they did it was very fast <0.1 seconds, so clearly very sticky to the brand and with a strong emotional component. Most other people failed to respond with either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ within 2 seconds, which meant they were undecided. This gave the company a clear indication that if they were consistent with their communications there was an opportunity to build a strongly embedded positive and emotionally based association with the brand.

Another option is using video, because video questions access low processed memories. When we ask people to write things down, for example with open ended questions, we force a cognitive response whereas by getting them to speak their reactions we can fast track through the neural networks to their emotional responses. How many times did your mother tell you to “think before you speak”? We need people to “speak before they think” in order to access unconscious memories.

Fake news is posited as part of the post truth era – but you could argue that instead of being post truth the effectiveness of these false stories reflects the actual truth of how our minds work in regards to the things we are not aware that we have seen or heard. Knowing this, brand and media owners deserve to be better served by research approaches that access the memories stored from low processing of communications.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

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