Science has proven that words have the power to move people to tears, to action and — yes — to purchase. John P. Kotter, a professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, once said, “Never underestimate the power of a good story.” Kotter believes in the power of a story to strike a chord in people and, perhaps, to motivate them to change.
Researchers at Emory University in 2012 found that certain metaphors — “the singer had a velvet voice” or “he had leathery hands” — activated the sensory cortex of the brain. Similar phrases — “the singer had a pleasing voice” or “he had strong hands” — didn’t cause the same reaction.
A 2006 study in Spain that was published in NeuroImage showed that when people read words with strong odor associations — coffee, perfume or cinnamon — the primary olfactory cortex of the research subjects’ brains lighted up.
A recent series of Post Cereals commercials uses such key words to play to the viewer’s sense of smell. One of the commercials shows Diana Hunter, a Post Cereals employee, talking about her job as a cereal packager. The happy employee tells a story about how she went grocery shopping after work one day, smelling of cereal. At the store, people were sniffng around her saying, “Mmmm, I smell cookies.” Diana says she told the people, “Aw, you just smell me! I just got out of work. That’s Honey Bunches of Oats. Don’t eat me now!”
Since we don’t have smell-a-vision, the words play to the viewers’ olfactory senses. The commercial also does a good job of letting a happy employee tell a story about her job at the cereal plant.
Research has also shown that we all spend about one-third of our time daydreaming. Yet a really good story will make us sit up and pay attention.
By now, for example, we all know which of the commercials that ran during the 2016 Summer Olympics caught our attention and touched people. Those same ads are probably the ones you’ve been seeing in your news feed because the ads take the power of words and move a person to action, even if it’s just sharing it on Facebook.
The Procter & Gamble “Thank You, Mom” spot is one such ad. It shows athletes in dangerous, dark, demoralizing situations — a tornado headed toward their home, some men whistling catcalls at a young girl and a coach yelling at a young athlete. Through it all, the athletes’ mothers are always there, encouraging them to move on until we see the athletes’ victorious moments on the Olympic stage.
The commercial concludes with a simple statement: “It takes someone strong to make someone strong. Thank you, Mom. … P&G – proud sponsor of Moms.” That spot is meant to tug at the heartstrings — make you cry, even — and make you remember that P&G cares about all moms, the same moms, consequently, who do the household shopping.
The sounds — from the scary scream of a tornado at the end to the cheering adulation of the Olympics crowd at the end — help pull viewers into the emotion of the story. The bond between the child and mother plays to the connection that many viewers have had or want to have in their lives.
Top brands know the power of the brain to make that emotional connection, and they capitalize on that neuroscience by using storytelling to capture an audience.