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Television and Your Brain

John Laurence - Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What would be more tiring for you – reading a textbook for 2 hours or watching TV for 2 hours? After reading a textbook for 2 hours, you are probably going to feel like vegetating in front of the TV for a while…


The role of television in advertising is often misunderstood. I have seen many an advertising brief instructing an agency to place a series of thought-provoking or factual information in a television commercial. But is that really why we watch television - to stop and think about things?

One of the main reasons that TV is so popular is that it is not taxing on our brains. We can happily watch three hours at a trot and feel totally fresh, but why is this?

Firstly, activities like thinking about life, processing information and considering options utilise areas of your prefrontal cortex. These areas are energy-intensive and are easily exhausted. They have a limited capacity before you become overcome by that familiar worn-out feeling where thinking becomes a challenge. We are therefore what some neuroscientists call “cognitive misers” - saving our intellectual skills for where they are deemed really necessary. Most television programmes don’t call these mental processes into action and are therefore not draining on our cognitive resources.

The second reason is that TV utilises sights, sounds, movement, colour, drama, narratives and interaction between people. These are elements that our brains were naturally evolved to process - abilities that are massively complex, yet can be accomplished completely effortlessly. Tasks like reading and complex reasoning involve processes that our brains don’t come equipped with as standard – process that consequently have to be learned over many years.

So if the reason for television’s success is that we like to avoid thinking too deeply and are comfortable doing things that come naturally to our brains, then why cram your 30 second television commercial with “ new news” and “product features” and “interesting facts” and “reasons to believe”?

That’s not to say you can’t communicate a message through a television ad, just that there is a correct technique for doing so - such as keeping it relevant yet simple and building it into a narrative.

Sure, in perception context is everything, and there may be moments when people will be more inclined to process these types of things - during the news or a documentary for instance. But when my wife is relaxing in front of Grey’s Anatomy after a hard day's work, she is not going to take the time to read or listen to a list of great features of your product. You are risking taking your 30 second opportunity to make an impact and flushing it down the toilet.