Remember that slew of Herbie movies from the ’70s and ’80s in which a talking car goes on many an adventure? That this talking car would be a Volkswagen Beetle was no accident. In fact, it was specifically chosen because the Beetle’s front looks like a face. And a cute, cuddly, happy one at that.
Most of the world’s most popular cars have smiley faces that you instinctively pick up on, even though you don’t actually associate the front of your car with a human face. Car designers spend months trying to get the front of a car to make that association with your brain and convey to you a feeling of contentment. That’s because they know that smiling is a signal that has been recognized by our brains for centuries. Our brains are hardwired to identify smiles, even when they’re upside down. It’s a preservation instinct that tells us when someone is friendly or aggressive, and designers and marketers not only know that, they use it to reach us on a basic human level. And they’re not the only ones doing it.
“It’s surprisingly easy to take human psychology into account [in marketing],” says John Sharp, MD, author of The Emotional Calendar and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “When targeting a narrow age group or demographic,” says Sharp, “there actually is a lot of data out there about what people like us typically relate to.” We like thrilling, adventure-type images and experiences, he explains, and we like cute, cuddly, warm and fuzzy images as well. “This corresponds to long-held human motivations. Products that tap into these primal interests gain access to what is appealing.”
What if our brains could tell marketers our deepest preferences and our biases even if we weren’t consciously aware of them, leading them to design products that would appeal to us even when we insisted they wouldn’t? That’s not science fiction. In fact, marketing to us using our brains is an industry that’s just beginning to grow.