A kick in the teeth for LIP

Image courtesy of Stephanissimo

Call me old fashioned but I like a nice bit of rational communication. I think that if you set out to persuade people of your brands qualities and point of view you ought to do just that, persuade them.

This requires active engagement from people towards the brand or communication, not just their passive attention.

However, in recent years, this model has been significantly challenged by the Low Involvement Processing school of communication.

And I began to think that I ought to raise the white flag on rational persuasion, especially as a superficial reading of some of the stuff coming out of cognitive neuroscience seemed to endorse LIP.

Not any longer I don't.

I had the pleasure of enjoying Millward Brown's hospitality last week as they presented some of the conclusions they have drawn from recent developments in cognitive neuroscience for the world of advertising.

They have been working with Jane Raymond (Professor of Experimental Consumer Psychology at the University of Wales Bangor) to understand what this scary new world might mean for us.

It turns out it might be good news those of us that believe in active persuasion.

Apparently the brain is organised into a hierarchy of specialised modules, at the top of which are three mega modules which represent information according to their specialism. Roughly they relate to Knowledge (concrete information associated with an object), Action (the actions that we associate with an object) and Emotion (the value of that object to us).

When required, information from these three mega-modules is integrated in the Mental Workspace. This is where we do our 'thinking' - when we are conscious of things, make decisions, place thinks into our long term memory, build further associations and control our voluntary actions. In other words the kind of stuff we want to happen as the result of communications.

But for this to take place information has to gain entry to your Workspace. And access to the Workspace is chronically limited - we can only think about 3-4 things at once less when it comes to more complex ideas. Incidentally at long last we have some proof that the hoary old Creative Director cliche about tennis balls may actually be true.

With information competing to be the subject of attention we must filter our the less relevant stuff. And as a result we sort information into four categories:

Attended - stuff that gets into the workspace to be acted on and integrated.

Passively ignored - stuff that is not in the workspace but ready to enter. It can enter the workspace quickly if required but if it doesn't its behavioural effects will be short-lived and subtle.

Actively ignored - stuff we must ignore as it is actively irrelevant and distracting to the task at hand. This is important because we emotionally devalue this information, causing negative reactions when we next come across it (a significant challenge for online advertising and urban spam).

Not registered - the vast majority of information available to us that is just edited out and therefore redundant.

If information gets through it then can be acted upon and a representation created - the currency of thought in the Workspace. Each representation has to have input from all three mega modules - knowledge, action and emotion and this process is what takes the time.

Indeed there is evidence that the whole thing takes so much time and effort that the brain literally 'blinks' having completed a representation which leads to attention blind spots. This has implications for the creation of linear communication like moving image or sound.

And this is the challenge to Low Involvement Processing. It is not that it doesn't exist or doesn't work, but that it is a cop out.

For us to do anything as a result of brand communication takes the brain to do a hell of a lot of work and uses up time and attention - time and attention that it could be devoting to other stuff.

It is our job to get people to devote scarce Workspace resources to our brand and its qualities and get our messages actively attended to.

If people do not actively attend to a piece of communication then it is left either passively ignored or actively ignored. In the first case LIP may help us but the effects will be subtle and short-lived. While if it is actively ignored you are just storing up problems for the future.

I know what effect I'd like my client's marketing expenditure to engender in consumers. You go low involvement if you want - I'm going to actively persuade them.

If you want to know more I'm sure the nice people at Millward Brown will let you in on their work (Graham Page is responsible for this aspect of their work) while ESOMAR carry the complete paper that he and Professor Raymond presented at the ESOMAR congress last year (payment required - how open source is that?).


The lessons of neuroscience aren't limited to how the brain works - they also reveal the way it changes throughout our lives and the nature of our efforts to persuade must reflect that as well.

Posted by: John Dodds at February 5, 2007 05:58 PM

Sweet. Chorb Muay Thai Lor...? ;)

Only yesterday, while perusing through the Bangkok Post and driving through Prachuab Kiri Khan, I read the following about the Superbowl ads:

"The most ineffective ad was from Honda, which showed participants were less engaged during the ad than they were when they looked at a blank screen."

The Guardian is probably more respectable for the inner M25 mob though:,,-6394628,00.html

I'm guessing that both the Honda ad and white screen must be the definitive low involvement experience in terms of persuasion, but moreover I predict that U.S. Honda sales will suffer less than White Screen sales.

Neuroscience is so young. Someone I think on Futurelab described it as revealing as much as Victorian Photography does, and yet leaves so many more questions. Which is an engaging thought isn't it?

Millward Brown aren't always right as indeed I am. They are much more savvy than most research outfits and question most orthodoxes, but only a while back I yawned through a presentation of there's with a full on endorsement of Hofstede's now highly questionable if not discredited ideas on Confuscian Dynamism.

Not even a nod towards advertising context (Superbowl or Lakorn)!! Gasp...

However it's great discussion material and I'm up for learning something new if only to escape the ennui of how easy it is to propel agrarian economies into the consumer society. It 'aint rocket science. There I've said it now.

Posted by: Charles Frith at February 7, 2007 10:01 AM

I wonder if what's going on here is that Millward Brown quite clearly need to find some way of accomodating neuroscience into their banker products of Link and Tracking. You, as you say, prefer the notion of communication that persuades.

From what little I understand about neuroscience and evolutionary science, the rational cognitive facilities of our brains evolved between two and a half million years ago and 100,000 years ago and are unique to us amongst all species.

We can be pretty confident that the uniquely human qualities of the brain (the rational conscious thinking bit that you like to persuade and which Millward Brown like to test and measure) are a sexual selection adaptation not a survival one.

For two reasons:

Firstly, adaptations that are primarily enhancements in the ability to survive into puberty tend to result in common features across species (such as legs, eyes, lungs), whereas adaptations that are primarily enhancements in the ability to compete successfully for a mate in order to have sex and reproduce, tend to result in features unique to just one species. So the uniqueness of the human brain is very strong eveidence that it is a sexual adaptation and not a survival one.

Secondly, for 90,000 years, from 100,000 years ago (when our brains were fully evolved as they are now) to 10,000 years ago when agriculture was first invented, we didn't put them to any survival use. We didn't change our technology, our mode of settlement or do anything else that would - if the neo-cortex had evolved as a survival related, decision-making, thinking tool - repay the enormous burden on our body's energy budget that is required to support the neo-cortex. So the fact that we didn't use the human brain for 90,000 years for survival-enhancement purposes is also very strong evidence that it is a sexual adaptation not a survival one.

Therefore the possibility that the conscious thinking facility of our brains which has evolved solely for the purpose of enabling us to compete for a mate (by making displays of musical virtuosity, telling jokes, concocting religious dogma, and showing off how little one knows about evolutionary science, all in the service of chatting up girls) is also the part of our anatomy that determines our actions, is frankly remote.

Especially when you factor in that every action bar none of every other species bar none, (and including all of our ancestors pre-two and a half million years ago for a couple of billion years prior) don't (and didn't) have such a facility in their brain and yet still manage(d) to "decide" how to behave using instincts and emotions.

So it's most likely that that's what we do too (act in accordance with our instincts and our emotions), and all the neuroscience I've seen seems to support that. I think Zaltman quotes the figure that 95% of decision making is unconcious, and crucially it's pre-concious. Our instincts and emotions, through competitive parallel processing, have already decided on how to act before the winner - the "decision" - is promoted to consciousness.

Gary Klein's "Sources of Power" (one of Gladwell's "Blink" sources, and more accurate than Gladwell in some details I believe) also argues to the same conclusions using empirical studies of fire crew behviour amongst other evidence.

The role of our consciousness in deciding how to act, appears to be for the most part, to occasionally veto spectacularly stupid impulses that would serious screw our lives, but most usually to concoct an account (a post-rationalisation) of why we are behaving as we are, so we don't feel guilty and other people don't think we're crazy or immoral.

And very frequently people make use of the rational benefit articulated in an ad to help them achieve this. So when people ask us why we did what we did (including of course market researchers) we tell them the concoction (the post-rationalisation), which has the effect of confirming in people who like to believe that ads persuade through rational argument that this is indeed the case.

But ads don't seem to work by persuading. Ads that work speak to the desire, and provide the viewer / reader / participant with a "you add an egg and bake it yorself" ready-made post-rationalisation that you can personalise (by adding yourself) and make it seem that that was why you really bought what you bought (bake it yourself).

The rational component of communications doesn't need to bear the burden of being capable of "persuading" someone, it just needs to be there in some shape or form and be "good enough" to be the basis of a credible post-rationalisation of why it's ok for people like me to behave like this around here nowadays.

Mahrabian's much-quoted study from the late 60's that 7% of communication is the words we say, 35% is how we say it, and 58% is our body language, (adverts? - very similar) fits this logic too. That's why I loved working at HHCL - because as a planner you were involved in the production process and so could directly influence the 93% that is not the words we say.

I keep meaning to blog about this and related stuff - I got as far as registering but I never have a minute spare to do it. I take my hat off to you that you find the time, and make it so interesting.


Posted by: David O'Hanlon at February 9, 2007 12:14 PM


3 comments on a post about how advertising works.

103 debating what planning is.

Makes me wonder what planners are really interested in.

Posted by: Matchstickman at February 9, 2007 08:43 PM

Thankyou matchstickman - an accutely well made observation.

Perhaps planners are rather too concerned about the nature of planning and rather little concerned with the nature of advertising and communications effectiveness.

Of course it could be that the online community is about planners setting aside the day job momentarily to think about other stuff...more fun stuff. I dunno.

Posted by: Richard at February 9, 2007 08:53 PM

Good provocation, RH.

Love Dave's post. Think he's probably got the MB motives right and read the runes on the difference between what our minds tell us and how our behaviour really arises.

I'd just add that, for my money, the one really important feature that our minds hide is the (invisible) influence of others. Given what I see as our social nature, this is likely to be much MUCH more important than we've hitherto thought.

And it explains the repeated finding (which we adfolks have mostly ignored) that other people are our most trusted influence on what we do and what we buy...(see for example Edelman's trust surveys various...)

Good question though: how do adverts work? If we don't think through this stuff properly (and with evidence) then we can get in an almight tangle, can't we?

Posted by: mark Earls at February 10, 2007 03:02 PM

Great brain (neocortex?) food there from David, I'm still digesting a lot of it. How does advertising work Mark? I don't think the definitive answer is available or ever will be, considering the huge number of variables and their interplay, but there's certainly an entry in the planning manual or wiki on how advertising can work better and I think we all agree that more interesting works more effectively.

Incidentally I see from my DOH inspired hypertext travels that males have 4 billion more neurons in their neo cortex than females and nobody knows why, which shows how little we still really know about the human CPU.

Posted by: Charles Edward Frith at February 11, 2007 01:31 PM

Hmmm. I think you're right CEF that a definitive answer is unlikely to be ready and available not least because advertising is not just one thing and trying to reduce it to one thing is likely to lose something in the approximation.

That said, I think we're going to find that quite a lot of our working assumptions about how advertising works are just plain wrong. Things like sending and receiving messages (and variations of this) are what matters in communication effectiveness; there are a number of ways of thinking about communication which don't involve saying or hearing anything. I know Russell D and a few others share this view.

Also, I'd watch out for mixing up brain activity, mental experience and actual mechanisms in this whole area: the 3 connect but are not the same thing or even the same kind of thing. Lots of room for error here.

But it's good to think about these things really hard - my point, really.

Posted by: mark Earls at February 12, 2007 03:05 PM

Agreed Mark, I do think that the tonality part of a brief is probably the richest area to be mined. Additionally and probably opening up a can of worms that I've become more interested lately is the area of context. I got into this area when weighing up metaphorical/aliterative/allegorical etc. messages versus direct selling messages within a specific culture (results do appear to vary and are rarely a static cultural quality). In terms of context there's a whole dynamic between the receiver (customer), content (TV/Internet?) being digested prior to message, the nature of the interruption (if push) and even the likely environment. An example might be a simple disruption of someone offering to make a cuppa when an ad break commences, if that's likely within a group/family viewing environment, it would interest me highly when weighing up the most compelling message over say a single person who might be less inclined to get up and thus possibly be more reflective of commercial messages.

It's grey area, and has possibly too many permutations, but it's the sort of conversation that I'd be up for when thinking about crafting marketing communication messages.

Posted by: Charles Frith at February 13, 2007 01:19 PM

Interesting. Heath changed the name from Low Involvement Processing to Low Attention Processing (LAP) several years ago. He has used this term in every paper he has written since then. Yet none of the posters above seems to have remembered this. Is that a kick in the teeth for LAP?

Posted by: Dom at February 19, 2007 09:31 AM

Yes he did - but the gag doesn't work as well.

He has done some interesting stuff on evaluating advertising according to both its emotional and rational persuasiveness. He calls it CEP - Cognitive Emotional Persuasion.

I referenced it in a post in Sony Bravia Balls - high on emotional persuasion but low on rational. But Admap made me take the link down.

Posted by: Richard at February 19, 2007 03:06 PM

Yes; I see OTX are offering a CEP test now. It will be very interesting to read their findings in a year or two, since they will have measures of ad impact as well as emotional and rational persuasion. We'll see how strong their evidence is for the most emotionally persuasive ads being unimpactful.....all the evidence we have shows that generating emotions generates impact. So an emotionally persuasive ad will be impactful. It flies in the face of Heath's argument, but it is what our data shows, and I suspect OTX willl find the same thing....

Posted by: Dom at February 20, 2007 12:35 PM

When Robert and I were first developing the LIP thinking, we did have something of a parting over the ways of the question of active persuasion.

He may now have changed his mind, but Robert always had the rather Stalinist view that it just never happened any more...full stop.

My view was always more that it didn't happen simply because few brands had anything worth saying, or listening to. Which was why LIP/LAP worked - all that was left was the more textual, emotive stuff we didn't need to actively think about.

But if you do have something to say, that must be better. And surely the evidence suggests people do listen.

Which to my mind suggests that the real debate is less about how advertising works than how products and service work.

Yes we can do clever ideas that have an LIP effect. And yes we can 'discover' new consumer 'insights' to hero in advertising.

But at the end of the day, that can be no replacement from having decent raw materials to work with in the first place! Which is maybe where we should be spending more of our time trying to add value (which I think is something Seth Godin suggested recently).

Posted by: Jon Howard at February 26, 2007 10:44 AM

Thanks Jon - and from the horse's mouth

Posted by: Richard at February 26, 2007 11:19 AM

Those who don't have WARC can find the full pdf of the paper here on Millward Brown's site for free here ...

Click on the entry for September 21st.

Posted by: Lee McEwan at March 7, 2007 04:56 PM