Erik du Plessis – 2020 – The Brand Feelings

Erik du Plessis, Chairman, Millward Brown South Africa

1995 – Emotions

The past 10 years can rightly be called the Decade of Understanding Emotions.

This was started when Prof. Antonio Damasio published Descarte’s Error in 1995 explaining that emotions are inputs to rational decision making as opposed to being antagonistic to rationality. As philosophers (and marketers) became aware of the new paradigm the way marketing practice is viewed slowly changed. One of the first three neuromarketing books to explore his theories as they relate to advertising and empirical results, The Advertised Mind, was written by this author in 2005 and is now translated into 9 languages.

The invention of the fMRI machine in the 1990’s made popular articles about the brain common place, and set the scene for the use of EEG (invented in 1923) to evaluate advertising.


Damasio explains that an emotion occurs in the limbic system of the brain even before we are aware of what we perceive. This emotion becomes part of our interpretation of what we perceive –we know what it is, and how we feel about it. This then determines whether we give the perception any attention. When this interpretation reaches our cognition we describe the emotion as a feeling and attach a word to it.

Damasio also explains that we have background feelings in the limbic system which reflects our bodily state.  This determines the strength of the emotion. Eg.- we feel hungry and therefore pay more attention to food cues. Again, hunger is experienced in the limbic system outside our awareness, but when it comes to the areas of consciousness in our brain we describe it as a feeling that we are experiencing.

Scientists’ knowledge of background feelings lag well behind their understanding of emotions.

One reason for this lagging is that emotions happen very fast and can therefore be measured by EEG’s or fMRI’s as changes between the pre- and post-measure.  Background feelings change slowly and cannot readily be observed by these technologies.

A second reason for this is that background feelings are mainly determined by the status of our hormones and neurotransmitters. These require very different measurement technologies which are often invasive in their nature. Ghrelin is a hormone that controls hunger and should therefore have been present early in evolution and presumably easy to identify, yet it was only discovered in 1999.

Dopamine – the neurotransmitter probably of most importance to marketers – was first synthesised in 1910. Its function was first recognised in 1958 by Carlson who received a Nobel Prize only in 2000.


People use brands to make them feel better.

Homeostatic needs (hunger, thirst, etc.) can be satisfied by any food or liquid. However, it is the state of the background feelings at any specific moment that determine brand preferences.

Brand choices play off against the background of background feelings. It is not only the state of the body (hunger, thirst, etc.) that determines decisions, but also the interplay of other background feelings like mood, personality and probably culture.

These background needs are determined by the status of hormones and neurotransmitters at that point in time. Thus understanding, and being able to measure, background feelings will become important to marketers.

To explain, let’s consider what knowledge about testosterone will help advertisers in the future:

  1. Do people with higher/lower testosterone levels have different personalities? Enough to warrant this as segmentation for some brands?
  2. Do people with higher/lower testosterone levels pay more/less attention to certain types of advertisements?
  3. Do people with different testosterone levels prefer different programs?
  4. Can one make different advertisements that appeal to people with different levels of testosterone still promoting the same brand?
  5. Can a specific advertisement increase testosterone levels? If so, does this increase the memorability of the advertisement?
  6. Does an increased testosterone level only result from sexual innuendoes or does it come from exposures to macho images, or what?
  7. How fast can testosterone levels change?

(See the insert regarding the effects of testosterone taken from Wikipedia and consider how many of these have marketing implications if we take measures of pre-post exposure to advertising, brand usage, etc.)

What could/should “advertising” look like in 2020?

Technology will increase the media choices and methods of interaction for the viewers. This increased fragmentation will not only make media planning more difficult, but will also provide much greater opportunities to select audiences for advertising.

As broadcasting become narrowcasting the advertiser will be able to target segments much more specifically and will adapt from simply broadcasted messages to very narrow casted specialised messages. Segmentation, based on new variables, will become important to minimize wastage.

Increased understanding of how background feelings operate in the consumers’ brains will allow advertisers to determine which narrowcast channels and time slots (I include internet) should be used depending on the background feelings of the audience (even – at a point in time).

What do we need to do now for this future?

Simplistically: We need to understand background feelings and how these relate to brand choice.

More specifically:

  1. EEG and fMRI measurements only measure immediate changes to the brain – i.e. when an advertisement is watched. Traditionally this was the debate between pretesting and post testing: one cannot do much after the advertisement has been produced. Measures need to be developed that can be applied earlier, or to prototype ads.
  2. Non-invasive ways to measure changes to neurotransmitters and hormonal levels need to be developed. There already are some.
  3. The effects of moods on behaviour need to be better understood.
  4. A much better model of what moods are and how they interact than what currently exists needs to be developed. This includes issues like how many moods should be considered basic and how many are complex.
  5. Like moods the area of personality and culture needs to be explored. We will probably not find that these result in brain differences, but that these result in different ways that the brain reacts to stimuli (advertising, brands, etc.).
  6. We are probably not only looking at new things to be discovered, but a better understanding of knowledge that is around. (EEG is 1923 technology. Dopamine is 1910 knowledge.) Thus new insights could be achieved quickly and cheaply if we know where to look for them.
  7. Contributors to neuromarketing need to be expanded to include neuro-pharmacologists, micro-biologists, etc.
  8. At the last count 28 hormones and more than 50 neurotransmitters have been identified. For most the behavioural effects of these have not been identified in ways that marketers can readily use (see the insert about testosterone for how little, other than indications, about the effects on brand choice behaviour is identified). Just these numbers indicate how wide and fertile this area is for research in the next few decades – enough to keep several universities research departments busy. Marketers will need to get involved in directing the research efforts.
  9. We need to make sure that the neurobulshitting some neuromarketing companies indulge in is not taken serious by academics and politicians else we will be excluded from the developments that are going to take place in the next decades.

Testosterone and Marketing Implications – reduced from Wikipedia

On average, in adult human males, the plasma concentration of testosterone is about 7-8 times greater than the concentration of adult human females’ plasma, but as the metabolic consumption of testosterone in males is greater, the daily production is about 20 times greater in men. Females also are more sensitive to the hormone.

Male sexual arousal

Men who watch a sexually explicit movie have an average increase of 35% in testosterone, peaking at 60-90 min after the end of the film, but no increase is seen in men who watch sexually neutral films. Men who watch sexually explicit films also report increased optimism and decreased exhaustion. Based on previous research that has found a link between relaxation following sexual arousal and testosterone levels,

Testosterone increases in men who engage in brief conversations with women. This result was seen in heterosexual men who had engaged in sexual activity in the 6 months prior to the study. The increase in T levels was associated with the amount of “courtship” behaviours that the men exhibited.

Men’s levels of testosterone, a hormone known to affect men’s mating behaviour, changes depending on whether they are exposed to an ovulating or nonovulating woman’s body odour. Men who are exposed to scents of ovulating women maintained a stable testosterone level that was higher than the testosterone level of men exposed to nonovulation cues. Testosterone levels and sexual arousal in men are heavily aware of hormone cycles in females. This may be linked to the ovulatory shift hypothesis, where males are adapted to respond to the ovulation cycles of females by sensing when they are most fertile and whereby females look for preferred male mates when they are the most fertile; both actions may be driven by hormones.

When males are exposed to either visual or auditory erotic stimuli and asked them to complete a cognitive task, where the number of errors on the task indicated how distracted the participant was by the stimuli. They concluded that men with lower thresholds for sexual arousal have a greater likelihood to attend to sexual information and that testosterone may have an impact by enhancing their attention to the relevant stimuli.

Sperm competition theory: Testosterone levels are shown to increase as a response to previously neutral stimuli when conditioned to become sexual in male rats. This reaction engages penile reflexes (such as erection and ejaculation) that aid in sperm competition when more than one male is present in mating encounters, allowing for more production of successful sperm and a higher chance of reproduction.

Female sexual arousal

Women’s levels of testosterone are higher when measured pre-intercourse vs pre-cuddling, as well as post-intercourse vs post-cuddling.

López, Hay, and Conklin (2009) found that women who are non-pill users experience a significant increase in testosterone levels in response to viewing a video of an attractive man courting a young woman. This was in comparison with the control conditions.

When females have a higher baseline level of testosterone, they had higher increases in sexual arousal levels but smaller increases in testosterone, indicating a ceiling effect on testosterone levels in females. Sexual thoughts also change the level of testosterone but not level of cortisol in the female body, and that hormonal contraceptives may have an impact on the variation in testosterone response to sexual thoughts.

Behaviour and personality

Testosterone levels play a major role in risk-taking during financial decisions.

The administration of testosterone makes men selfish and more likely to punish others for being selfish towards them.