How the “reptilian brain” reacts to commercials?

Dalibor Šumiga Behavioral marketing/Neuromarketing, Marketing

Have you ever tried to question somebody by limiting their time to answer? I’m not talking about quiz games but questions like: “I’ll give you a name, and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind”. You should definitely try it because you’ll discover some incredible things about the person you’re talking to.

Intuitive or implicit reactions are usually reflections of our own behavior. Why? Because decisions or answers are formed automatically, without our rational influence, and they’re based on previous experiences and impressions we stored somewhere in our subconsciousness.

About a year ago I stumbled upon a very interesting study that showed that we never dream about people we didn’t encounter in real life, even though they appear as complete strangers in our dreams.

I didn’t have a chance to explore this theory further, but it does sound logical – how many people do we encounter on a daily basis, and they are detected only by our virtual eyes (peripheral vision)? Our subconsciousness has enough capacity to store all this information.


The human brain, from its beginning, was not formed to receive marketing messages, but to be a detector for both danger and opportunities. The reptilian brain, the oldest part of our brain, located below the limbic system, is evolutionarily programmed to fulfill 3 functions:

  1. recognize danger
  2. detect hunger
  3. recognize the opportunity for procreation

The reptilian brain is a kind of filter that passes marketing messages to the emotional part of our brain (limbic system) and rational part (neocortex).

What does that mean for your marketing message? The same thing as when somebody tells you that most of today’s internet users are on mobile devices – therefore you primarily adjust your message for mobile devices. Just like in that case, you have to adjust your marketing messages to pass through the reptilian brain filter.


Because of confidentiality, the information that I’m about to show you has been changed to generic, but the underlying data and discoveries are authentic.

About a year ago, I received research results from a large global company who launched a TV commercial for one of its consumer goods products. They measured the commercial’s efficiency with neuromarketing tools (EEG brain scan, facial coding and eye-tracking).

The commercial was successful in itself, but part of the commercial demonstrated a huge decline in positive emotion. And it was only present at a certain part, nowhere else.

They isolated that part of the commercial and discovered it was the part where a mother is smiling to her child.

Analyses showed that on an intuitive level examinees in a split second detected a “false mother”, an actress, because from the original screenshot that I have in my possession it is clearly visible that she has a false smile. It is easy to recognize because the person is not smiling with her eyes, only her mouth.

At that moment, for me the above study was just another cute anecdote from the world of neuromarketing, until a couple of days ago when I experienced this unusual phenomenon in my own research.


We tested the efficiency of a TV commercial using eye-tracking technology and facial coding.

With eye-tracking testing, the goal was to detect which frames and specific points in those frames have the greatest viewers’ attention. Also, we marked so-called “areas of interest” that we would like to be seen, and later measure in what percentage and duration are viewers’ eyes locked on that part of the commercial.

Additionally, through facial coding, we follow micro reactions of the facial muscles and detect emotions caused by a specific part of the commercial.

Our ideal scenario would be that the commercial provokes intrigue, and we placed that emotion as our benchmark emotion.

But something else caught our attention…

Even though the commercial is very cheerful and dynamic, and the product itself does not provoke any dislike, through facial coding we detected an extremely high jump in the emotion of disgust (see picture):

Second peak we detected was the emotion of fear in this part of a commercial:

Two very short frames provoked emotions of disgust and fear. Why?

Even though we are dealing with less than a second, the reptilian brain detected two clear threats – a sharp object and a fire.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Does that mean that the commercial is bad? Not at all. If such similar frames were to appear more often, the overall impression from the examinees would be bad.

What can you learn from these examples and apply in your campaigns?

The reptilian brain, made for survival, detects your brand, first and foremost, as a threat from the unknown and automatically distrusts your message. To avoid negative reactions you primarily have to “shut off” the reptilian brain as soon as possible and “turn on” the emotional brain with your message. Also, be aware that an implicit/intuitive reaction is the most common reflection of your real behavior and try to test implicit reactions before your marketing message does damage to your brand.