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Taking a Stand: The Value of Neuroscience in Socially-Charged Advertising

Neuroscience can help marketers capture conscious and nonconscious consumer response to socially-charged campaigns to help marketers reduce risk, avoid wasted (or damaging) investment in advertising, and advance their brand.

This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Nikki Westoby will be speaking at IIeX Europe 2019 in Amsterdam. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX Europe. Click here to learn more.

Historically, brands have avoided social and political issues. Marketers were wary of associating their brands and products with pressing issues in the fear of polarizing current and potential customers. Remaining silent on social and political issues was safe, and it was smart.

Not anymore. More than ever, consumers are looking to purchase from brands that align with their own values, in both message and deed. According to a 2018 survey, 64% of consumers around the world are “belief driven” buyers, suggesting that consumers are willing to pay for brands committed to social change or who take a stand on important issues.

But this type of messaging can be risky if brands don’t understand how their consumers will react, before making the leap. Over and over again we see brands misreading or misunderstanding this dynamic with very real consequences – from damaged brand perception, money wasted on a campaign that misses the mark or reduced sales. And as socially-charged advertising becomes more mainstream, staying silent on social and political issues can be just as risky. This is an area where we at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience and our tools for evaluating and building more effective advertising are increasingly used to help our clients.

We’ve found that obtaining insights around social and political messages, which are often sensitive in nature, requires a different approach than traditional testing. Integrating social and political causes with brand communications needs to be authentic, stand out, and be consistent with the brand’s values – yet it can’t reach too far or promise too much. More and more brands understand that this line is too fine to evaluate with only traditional research methods like surveys and focus groups, where social and confirmation biases can lead to incorrect conclusions. It requires the ability to understand consumer engagement on a nonconscious level to determine how potential audiences truly feel about the brand and the cause it has elected to support. Further, in order to uncover insights when it comes to sensitive topics, we need research methodologies that provide a high level of granularity to guide optimization and build stronger advertising. Neuroscience captures second-by-second, scene-by-scene diagnostics to identify what’s working and what’s not working, before going to market.

Methods used in these studies include a variety of tools, including EEG, eye tracking, facial action coding, combined with self-report techniques. By leveraging these technologies during the communication development process – from evaluation of early stage campaign positioning to late stage ad testing – we see how small changes can have a huge impact, and we gain a more holistic view of the consumer.

The following is an example of how one brand navigated this tricky, but potentially valuable line with the help of neuroscience insights.

Puppies vs People: Guiding Emotion into Action

Guide Dogs UK wanted to develop a fresh creative direction, to better connect with audiences and drive donations. They also needed to shift brand positioning to show that they provide a more comprehensive solution to help those with sight loss – they do more than provide Guide Dogs alone. The previous creative copy (“Dave and Quince”), which focused mostly on a guide dog puppy, was replaced with a new copy (“Who Knew”), focusing on the people who depend on the services.

People have difficulty empathising with those with sight loss so moving focus away from the guide dogs was a risk. Would the new creative still connect with audiences and drive action? The new ad sought to connect emotionally with viewers by communicating the need to belong, a universal feeling. It showed different people from all walks of life, their daily challenges and the positive impact that having a guide dog has on their lives. The ad ended with a call to action: “Sponsor a puppy from just £1 per week”.

Nielsen CNS collaborated with Proximity to test the performance of this new campaign and compare it with the previous ad.

“Who Knew” performed very strongly compared with other ads, and was equally as engaging as “Dave and Quince”. EEG analysis showed the audience felt a strong emotional connection with the ad, even though 75% of screen time was dedicated to people with sight loss rather than to the cute puppies.

Facial Coding revealed something interesting about the nature of the emotional connection being forged by the two copies. The audience were predominantly smiling while watching the previous ad (hardly surprising when looking at cute puppies!), but “Who Knew” provoked mostly negative facial expressions. Who Knew’ is creating a very strong feeling of concern; the audience is frowning, but drawn towards the people in the ad. ‘Who Knew’ is managing to create empathy for the cause, encouraging people to lean in and help. This is a much more powerful way for a Direct Response ad to start.

This strong start was carried through to the end of the ad – the essential Call to Action scene was more powerful after creating concern for the people with sight loss, versus looking at cute puppies. The new creative paid off- the storyline incorporated the new focus of Guide Dogs UK, and connecting viewers with people with sight loss and their personal stories drove emotion and empathy and created a strong call to action. Guide Dogs could have confidence in the new creative and continue to help and support those who rely on their services.


Taking a stance on social and political issues isn’t just for nonprofits anymore. As consumers continue to vocalize the importance of having the brands they buy take a stand for specific social causes, many brands are now faced with the challenge of taking more risks. Brands have the ability to play a powerful role in the world of social change – the challenge is to ensure it is done as effectively as possible. The power of neuroscience can help marketers capture conscious and nonconscious consumer response in order to help marketers reduce risk, avoid wasted (or damaging) investment in advertising and advance their brand in a world where the line between consumer and citizen is blurring. With the right tools, it is possible to take risks without being risky.


For a comprehensive review of all of the methodologies and ideas behind consumer neuroscience, look at ‘Consumer Neuroscience’ by Moran Cerf and Manuel Garcia-Garcia. For a cheaper, lighter dip into the water, try ‘How We Decide’ by Jonah Lehrer.

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Nikki Westoby

Nikki Westoby

Director of Neuroscience, Nielsen