System1 At South By Southwest: Can Advertising Heal A Divided World?

At SXSW last week, System1’s Orlando Wood and Will Goodhand took to the stage with a big claim – not only could a new understanding of the human brain restore trust in advertising, it could play a part in healing a world riven by all kinds of mistrust and division.

Big claims were on the menu at the highly successful event, “Trust Is The New Currency”, organised by the UK’s Department Of International Trade with the IPA and Ad Association. System1 was the only research agency on this trade mission, presenting new thinking and new data drawn from our massive System1 Ad Ratings database.

So how can advertising help bring people together? We based the talk on the work we’ve been doing drawing on Iain McGilchrist’s opus, The Master And His Emissary, the book which overturns popular conceptions of the left-brain/right-brain split. The two sides of the brain, according to McGilchrist, don’t do different things; they do things differently.

It’s a subtle but crucial distinction (read our summary of the differences here). The left-brain is goal-oriented, responds well to hierarchy and process, and poor at understanding relationships between things. So it prefers literal descriptions to metaphor; flatness to perspective; rhythm to melody and harmony; sincerity to irony; and blind optimism to ambiguity or cynicism. The right-brain is the opposite: alert to perspective and a holistic ‘big picture’, it’s adept at understanding double-meanings, historical relationships, fantasy and the relationships between things and people.

McGilchrist’s big idea is that human culture and society is at its best when there’s a balance between the two halves of the brain and their way of attending the world. But consistently over history this balance is disrupted, tilting more towards the left-brained perception before a rebalancing puts things (literally) back in perspective.

This shift to the left-brain tends to go hand in hand with technological advances making repeatability and standardisation easier to achieve. McGilchrist believes we’re currently living in just such a left-brained culture. If so, said our SXSW presenters, it should show up in advertising, too.

What would advertising built by and for a left-brained mode of perception look like?

It would show high levels of abstraction and ‘flatness’. It would use text, to satisfy the left-brain desire for the literal and straightforward, and rapid cuts and jumps, to satisfy its desire for rhythm and novelty. It would move away from showing communication between people and towards a focus on the individual (or even individual body parts). It would avoid explicit location in place or time, and shun metaphor and fantasy.

It might look, in fact, a little bit like this.

This ad is a good example of an ad with “left-brain” characteristics. But it’s not alone – this sort of blipvert style, drawing on the rapid-fire pacing and graphical layering of Instagram and Snapchat stories, Vine or TikTok, feels recognisable and modern. Look through the Ad Ratings database and you’ll find plenty of examples.


You might like or dislike this kind of ad, but the more important question is – is it effective? That’s what we wanted to find out for SXSW. We used McGilchrist’s theories to create a list of qualities you might find in an ad which had “left-brain appeal” (eg use of words, abstraction) and ones with “right-brain appeal” (eg use of music, use of metaphor).

We then took a random sample of ads from the Ad Ratings database from 2018 and coded them according to the number of left-brained and right-qualities they displayed. This let us segment the ads into those which had the most and least right-brain qualities.

What we found was very interesting. The right-brained ads were more likely to have scored better in our emotional testing – they have a far lower chance of hitting the 1-Star scoring level  (for ads we predict as having zero potential to amplify spend and drive brand growth) and a larger proportion of them hit 3-Stars or more. Ads with right-brain appeal are more emotionally effective.

This is an encouraging result – the next phase of the work is to find out whether ads really have been getting less right-brained over time. We already know, for instance, that Fluent Devices (recurring characters or slogans which drive the creative in ads) have declined over time. Not every Fluent Device ad has right-brained appeal – but the presence of strong stories and characters is likely to tilt ads more towards the kind of metaphor and relationship-based content which reflects how the right-brain sees the world. And we also know what Fluent Device ads have higher emotional impact.

This still leaves the big question to answer, though – how can this work help restore trust in advertising and in the world. Our hypothesis is simple: the atomised, highly self-conscious ‘flatland’ society we live in reflects the tilt towards a left-brained way of perceiving the world. Advertising – as a mass medium – has a role to play in the rebalancing effort. Right-brained advertising, which encourages empathy, holistic thinking, and metaphor, will be more likeable and more trustworthy – and have a better chance of uniting its audience. Maybe only uniting it around the water cooler – but that’s a start.

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