Everywhere you look, posters, ads, logos, messages scream for attention. A dollar spend on marketing is a dollar that competes for attention. Attention is one of the main battle fields in the war for the consumer. This is why I have not seen one campaign brief that does not mention attention or stopping power. Remarkably, I have not met one marketeer who understands the brain mechanism that controls attention.


This quote by David McClelland, formerly, Chairman of the Department of Psychology, Harvard University sets the stage. Our small team at Beyond Reason has made it our mission to connect the advances in neuroscience with the realities of corporate marketing.

So it is not hard to imagine that looking at spontaneous attentions as something that is not controlled by conscious deliberate thinking, but by sub-conscious or implicit brain processes -was a very inspiring to us. Our dilemma was that we did not know how to put it to practice. We did not see how it could be used to help our clients.

Shortly after we first learned about Prof. McClelland’s idea, we got the chance to work for a global fast food brand. There was frustration, because they were not selling enough ice-cream and desserts, and they were not selling enough of their -newly introduced- fresh meal salads. Every day they witnessed that people were not paying attention to the posters, the flyers, the stickers that promoted the sweet stuff, and also that customers seemed to be blind to the lighter options, the salads. In an attempt to understand what was going on, a primitive -and not so well produced- eye-tracking experiment was set up. Participants were exposed to a wall with 100 images of various kinds of foods -more or less all  the classics of your average fast food menu were on display. Burgers in various sizes, any type of fries you can imagine, the sweet desserts and some lighter meal salads. The eye tracking device captured what foods people were looking at, where they fixed their gaze etc..


So far, so good. Our problem was that we had only one working eye tracker. This ment that the experiment went on for hours and hours. The poor participants in the waiting room came close to loosing their patience. To make matters worse, we did not provide any food or snacks. And then.. something really interesting started to happen.

The eyes of  the now hungry participants looked at other foods than the ones the non-hungry participants were looking at. Their eyes needed about 500Ms to detect and lock-on to the two most calorie rich items on display – we called them our two ‘monster burgers’, a true orgy of grease. Besides those calorie bombs our hungry participants barely looked at anything else. The salads and desserts were virtually invisible.

The more hungry, the more their attention was orienting towards high calorie items. We connected this observation with Prof. McClelland’s idea of attention being implicitly motivated. Although it was never our intention, the fast food menu experiment demonstrated this principle. Their deep need to nourish themselves seemed to be controlling their attention mechanism. Simply put, the hungry participants scanned the environment in function of their nutrition goal. Without being consciously aware their attention was directing them towards the sensorial stimulus with the highest capacity to fulfil that goal – the visual of the food items richest in calories, our monster burgers.

Please note, this consumer insight experiment was not conducted with scientific rigour. Not at all. But despite our small sample, despite our primitive approach, we felt we were on to something. We shared our experience with fellow marketeers and after a while it landed us a next project.


A skin care brand was desperate. They just ran a mega campaign for their hero product, a moisturiser. It was a compete failure. Sales were stagnant and all the awareness related KPIs were at an all time low. Translate this marketing speak into normal language, and what you get is that nobody had noticed this expensive campaign, nobody paid attention.

This seemed like a perfect opportunity to further explore our fastfood learnings. This time around, with a more structured approach. First we established what women truly, deeply expect from their skin care brands. Besides the obvious dermatological functionalities, what else to they need. To put it in Prof. McClelland’s terms :”what implicit motive is driving purchases in the skin care category?” To find the answer, we used implicit associations and a very detailled motivation model (128 items).

The result was both logical and surprising. Women purchase skincare goods because thye want to BE ADMIRED by others. They want to receive signals of appreciation. A radiant healthy skin is a manner to achieve this. So, the dermatological qualities of skin care products are great, but they are the means not the goal.

It did not take much analysing to see why the campaign visual failed to capture attention.

The visual was not related to the consumer need at all. It only conveyed functionalities : hydration and ingredients (Aloe Vera). And the styling, the look and feel was extremely generic. We are not allowed to share the actual visual – but it came very close to an image bank template for skin care – that’s how inspirationless it was. Consequently, the audience’s brain did not detect anything relevant, the implicit motivation was not activated by this bland message. It did not capture the attention, it did not trigger behaviour.


We re-worked the visual in a pretty straightforward manner. The new ad clearly depicted a woman who ‘receives’ admiration – wrapped in the arms of a man. A simple stereotype? Certainly. But it delivered. In a final attempt to save the day, the brand decided to run a small campaign on a sort of emergency budget. The re-worked ad performed much better. The ROI of this small campaign was higher. Everybody noticed it. Bloggers blogged about it. The response on socials was unseen for the brand. And amazingly, even the perceived value of the product itself climbed with almost 10%.


A mega campaign that was disconnected from the relevant implicit motive failed to capture the attention, and did not deliver. A modest campaign with a direct link to the relevant implicit goal was spot on.

For the brand it was a real revelation. It lead to a drastic change of visual language. For the first time in its long history, people were used in the ads. Show faces versus the old ‘show product only’ adagio.

For us at Beyond Reason it ment another big step forward on our mission to connect the realities of corporate marketing with the progress of (neuro) science.

Learn more about the relation between implicit motives and attention during

our free lunch and learn webinar on JUNE 10th 12.00 London Time


beyond reason 1 c WImVandersleyen

Photo Credit: Wim Vandersleyen

beyond reason 2 c WImVandersleyen

Photo Credit: Wim Vandersleyen

beyond reason 3 c WImVandersleyen

Photo Credit: Wim Vandersleyen

About The Author


Olivier ‘Oli’ Tjon is co-founder of Beyond Reason, on of Europe’s fastest growing neuro-marketing & decision science consultancy. With projects in +30 countries for some of the world’s greatest brands, Beyond Reason is globally recognised as expert in implicit consumer research. Besides analysing the hidden component of purchase decisions, Oli gets his kicks from trail running and obscure techno music.

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