Secrets of Science: Brain Trickery

Written by Martin Lucas

‘There is no such thing as bad PR’

This is a very common phrase, and the fact it exists at all raises a few questions:

How can something negative be a good thing?

When does bad cross the line?

How can it be taken advantage of?

Let’s take each question and break it apart with some answers.

How can something negative be a good thing?

The brain is a machine that runs based on absolute efficiency. It makes data choices - millions of them - everyday. The choices it makes are which data to take in and think about and what data not to even register or think about at all. Consider part of that sentence one more time: ‘not to even register’; this means there are many different things that we could experience everyday that our unconscious mind chooses not to take in. It ignores irrelevant data.

What is irrelevant data?

As an example, we may both say we love nature, but my reality differs from yours.

You may love flowers and bees.

I may love trees and horses.

Your brain will actively present data to you highlighting flowers and seeking bees going about their business. This could be true in real life examples as much as in adverts or fields or window displays. If a tree or a horse is in your eyeline, your brain is much more likely not to register this data, while the reverse is true for me. I was teaching a class on this last week and one attendee said:

‘I love flowers but I will still enjoy looking at an awesome tree.’

That is a common objection and it is fair. Let me counter by saying that where we began was your everyday life. When busy, our brain defaults to its priorities and that is the reality you have built up over your lifetime: things you love, things you hate and in the middle is all the other stuff. If you don’t believe me then just look up right now and spend 30 seconds looking around, look hard at your surroundings. What is close? What is far away? Take it all in. You will see things you haven’t seen for a long time; ‘why haven’t I noticed that?’ is a typical thought to have. It’s a great way to test how your brain operates, only registering what it thinks it needs to.

The truth of how we think is fascinatingly scary. Our memory works on the same basis and that is very relevant for today's discussion. The human brain registers so much data it needs to decide what to reject, what to skim and what to grab and turn into a conscious thought (safety & survival being the critical actions).

Reject - That’s the stuff you just noticed when we ran the test. What you normally ignore.

Skim - When you can vaguely remember something but don’t know how, when or where.

Grab - Your reality, your tree / flower / <Insert something you love>.

The biggest amount of data passes through the Skim category and that is where and why something negative can be a positive. What happens is that we remember the name, the product, the service, the person, the whatever it is and ALL we recall is the thing not the associated feeling of whether it is positive or negative. There is a line though.

When does bad cross the line?

We score behaviours on a scale of 1-9. Let’s use an example from the shopping world as the context is easily understood.

We score clothing and products for our clients during the pre-production stage like this:

1-3 - Needs drastic change or don’t produce as it won’t sell well.

4-6 - Will sell, after a few amendments.

7-9 - Jackpot, will sell very well.

I call that the science of cool and our success rate means clients sell more cool stuff and don’t waste money producing items that won’t sell very well.

When it comes to PR, the score you never, ever want to be in is the 1-3 bracket; the reason is simple: the brain will remember the bad thing and you will be forever more associated to it. That is where the line sits. Some more examples:

Lindsay Lohan aka LiLo = 2:  Bad, err, habits, hard to deal with, troublemaker = avoid.

Freddie Starr = 3: Hamsters eaten, ‘nuff said.

Brad Pitt = 5: Needs to recover from his divorce behaviours.

Gwyneth Paltrow = 4: Steaming vaginas and other Goop crazies.

Tom Hardy = 9: Untouchable & also my man crush.

Nokia = 1: Forgot about smartphones, snake game not enough.

Blackberry = 2: Forgot about touchscreen, keyboard not enough.

Once you are in the 1-3 zone it’s nigh on impossible to recover from, and even if you can, it takes a loooooooooong time. The 4-6 bracket may be questionable but you are still riding the wave, and 7-9 is simply untouchable awesomeness. Our brain registers people in the 1-3 bracket with a negative feeling and that is how we lock in the association; everyone in the 7-9 zone is safe knowing that we will remember them positively and unless they start molesting, cheating or robbing grannies, they’ll remain all good.

How can this be taken advantage of?

Mediocrity rules the house here:

  • Apple stopped innovating a long time ago; you can’t convince me that a screen with no edges or bluetooth headphones are innovations like those from Apple’s heyday.
  • Microsoft is busy spending millions on adverts that reenforce to a generation that they do not need to master a craft. Uh-huh, instead you can be an Entrepreneur, Coach, Writer, Designer with no experience or skill of any of the list and still succeed?


#Questionable > I am not knocking the lady in this advert, it’s simply enforcing a perception that sets the wrong tone for a generation.

  • Brad Pitt put on a masterful interview to recover from the risk of being forever known as a stoner, angry, drinkard dad.
  • Slack has a 5.3 billion marcap as a generational replacement for conversations and parts of email. What do they have that is better than Asana? Money in the bank for good PR.

My point here is that a good strategy for how you want to be perceived is just as important for how you deliver your product or service. What you put out to the market is what you get back. If you don’t put out your stories and have a strategy then what will people remember when they need you?

Your competition!

In today's world your ability to relate to the public happens in social media, email, all marketing AND all human to human conversations of sales and customer service. It’s all a collective of how you create good, bad and mediocre PR.

Brain Trickery

The brain is a tricky beast; every single person on this planet has a different way of interpreting the world which, in turn, gives them experiences from which they create their reality. My tip is to remember the test of pausing to take in your surroundings in detail. Whilst it’s not plausible to do this every waking moment, you can train yourself to pause and take in more than you currently do. If you don’t, then you will maintain the pattern of inputs and outputs you have already created.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it does leave you short of ‘new’ experiences, and yet these new experiences are what help us to develop, to evolve, to learn, to question, and to be all we can be.

Sometimes a tree is worth looking at as much as the flowers.