Limbic Messaging and Relevant Interruptions

In a webinar we held in May 2020 about the growth of performance driven brands I presented two original concepts that can help advertisers drive better performance on mobile platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Snapchat.
The concepts were Limbic messaging and Relevant Interruption.

Limbic Messaging

Most of the ads that we see today on TV and even on mobile address our prefrontal cortex. Without getting too much into our brain anatomy, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the frontal part of our brain that is in charge of attention, awareness, personality traits, social behavior, mental flexibility, planning and inhibition primal behaviors (In the webinar I gave the NSFW example of humping a potential mate like dogs do). The reason we are not “humping” every good looking person we see on the street is our PFC that makes sure we behave according to social norms and quiet down the primal parts.
When you think about every video ad you remember, it usually tries to attract your attention and tell you a story. A Story is something that requires our full PFC capacity and as you know we all have a lot to process regardless to ads.

In the lower parts of our brains, far below the lobes and cortex lies the primal, mammalian part of our brain. It includes 3 main parts that are relevant for our discussion:
Brain stem – Connected to our spine, this is the part that keeps us alive. It makes sure that our heart is beating in the right pace, the our blood pressure is relevant and that we keep on breathing. It is mostly covering basic autonomous body functions.
The limbic system – This is a naming convention for a group of nuclei (a cluster of neurons and glial cells) that evolved right after the brain stem in mammals it includes 3 nuclei that are crucial for our story:
Hypothalamus – A Nucleus (Singular of nuclei – get used to it 🙂 that promotes actions that will promote our survival as a single person or as the human race. It is in charge of hunger, thirst, sexual drive and emotional response. Imagine what would have happened if we didn’t have our cortex monitoring the hypothalamus “desires”. It is very probable that some of the Instagram accounts you are following are creating content for your hypothalamus, whether it’s beautiful food shots, or pretty potential mates 😉
Amygdala – Do you remember this time when you had too much tequila and woke up to the worst hangover? Do you know why every time you see a bottle of tequila or smell its scent you feel nauseous? Hello Amygdala, this is the part of your brain that stores memories that were “traumatic” and make sure there is an automated action sequence the body takes to prevent you from making it again (For those that love tequila like I do, try to imagine the first time you got electrocuted by an exposed wire). To make it short and actionable – This part of our brain takes fear and turns it into immediate action with little processing on the way.
Hippocampus – When you wake up, get out of bed, go to the shower and know exactly where the light switch is, this is the hippocampus. It stores memory that is relevant and immediate for daily use.It’s basically our ROM memory card, it is not the only memory storing system in our brain but it’s the one we use most often for daily activities. When you see a red square with yellow M on it, the hippocampus will say “It’s burger time” without thinking about it. This is the part in our brain that love familiar design patterns, it just knows exactly what to do with them.

Phew, now that we’ve done with the anatomical part it should make more sense to you why it makes much more sense to target the limbic system than the prefrontal cortex:
Faster to process
– Triggers immediate actions
– Likely to draw more attention

A limbic message is an ad that targets an existing fear (#FOMO included), hunger or sexual drive.
It sounds horrible and in some ways it is, but there are many ways to align it with our brand in a socially acceptable way (this is a subject for a complete different session though).

Yet most ads still target our super busy PFC.

Relevant interruption

Now that we’ve covered the super basics of some brain anatomy, it’s time to think about ads and the apps that we use.
When we’re browsing through our Facebook or Snap feed or when we’re heading to watch Lady Gaga’s new video our likelihood of stopping what we’re doing is…Very high (You are more than welcome to learn more about our cognitive control when using multiple screens here).

The thing most advertisers miss is that we won’t stop what we were doing to listen to a funny, lovable or complicated story, as this will require our PFC that is so busy with decisions to make and keeping us socially acceptable. But guess what Food, Sex and Fear can work by triggering our limbic system.
But showing a delicious hamburger when you’re trying to sell a mattress can be pointless, and while I’ve seen some ads that did it and worked, it is not a best practice or the majority of them.

The term Relevant Interruption Simplified stimuli that serves as a limbic thumb-stopper that is relevant for both the user state of mind and the desired action.

Let’s break it down a bit:
Simplified stimuli – Don’t over work it. It should be simple and very quick to process in our brain.
Limbic thumb-stopper – Beautiful person, scary but likely scenario or delicious food.
User state of mind – Think of the user state of mind in the platform you’re targeting them in. When you browse through Snap or TikTok you are not in the same state of mind as when you browse Facebook (Just try to imagine a touching political post on Snap).
Desired action – If you want people to buy your product right after the click use a stimuli that is somehow related to this action. Stopping the thumb for the sake of stopping is more harmful than helpful.

Let’s do an exercise:
– Product: eCommerce website that sells a mattress that cost $649
– Platform: Facebook

Try to come up with relevant interruptions for this product and user state of mind.

Here are some of mine:
Food: Delicious dinner on the mattress with the wine spilling all over the mattress (You got fear for free)
Sex: Couple naked, yet under a blanket (we don’t want to trigger FB policy) in a position suggestive of post-intercourse state
Fear: Wow, so many – You’re back might be painful due to old mattress (You know exactly what visual goes here), Only 9 mattresses left for $649 time is running out (#FOMO) and of course the wine from before

There are plenty more ways to do it once you get the idea and I’m sure you can be more creative than me with your own product.

As by now, your PFC is tired of me and you have probably opened other tabs, I will leave you with these points to think about when you create your next direct response ad:

  • Think about the limbic system and automatedpatterns
  • Simplify the message and make it relevant to the user state of mind
  • No metaphors – they require too much processing
  • Involve Fear, Food or Sex in an acceptable way
  • Try using familiar design mechanism to make it easier to process

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