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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

A brain of two halves

The commonly held view that a campaign has to deliver cold hard facts with an appealing visual may be an oversimplification…

I'd guess we've all heard this phrase when discussing how the strange, sponge-like thing in our head works: the left side is rational, and the right side is emotional. The problem is that this hypothesis is almost certainly wrong. 

So simplifying neuroscience to serve the purposes of our inherently reductive communications industry is a risky punt, given the number of clever and rigorous health professionals involved in what we as marketers do.

Sadly, and despite common practice, it really isn't as simple as making sure that cold, hard medical facts are served up with a picture of a sweet old lady or cute baby. And the old adage of 'straight headline, bent visual' may be fine as a way of attracting attention, but if the aim is to root our strategic or creative approach in something even quasi-neuroscientific then we need to think again.

What we do know about how we perceive things, we know from just a few methods. Neuroimaging is one, whereby we identify areas of electrical activity/glucose metabolism and map where and how 'connected' these areas are. 

Seeing what happens to people when things go wrong in the brain – after say a road accident or a stroke – is another, and this might include patients who have had 'split brain' procedures whereby the corpus callosum that connects the two halves is severed (eg, during surgery in extreme cases of epilepsy). And the third and final method is to artificially stimulate or anaesthetise specific areas of the brain – and observe the results.

But from these few sources we have learnt quite a lot. It starts by appreciating the fact that the brain is divided for a reason. According to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary, the corpus callosum plays as much of a role in inhibiting communication between the two hemispheres as it does in facilitating it. This doesn't mean that they don't complement each other, just that the tension caused by the different approaches is something that needs to be respected. 

And they do indeed have different approaches: the left hemisphere prefers the known, the inanimate, patterns, facts, mechanics, the self, and more focused detail. Whereas the right brain prefers the new, the living, the holistic, and activity beyond the self. But both are involved in logic and emotion; both are involved in language, and both are involved in music. 

To give an example, the right brain is far more involved in learning how to play musical instruments and the left in 'playing by heart'. The right scans for new ideas and new people, the left recognises what it already knows. The right is far better at seeing the bigger picture, the sum of the parts; the left concerns itself with detail and the parts themselves.

Campaigns and where two halves become a whole

So what does this mean for how we should approach our campaigns? For a start, we need to respect the tension I mentioned earlier. If we stick to serving up hackneyed images of molecules, sunsets, pathways, keys/locks, etc, coupled with data and familiar thoughts of 'sustained control' then we will only ever appeal to the left brain – and this doesn't mean that our messages will naturally percolate through to the right and therefore the entire brain. 

By the same token, if you set out purely to shock people with the unfamiliar then, so the theory goes, you might engage the right brain but the left would take a while to come on board.

The involvement of both sides is undoubtedly a fine line to tread and a subtle art (and possibly science), and it takes awareness of what is new as well as what is familiar, what is selfish as well as empathetic, and of what is holistic as well as detailed. 

And I would argue that the ideas we take to heart, so to speak, involve both sides: music, language, friendships, beauty… all necessarily involve this combination. Language without context can feel like a case of Tourette's; music without soul can feel mechanistic, others without the self can be pointless.

Perhaps this is where the oft-prized objective of setting up creative tension really does start to make sense; indeed, some of the best ads we might cite carry us along on a wave of beauteous unfamiliarity before they resolve in a reassuring dénouement. Or we are brought on board with a familiar truth before being exposed to something entirely new. 

Communication that doesn't do both can feel empty, one-dimensional or plain dull – yet it's all too easy to become a slave to the uncontestable, the approvable and the detailed… especially in healthcare.

Article by
Matt Hunt

planning director at Grey Healthcare Group. He can be contacted at

15th November 2012

From: Marketing



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