How Ads on Facebook and Google manipulate the human brain

BuzzFeed journalists have decided to check how advertising in social networks influences the human brain. To find this out the greatest minds of American Universities have been involved. In this given article we are going to share the conclusions of the journalistic investigation with you. 

Alicia Jenkins is 24 and she is not about getting married in the nearest time. However, according to her own story Facebook advertisement for engagement rings, wedding dresses and honeymoon trips literally pursue her. So it looks like Alicia got into the target hell of fall 2012, right after she helped to arrange the wedding of her sister. 

This is the advertising reality of 2013. Online advertising from senseless, or better to say not targeted ad bots changed into advertisements that know a lot about us. This happens thanks to two the largest personal information storages: Google and Facebook. 

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Google generates almost 30 billions of advertising impressions per day, while Facebook generates about 7 billions of impressions. And those numbers continue increasing. In some case targeted advertisement is really useful: the ads get more relevant and less annoying, and make our life easier and simpler. But since the Facebook and Google advertisement mechanisms continue improving, the influence of advertisement to human behaviour increases as well. It may happen humanity will stop understanding that ads actually manipulate our consciousness. 

Human brain is not adapted to analyzing the ads. We do not think about the author of the advertisement that pops-up while we browse social networks, about why we see that particular advertisement and what the ad publisher’s motivation is. Clifford Nass, the director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab at Stanford University, in his interview to BuzzFeed said: «Humans are not built to scrutinize the sources or the causes of information». The scientist adds that he considers this to be a significant problem – because people are not aware that Google and Facebook target their ads depending on the search quires of users. 

In understanding how the brain processes information the researches often draw on the LC4MP theory. According to that theory our brain performs three actions simultaneously with every message – encoding, storing, and retrieving information – and limited resources of our brain are divided into three parts to complete these tasks.

Let’s consider the example when you are at work upon filling an importing data reporting. You are trying to recall what have you been doing during the whole year (retrieving information process is on) and trying to fill the reporting correct (storing is engaged as well). Your brain is at the end of tether and its cognitive capabilities. And right at this moment somebody enters the room and says: «Hello, what’s up! Filling the data reporting? Oh, that sucks!». Your brain switches on the instant from the retrieving and storing processes and leads the part of resources to react and answer the person speaking to you. Your efficiency in filling the data reporting certainly decreases.      

The third and the most important capability is encoding and it is about recording in somebody’s consciousness the first impression or thought that came up when we see something. 

Ads publishers strive to achieve automatic encoding, i. e. to get their ad stuck in our brain before we even decide whether we need to store this information or not. Automatic encoding is the initial step on the road to brand building. Of course there is no guarantee you will come to a shop and buy what is advertised right after you see the ad. On the contrary, there are people who never buy well known and popular brands. But still, it is believed that negative encoding is better than nothing. 

Google collects the information about how people search different things in the Internet, while Facebook data are mostly based on users’ activities – the pages they like, their reposts, friendship activities, etc. Because of the data difference between Google and Facebook, there are some differences in advertising campaigns’ strategies as well. 

Advertising with Google can be divided into two types: ads impressions by keywords on search engine results page and display advertising, which depends on users’ interests as well but is displayed on the Google media network sites chosen by advertisers (there are more than one million of such sites, applications and videos). 

The task of Facebook is slightly harder because social networks visitors are not usually in buying mode as opposed to Google’s users; people use Google while searching the information about prices and websites to make a purchase on. Therefore, Facebook visitors are passive observers who can be still manipulated by means of subtly displayed ad. 

For example ads can be camouflaged within a user’s news feed, or delicately placed on the pages as a “sponsored stories”. Here you can read an exciting story about one man who has managed to sell a barrel of lubricant on Saint Valentine’s Day by means of Facebook “sponsored stories”.

In summer 2012 Facebook announced its own re-targeting Facebook Exchange system, which displayed advertisements on Facebook for the things visitors did outside the network. 

According to Catherine Tucker’s research, an associate professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan Management School, the Facebook’s advertising efficiency is not so much about product meeting user’s interests, it is about opinion of user’s friends who liked the product and whose opinion user is inclined to trust. 

From a neurological perspective, what matters is not where the ads are coming from. Rather, it’s the extent to which an ad (a secondary task) disrupts the encoding, storing, and retrieving from what the viewer was originally focusing on (a primary task) 

— notices Kevin Wise, the director of the PRIME (Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects) Lab at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. 

Wise’s researches focus on how different features of online media affect the emotions and cognition. In a process of perception of advertisement a lot depends on how new and essential is the information provided to a user, and if a user is motivated to receive that information.  

The goal of the ads is to distract your attention from what you are doing at the moment of seeing it. But it is also important to side-track the attention in a gentle way and not to cause user getting nervous and getting back to what he was engaged in, without even reading an advertisement. That is why pop-up ads popularity came to naught gradually. Yes, it attracted the attention and yes, it was quite irritating to make a user to close a pop up window containing an advertisement without reading it. 

Wise says that sponsored stories on Facebook within the news feed are more efficient than ads on the periphery of the page. 

If I’m reading my Facebook feed and it says “Allison just liked Taco Bell,” then the advertisement has become part of the primary task. That’s the gold standard, making it so there is no distinction between what someone is doing naturally and the advertisement. 

The scientists of the Pennsylvania State University discovered that bright and interactive ads are not really efficient, contrary to popular belief. They do attract attention but users really rare are able to keep in memory the product that is advertised. 

The most interesting for advertiser audience are those who are ready to make purchases but are not aware of the assortment. Those people are in so-called “Zero Moment of Truth” mode. Such users usually search for the product they need with such quires like “fast food”, or “facial tissue”. And this is exactly the people the Facebook “Your friend X liked the restaurant Y” ad is targeted at. This kind of information spread from friend to friend is believed to be more trusted as opposed to the brand or company itself.

It is difficult to shoot for the Zero Moment and there is no guarantee the ad will attract users’ attention at the right moment. John Wanamaker, one of the prime movers in the modern advertising,” once said:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.   

In a similar situation are the advertisers using Facebook «sponsored stories».

But let’s imagine how defenseless may become Facebook and Google users once algorithm is able to determine that Zero Moment, when the users will be ready to buy anything they are offered. In some experts’ opinion the users’ rebellion is possible in the near future due to social networks knowing too much about them.

Related link: BuzzFeed

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