What Advertisers Learned From A Little Monkey

Imagine, if you will, a thick hamburger patty being pulled off a sizzling grill and laid on a freshly toasted bun. Cheese slowly melts on the patty while it’s topped with lettuce, tomato and secret sauce drips as the top bun is perfectly placed. Now imagine two hands reaching to grab the delicious-looking burger. You see the person open their mouth, take a bite and close their eyes to enjoy each moment of the experience. Their eyes open and the only thing left to do is smile.

Which of these moments — the images of the burger or the person eating it — do you think communicates great taste at higher levels? 

The answer is both. When properly executed, both can drive taste perceptions and drive consumers to purchase yourproduct. While painting the product in its very best light is important, do not underestimate the power of showing someone eating … and enjoying it as well.

The term “bite and smile” is sometimes seen as a bit archaic and based on the golden age of advertising. In addition, the role such images play in an ad is often overlooked in the perennial debate of rational versus emotional advertising. But, research provides a good reason to continue using this traditional approach.



In the 1990s, Italian researchers accidentally discovered “mirror neurons” while conducting a research study with a Macaque monkey. In the study, the researchers placed a helmet covered with electrodes on the monkey. The intent of the research was to simply understand what neurons fired when certain actions were done. As luck would have it, the weather in Italy was quite warm and while conducting the experiment, the researcher was eating an ice cream cone in front of the little monkey. Anytime the researcher licked his delicious-looking cone, the monkey’s neurons started firing — the same neurons that were firing in the researcher each time he took a bite. While the discovery of “mirror neurons” was important in many different ways, for many different fields, those of us in advertising can benefit from the insights.

When you play a video game or watch sports, your imagination and the mental maps of your physical self interact in a virtual reality that may become indistinguishable from a real-world experience. As researchers noted with the monkey experiment, mental simulations of physical activity fire many of the same neurons in the brain as would actual movement. Imagining doing something is almost the same as actually doing it. 

We can apply the same concept of the brain’s “mirror systems” to help us understand how advertising works. Mirror neurons allow us to adopt another person’s point of view when we watch them perform an action. It is also a key learning system. We learn by watching others because parallel neural activity in our brains fire the same neurons involved in performing the same action ourselves.

When we watch someone in a commercial enjoy a delicious burger, wash their hair, drive a car, or swipe their smartphone, our mirror system engages and we mentally rehearse doing the same things — we call this “virtual consumption.” When we watch someone else being touched, we can feel the touch ourselves. These mental rehearsals become “false memories” and increase the total number of memories we have stored about the experience.

So, back to our delicious hamburger example … when a consumer was provided an opportunity to “rehearse” consumption, their perception of it tasting good was enhanced and their likelihood of purchasing the burger increased. And, when the day came that the consumer purchased their very own burger hot off the grill, their feelings that the burger actually did taste good were also enhanced.

Even though the experience created through an ad may be virtual for the consumer, it still creates more memories of brand satisfaction, which is one reason why brands that advertise have an advantage over brands that do not.

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