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Could dopamine levels be your next campaign metric?

By Jeff Tan, Innovation solutions officer

February 27, 2020 | 4 min read

You probably have a favorite campaign you constantly refer to as an example of brilliant human insight and creative. It simply resonated with you. You may even be guilty of Googling it from time to time just to feel warm and fuzzy.

Group of women

Could dopamine levels be your next campaign metric?

I beam with patriotic Australian pride every time I re-watch the I Believe (2000) ad from Fosters. Whenever I showcase the Apple Think Different (1998) video at innovation workshops, I can’t help but smile. I think: this brand understands me.

So, what goes on in a person’s brain when they see a piece of advertising that connects with their soul?

To help answer this, I sat down with Dr Christina Ni, a psychiatrist based in Los Angeles.

She explains that a crucial part of the brain is the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of neurons grouped together in the basal forebrain.

The nucleus accumbens is strongly involved with the experience of pleasure and reward, driving motivation and translating willpower into action. It plays a role in laughter, addiction, and ultimately learning and memory.

“Think of it as the reward center of your brain, processing experiences and releasing feel-good dopamine in response to positive situations,” says Ni. “This part of the brain has implications for strengthening and reinforcing addictive behaviors such as drug use, gambling, shopping, and even sex and exercise.”

This means that every time we see content that resonates with us personally, dopamine is released that is literally making us feel happy.

So, how about Dopamine Release Levels (DRL) as a new campaign metric?

We’re wired as animals to constantly seek out dopamine-inducing experiences, sometimes to the exclusion of other basic needs. In a study on gambling addiction, researchers connected electrodes to the nucleus accumbens in laboratory rats.

These rats soon learned that pushing a lever would stimulate the nucleus accumbens, releasing dopamine. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the power of the reward center.

“Eventually these rats died, because they were exhausted from pushing the lever and neglecting other basic needs. That shows how strong the reward circuit can be, and how it can override even basic drives like eating.”

I’m not endorsing creating advertising campaigns so compelling that viewers constantly watch mindlessly on repeat. My point is that the content we create can actually make positive changes in people’s brains.

As agencies and brand marketers, let’s remember our goal is to connect with consumers emotionally.

The only way to do so is to strike at the core of real human insight that impacts people. For me as a consumer, this was patriotism (Fosters), and the innovative spirit (Apple).

Let’s move away from vanity metrics that tell us nothing about whether our media and content is actually resonating with consumers. We need to better understand human emotion and how our content impacts us as individuals.

Qualitative studies can help marketers do this; all it takes is prioritization and process. After all, we want our audiences to be feeling the rush of dopamine over and over again.

Jeff Tan is innovation solutions officer at Dentsu Aegis Network.


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