Isn’t Selling to the ‘Lizard Brain’ the Goal?

In The Art of Planting Ideas, we talked about how the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the human brain goes dormant while watching movies on the big screen, television shows and sometimes even marketing videos.

Understanding people, how they think and why they do what they do is the foundation of marketing. Knowing why certain tactics and triggers work makes you much more effective at applying the what and how of selling and marketing.

Why does the relative inactivity of the PFC even matter? Don’t people always buy based on emotion? Isn’t the goal to sell to the “lizard brain” anyway? First, let me say that I find the term “lizard” or “reptilian brain” ridiculous (although the phrase itself is both visual and visceral, making it a great use of language). This part of the brain – the limbic system – is not some genetic hand-me-down of an evolutionary process. (In fact, the “three-brain theory” has been largely rejected by modern neuroscience. Most marketing educators are clinging to old, invalidated information.)  I find that the radical self-interest of the human race can be traced back to choices Adam made back in Eden. The more I learn about psychology and neurology, the more clearly I can explain why marketing works from a Biblical perspective. (Maybe we’ll talk about that another time.)

I prefer the term “old brain” instead of “lizard brain“?

Back to the point…

The desires that drive our decision-making, including purchasing decisions, do come from the old brain. They’re more emotional than intellectual. That’s why we focus on appealing to the emotions in sales and marketing.

But the prefrontal cortex is still in control of the executive function, i.e. the ability to guide thought and action in accordance with internal goals. We aren’t lizards! Desires still have to make it past the PFC, which processes the logical outcomes of acting on that desire. This is the reason why “reason why” advertising works.  Marketers have to provide the necessary ammunition to rationalize the purchase. Check out Simon Sinek’s 2009 TEDx presentation explaining why “why” matters. (I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but it’s still worth watching.)

Ultimately, desires are rooted deeper than logic and rationality, but the PFC almost always has the final authority.

Have you ever wanted to punch someone right in the mouth? Have you seen yourself do it in your mind’s eye? Most of us have. But most of us don’t act on that desire. That’s the executive function at work, overriding emotion.

That means you sell to the emotions, but you can’t neglect the intellect in the process.

So, is the PFC-paralyzing power of video good or bad? It is inherently neutral. It can be used for evil purposes, e.g. the Nazi propaganda film “The Triumph of the Will.” It can also be used for good. In either case, it’s effective.

A good story can have a similar effect on the brain. When you’re engrossed in narrative, the brain makes its own mental movie to watch the story unfold. Robert Collier said it well: “The mind thinks in pictures, you know. One good illustration is worth a thousand words. But one clear picture built up in the reader’s mind by your words is worth a thousand drawings, for the reader colors that picture with his own imagination, which is more potent than all the brushes of all the world’s artists.”