Harvard Business Review
It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat. I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching an amazing neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.
Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.
More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.
In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation. (This research was given a boost when, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, we developed ways to measure oxytocin release noninvasively at up to one thousand times per second.) We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.
Remember when newspaper print ads were practically a cultural institution? Stroll to the end of the driveway on a Sunday morning for that several-pounder edition and pore through the articles and the ads. Scan the sales at Macy’s, look for a new job, find a matinee time, decide which store has the best price on rib eyes — the Sunday tome was practically the gateway to the world. Then the Internet relentlessly and almost instantaneously stole print advertising’s relevance, leaving publishers searching for new ways to connect with readers and, just as important, generate revenue.
The New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT ) may have finally found that cup-of-coffee-worthy formula for advertising, infusing its smart editorial style into content that resonates with an advertiser’s audience in a way that preserves its integrity as a news source.
It’s been a long road back
It’s safe to say that the heyday of traditional newspaper advertising is over, but looking back at what once worked it seems there are a few ingredients for success: The advertising must be compelling and relevant enough to get consumers to spend time with it. But it must also fit its platform — that is, not compromise the spirit, tone and even journalistic mandate of its publication.
The Times recognized the need for innovation early, building one of the smartest and most clickable Internet portals for its flagship newspaper. Like many of its contemporaries, the company has replaced some lost ad revenue with digital advertising, but not nearly enough. It seemed something was missing. Across the Web, digital ad sales climbed dramatically in recent years, but stayed fairly flat at newspapers. Though moderately successful, banner and display ads and pieces from the ad exchanges never found a comfortable seat in the traditional news format. Ad perusers had plenty of other choices, after all, and consumers had left behind the notion of the newspaper as a place to shop.