The headlines were startling: “Social websites harm children’s brains,” shouted one British newspaper. “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilising human minds’” warned another.
The facts behind the hype were less dramatic but no less significant. A neurological study led by British scientist Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, monitored a group of people experiencing social and personal problems related to their internet use – they were typically online six hours per day. It found that their brain wave responses to faces (compared to, say a table or chair) were diminished, suggesting that, “for these users, faces were of no more importance than everyday inanimate objects,” which made them less likely to read the non-verbal clues essential to human communication.
Given the fact that long before the first smiling face appeared on an advertising billboard, brands have attempted to engage potential customers by provoking an emotional response, this is well worth bearing in mind for anyone wanting to understand how consumers respond to media messages.
Thankfully, since that 2009 study, there has been some more encouraging news. A later experiment conducted at UCLA in California in 2014, also led by Professor Greenfield, showed it’s easy to rewire the brain. “Removing screens from pre-teens for five days significantly improved their ability to read the emotions in human faces,” she says. All of which strongly suggests that print, which is kinder on our eyes, brains and sleep patterns, could be an effective cure for those being emotionally numbed and possibly dumbed down, by the internet. And furthermore, could be the best format for anyone keen to make an emotional connection with the reader.
These findings back up scores of studies since the Nineties that have found readers have a more lasting emotional engagement with printed material than its digital equivalent. A major neurological study by Millward Brown in 2009, for instance, found that printed material left a deeper footprint on the brain, involved more emotional processing (which helps with memory and brand associations) and produces more brain responses connected to our internal feelings, suggesting we ‘internalise’ adverts, giving them greater resonance. It also found that physical materials produced more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex – the parts of the brain associated with emotional engagement.
Memories are made of this
Emotional responses to written material are one thing, but for marketers, making a simple message stick in the mind of the consumer can be the name of the game. And no less a figure than Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, voiced concerns about the superficial effect of digitally transmitted information: “I worry that the overwhelming rapidity of information is affecting cognition and deeper thinking,” he said in 2009.
His fears are understandable, because when it comes to absorbing and understanding information – as opposed to remembering it by rote – neurological studies show that print has the edge. For example, a 2012 Stavanger University study of school students concluded that, “Students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.” Other studies have found that those reading on screen also found the experience more stressful and draining than those reading paper.
Anecdotal evidence backs this up. Writing in Wired magazine last year, science writer Brandon Keim observed: “What I’ve read on screen seems slippery. When I recall it, the text is translucent in my mind’s eye. Pixels don’t seem to stick.”
While neurological factors may partly explain this, other studies have suggested that psychological and sociological factors are also at work, reflecting a cultural prejudice against reading online (we are, after all, all native paper readers). Others say our learning is inhibited because websites struggle to present long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. And as any regular online reader can attest, when ads are popping up at regular intervals, concentration levels are not easy for anyone to maintain.
The feel-good factor
Some experts argue that the simple act of turning pages helps the brain remember. The neurological effect of print’s physicality and tangibility has been measured with a marketing focus in mind. Sebastian Haupt, co-author of the book Touch! Der Haptik-Effekt im multisensorischen Marketing and an expert on sensory marketing, found that, in layman’s terms, physical contact (haptics) effectively wakes the brain, whereas the purely visual experience of reading online doesn’t.
“Messages backed up by haptics will be noticed,” he explains. “They appeal to people’s curiosity and playfulness.” When we touch something, our hands act as transducers, converting mechanical energy into electrical energy so it can be sent as impulses to fire the neurons in our brain. A study by paper group Sappi suggests that print benefits from what psychologists call the endowment effect – our tendency to value things more because we own them.
Haupt says: “The endowment effect works even if you don’t own the object. It can be triggered just by physical contact and we even get a similar effect if we see someone nearby holding a magazine or a newspaper.”
So, although we don’t own a piece of direct mail, we are more likely to value it than content on screen, which we feel less ownership of. When Sappi invited people to assess brands purely on the way they were being promoted (high-quality coated, versus cheaper uncoated paper and online), they found they were three times more likely to recall the name of the brand on quality, coated paper and were more impressed by that company.
Object of the exercise
Applied behavioural thinking expert Nick Southgate is not surprised by these findings. There is, he says, something inherently flattering about print. “The pre-paid payment card from Monzo, a new online bank, comes in the thickest blue laid envelope and the card is smooth and silky,” he says. “It looks and feels lovely. For digital brands, investing in the few physical contacts they have makes sense.”
Letters on a page also have an instinctive connection to the physical world. “Homo sapiens probably started talking about 150,000 years ago,” Southgate explains, “So our brains have evolved to process speech. Yet the earliest known writing is from 5,000 years ago, so our brains haven’t had time to evolve a process to deal with it.
That means our brains have to improvise when we read – different regions of the brain chip in and some of them specialise in object recognition. This means we distinguish A from B much as we distinguish between an apple and a banana. The first letters were often based on physical objects – S is probably derived from the snake – so the physicality of characters in print makes recognition easier.”
The smart solution
All this suggests that the capacity for printed communications to connect with the human brain will mean it remains the go-to format for anyone wanting their words to have a deep and lasting impact. Keim’s article for Wired concluded that “the smart reading device of the future may be paper” because print is superbly designed to help us understand messages too complex to be contained in 140 characters or a 30-second soundbite.
So when Axel Springer’s marketers, searching for a slogan for their intelligent bi-monthly Horzu Wissen, came up with “The magazine that makes you smarter”, they were saying more than they realised.
Written by Paul Simpson for Print Power Issue 13