COVID-19: A right-brain reset for advertisers

In Lemon, Orlando Wood describes an attentional shift that occurred in the early 21st Century, which left its traces in advertising and popular culture, but asks, could COVID-19 be the thing that changes everything?

In Lemon (IPA, 2019), I seek to describe a change in advertising style that has resulted in work that is less effective. Since 2006, advertising has become flatter, more abstract and devitalised. It is today highly rhythmic, self-conscious, didactic, reliant on words, voiceover and monologue. It has lost its empathy, its self-awareness, its sense of humour. Ads in recent years have referenced broader culture much less, featured less dialogue, fewer accents and characters. A thing of the past are those ads where actors play out a scene and interact with each other. In short, advertising today is much less likely to attract and sustain attention, to entertain audiences and drive market share growth. This shift in advertising style helps to explain the fall in advertising effectiveness that has occurred over the same time period.

Advertising reflects and leads culture, and we see this shift in culture more broadly too. In film and linear TV, we have seen a decline in the number of romantic comedies, sitcoms and sketch shows – genres that celebrate characters, betweenness and the living. In their place we see competitive and repetitive formats, and shows about making things. In this period, pop music has too lost its depth, harmony and texture. It has become heavily reliant on a dominant vocal line and its lyrics have become more repetitive. Popular culture has become ‘manufactured’.

How has this happened? The answer might be found in the way that the brain works. The idea that the left and the right brains do different things has been debunked, but a new and more nuanced understanding of brain lateralisation has emerged in its place. Neuropsychologist and psychiatrist Dr Iain McGilchrist explains that it’s not that the two brain hemispheres do different things, but that they do things differently, have different takes on the world, different ways of seeing. The left brain is narrow and goal-orientated in attentional style; it likes to categorise, to break things down into smaller parts, to replicate things, to create models of the world in order to control it. It likes tools and things with which to manipulate the world, principal of these being language. The right brain is broad and vigilant, sees the world as it really is, understands people, the implicit and is empathetic; it is open to novelty and contradiction, can see that two opposing thoughts might both be true at the same time, and therefore understands metaphor and humour. It is aware of its time and place in the world – it is self-aware – and it is what gives us our sense of lived time and depth. It also enables us to appreciate music and harmony.

The left and right hemispheres are connected by the corpus collosum, a bundle of fibres that enables each hemisphere to suppress the other at any given time, and the left brain has a greater suppressive effect on the right, than the right on the left. At certain times in history, therefore, we see a swing in individuals and society towards left-brain dominance. Society becomes brittle, angry and polarised; things are increasingly seen as either truths or lies; there is an emphasis on repetition and replication; society becomes increasingly rhythmic and focused on the word; art and culture become flatter, more abstract and devitalised. Things are stripped back to the authentic; metaphor and characters are removed. This has been happening all around us gradually and almost imperceptibly for the last two decades. It’s not the first time it’s happened in history: many of these societal and cultural changes can be seen in the Reformation and even the late Roman period.

But something’s happened over the last few weeks and months that is changing the way that people attend to the world: COVID-19. Those with left-brain dominance have been slow to react: the left brain has an unfounded sense of optimism, is rather dogmatic and operates on a fixed model of the world. It is less able to adjust to new events or seize their enormity; for this it relies on the right brain. But sure enough, day by day, this devastating virus is causing everyone to stop, look up and around, to bring broad and vigilant attention to bear on the world, to behave responsibly and appreciate what’s important to us. Our right brain is on alert, quickly processing our new environment and new threats. It is looking back at other periods of hardship and trying to draw parallels with – and lessons and comfort from – the past. The right brain is what will cause us to look out for others; we see it already in moments of right-brained spontaneity, altruism and even humour, which are breaking out as we learn to cope. This event has forced a mental shift and its legacy may well be a right-brain mental reset for society.

What are the implications for advertisers, broadcasters and publishers? First, your advertising is more likely to get seen because TV, radio, news sites and social media – the spaces where advertising appears – are going to be enormously important over the next few months as people tune in for entertainment and search for news. Simulmedia reports that we are seeing TV audiences swell already, and particularly on the up are audience figures for entertainment and news. Second, it’s important that brands do not go dark. Continuing to advertise in a crisis when others cut back their spend will consolidate your position because it gives you extra share of voice, meaning that you’ll be in a stronger place coming out of the crisis. The effects of cutting budgets may not be immediately apparent, but the harder you cut, the longer it will take to recover. Cutting advertising budgets will also lead to greater price sensitivity among customers, which in turn will make you more reliant on price promotions. Brand building advertising in this period is particularly important. We have learned this from other periods of hardship. Third, we need to have a sensitivity to the new social context that ads are watched in. People might well start to feel isolated, separated and cut-off from their families and friends. Digital connectivity will help enormously, but a lack of physical human connection and day-to-day novelty could lead to loneliness and mental health problems.

As the world closes off the many things that the right brain cherishes, advertisers and broadcasters will do well to cater to the right brain’s priorities in their advertising and programming. The living, characters, betweenness, humour, music, a clear sense of place, altruism and metaphor will be important and will connect strongly. Brands will need to demonstrate through their advertising their spontaneity, humility and self-awareness, and maybe even give people something to smile about. Brand characters will be an important creative device, not only because they are highly effective, but because they give brands the opportunity to operate in a somewhat parallel and happier brand world. The right brain is more nostalgic, so programme and ad re-runs from a more right-brained time might not be such a bad idea (as well as a necessity). Programmes that focus on people and their relationships will be of much greater interest than programmes focused on making things.

Ads that that are individualistic, on the other hand, that show people as ‘props’, that are self-conscious and didactic, that rely on words, that set out to shock – the type of left-brain advertising that has become so prevalent in recent years – will feel hollow, betray a lack of empathy and fail to connect. The danger is that advertisers will take this logical left-brain approach, at least at first, because it feels safer. Decisions will be made to cut ads that show people interacting with each other, for fear of encouraging irresponsible behaviour in others. Advertisers will instead think that the crisis means that they should couch their messages in ‘protection’ or ‘re-assurance’ cues. These are short-term strategies.

From a creative perspective, the lessons from Lemon are more pertinent now than ever. Flatness and abstraction in advertising will not cut it; depth and humanity are what’s needed. This period of uncertainty will force us to think and act differently. Ultimately, the brands that pull through will be those that are generous and creative in a crisis.


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