As the media landscape continues to evolve, there is an increased focus on the precise role played by different media. In a world where impacts have multiplied and reach has fragmented, the nature and quality of a brand impression has never been more important.

In this context, research carried out by Magnetic has suggested that magazines continue to work for advertisers because they deliver an increasingly rare commodity – an environment where consumers engage single-mindedly with content, giving it their undivided attention. This paper sets out to examine how this is manifested at a subconscious level – what’s going on in the minds of consumers that might make the magazine experience unique?

There is more than one type of cognitive attention

The first point to address is what we mean by sustained, undivided attention because, in terms of brain response, there is more than one type of attention. There’s the sort of attention that typifies how we respond to, for example, a loud noise. It’s a reflex response that’s instinctive, not learned, and doesn’t really have anything to do with our longer-term behaviours. This sort of attention is immediate and short-lived, and exists independently of lifestyle factors that can affect other parts of the brain. Then there’s part of the brain that’s associated with visual attention – it’s something that we at Neuro-Insight measure in our studies, and can be important, but is a relatively transient, short-term metric that doesn’t really bear any relation to long-term impact. Playing a video game, for example, will drive high levels of visual attention, but the experience is unlikely to impact our longer-term memories and associations, or drive any wider behaviours. The sort of attention that Magnetic are talking about is rather different – it’s a measure of sustained involvement that has the potential to stimulate us in a way that can drive our perceptions and actions. So, in neuro terms, sustained attention would be indicated not by visual attention, but rather by two alternative metrics – “engagement” and “long-term memory encoding”. The “engagement” metric that we report on is an indicator of personal relevance - the extent to which people identify personally with something; and long-term memory encoding relates to information that is being stored away rather than processed at a more superficial level. Together these metrics indicate a level of involvement that prompts people to engage deeply with, and file away, information and associations that are presented to them.

So what do the neuro metrics actually mean?

The metric we measure for engagement, or personal relevance is based on brain activity in a prefrontal region near the forehead known as Brodmann area 10 (BA10). This is the part of the brain that metaphorically lights up when we encounter something that we can identify with or relate to on a personal level. Alongside engagement, long-term memory encoding is the other key metric that we take to be indicative of sustained, meaningful attention. Memory encoding relates to the process by which something is stored, or encoded, into memory as we engage with something on a second by second basis. Memory encoding is measured in the lateral pre-frontal cortex of the brain; topographically distinct from the parts of the brain that are associated with engagement, but the two are linked in that high levels of personal relevance tend to drive memory response. That is, if our brains perceive a stimulus to have a role in our world, it’s an indication that whatever we are responding to may be important and therefore it’s in our interests to file it away. Based on our studies, high levels of engagement tend to drive strong memory response. For example, in a television charity ad that we researched, those who were regular donors to charity had levels of engagement that were 9% higher than non-donors, and their memory encoding response at call to action was 14% higher.

We measure memory response both for left brain (memory for words and details) and right brain (memory relating to the overall, holistic feel of something). It’s not the same as recall – things can be encoded into memory explicitly, which means we know that they’re there, but also implicitly, where we might not consciously recall them, but where they can still impact our future actions. Memory encoding is a crucial metric because if something isn’t stored into memory, no matter how much we enjoy it at the time, it can’t possibly affect our future behaviour – if it’s not stored away into memory, it’s simply not there in our heads. But the significance of memory goes deeper than this, because our brains are very selective about what is stored away, and we tend to encode things for which the brain has already identified a use. Therefore if something is encoded into memory, this is both an enabler and predictor of likely future behaviour. Indeed, numerous studies have documented the link between memory and behaviour. A paper written by our founder, Professor Richard Silberstein, demonstrated how people who encoded a brand into memory whilst watching a commercial for it were significantly more likely to choose that brand in a controlled environment (Silberstein & Nield, International Journal of Advertising, 2008). Work published by EMAC, describing work done by Mars, Mountainview Learning and Ehrenberg Bass also identifies memory as a key indicator of likely communication effectiveness – more powerful than metrics like recall and likeability.

What does this mean for magazines?

The neuro engagement metric is key when it comes to response to magazines. As a medium, magazines tend to elicit very high levels of personal relevance, reflecting the way in which they are chosen and used. Across recent studies carried out by Neuro-Insight in the UK, magazine reading elicited levels of personal relevance that were 30% higher than average responses to online browsing and 15% higher than comparable figures for TV viewing. And this is true across demographic groups. Men are just as likely as women to relate to their chosen magazine titles, and younger people are just as engaged as older ones. In a recent study, for example, engagement response to magazines amongst a 16-24 year old audience was over 20% higher than the mean for all readers. The high levels of engagement that we see for magazines are carried through into a strong memory encoding response, and magazines tend to elicit particularly high responses when it comes to right brain encoding, which relates to their overall feel and holistic impact. This is of course vital when it comes to brand-building, because it means the emotional associations of a piece of advertising are coming through. That is, when we encode something into memory, it’s not just information that goes in - memory has a strong emotional colour, so what gets filed away by the brain has clear emotional associations filed alongside it. The pattern of response that we see for magazines, with high personal relevance and strong memory encoding (particularly in the right hemisphere of the brain) suggest that they can play a key role in building brand equity. In this sense they play a very different role to, for example, social media which can be an excellent trigger mechanism but less effective at building new associations. To illustrate the role played by different media, we use the analogy of a brand room in people’s heads, where media can serve either to furnish or illuminate the room.

An analogy – the brand room

Our brains carry networks of associations for the things that we encounter in our lives and, as we gather new information about things, our associative memory links it to our existing knowledge and the corresponding networks grow. We can think about these networks as “rooms” in our heads and, when it comes to brands, each brand will have a unique room associated with it. Some of these rooms, for brands that we know and like, will be well-decorated and furnished with lots of associations, and the feeling of the room will reflect all our experiences and impressions about the brand. Rooms for brands that we know less well will be more sparsely furnished or, if we dislike a brand, it might have a richly furnished room, but we’d never feel compelled to enter it. Advertising, along with other brand touchpoints, plays an important role in helping to furnish or re-decorate brand rooms by giving new information or changing perceptions of the brand.

However, we don’t go around thinking about brands all the time – often they’re not at the forefront of our consciousness and the brand room is, effectively, in darkness. In order to illuminate all their hard-won associations in the critical moments when purchases decisions are made, brands need to illuminate the room by identifying triggers that can act as a switch to light up the room and bring brand associations into play. Brand logos are the most obvious examples of these triggers, but any aspect of brand iconography have the potential to act this way. These may be shapes, colours, sounds or images that are appropriated by a brand, and they evoke the overall feelings associated with a brand when people see them again. These triggers are key to leveraging the impact of branding and brand communication along the path to purchase and across media. So a given medium can act either to furnish the brand room or to light it up. Both roles are important – it’s no use furnishing a room and never illuminating it; but conversely there’s not much point constantly lighting up a room that is sparsely or uninvitingly decorated. Media changes over recent years have tended to have the effect of delivering more light switches – fast impacts like online ads and paid-for social media impacts. These can be great triggers, but they don’t deliver a deep or sustained enough experience to furnish the brand room in the first place. In this context, media that can furnish the room, and so build equity, remain enormously valuable.

Magazines are one of the media that can furnish the brand room

Magazines, delivering high levels of personal relevance and memory encoding as we have seen, are well-positioned to help build brand equity. People engage with them long enough and deeply enough to do much more than deliver a simple brand impact – they can build richer and more complex emotional associations and so can work particularly well in the early stages of a communications campaign where new ideas are being presented and formed. This means in turn that shorter-term trigger media, like paid-for social, can work more effectively, because they can serve to light up and evoke brand perceptions that have been strongly established. The different types of media work together in a complementary way. In short, in terms of brain response, the evidence and understanding that we have all point to magazines as a medium that can deliver long-term memory encoding and engagement (personal relevance) equating, in the language used by Magnetic, to sustained and meaningful attention. In an increasingly online world, what they deliver is a commodity that has become more and more important – the ability to contribute to the deep emotional connections that are the necessary precursor to shorter-term, impact based advertising.