Marketers 'sell old wine in new skin'

Advertising gimmicks succeed because the marketers behind them are tapping into a part of the brain that makes us curious to try new things.

Researchers say the affected area is known as the ventral striatum and is activated when we choose unfamiliar options that may turn out to our advantage.

Traditionally, the instinctive impulse to break away from what’s normal helped cavemen to try new foods and different, better places to live.

Nowadays, this curiosity is seized upon by marketers, helping to explain why re-brands of familiar but less preferred products inspire us to pick them off the shelf.

Dr Bianca Wittman, who led the study at University College London, believes the temptation to sample the unknown evolved as our ancestors tried new experiences.

“I might have my own favourite choice of chocolate bar, but if I see a different bar repackaged, advertising its ‘new, improved flavour’, my search for novel experiences may encourage me to move away from my usual choice,” she said.

However, the resulting danger is that humans are vulnerable to being sold “old wine in new skin”, particularly if they were right about their past hunches.

The researchers said that when we make a particular choice that turns out to be beneficial, it is rewarded by a release of pleasurable neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

These rewards help us learn which behaviours are preferable and advantageous and worth repeating – a fundamental brain process of animals as well as humans.

But rewarding the brain for novel choices could have a more serious side effect, argued Professor Nathaniel Daw, now at New York University, co-author of the study.

“The novelty bonus may be useful in helping us make complex, unfamiliar decisions, but it clearly has a downside,” he said.

“Increased novelty-seeking may play a role in gambling and drug addiction, both of which are brought about by malfunctions in dopamine release.”

Despite the concern, Dr Wittman said the feeling of curiosity intrinsic to humans is something that marketing departments are taking advantage of.

 

27th June 2008

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