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What Pharma Marketers Can Learn from Hackers

Greg Kirsch

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Late Sunday night, reviewing emails, I opened a direct Twitter message from a colleague of mine. Here it is:

I impulsively clicked on the link, curious as to what embarrassing picture of me had gone viral. Luckily, alarm bells went off when the destination page was “broken” and tried to redirect me. The broken page redirected to a “Twitter login page” (which really isn’t a Twitter login page). If you try to login, instructions indicate you entered the wrong password. And in the process, the phishers just got your login name and password.

Oldest trick in the book — but it still works. Why?

How the Brain Decides

In a new (to me) book called Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer’s Brain, authors Patrick Renvoise and Christophe Morin posit all decisions come from what they call the “old brain.”

We often distinguish between the left and right brain. The left is the seat of linear thinking like language, logic and math. The right is conceptual, dealing with creativity, music and art. In a previous post, I suggested that to be most effective, medical marketing communications need to speak to both of these brain hemispheres.

Expanding the thought, the brain can also be “sliced” a different way. Brain scientists identify distinct brain sections, each communicating with the others. Each section serves a distinct function. For example:

  • The outer layer, technically known as the cerebrum or cortex, is associated with higher rational thought. The authors refer to this as the “new brain” since it has emerged relatively recently (in evolutionary terms).
  • The middle section, known as the limbic system (a.k.a. the “middle brain”) focuses on emotions and gut feelings.
  • The inner core, known as the brain stem (or reptilian brain), beneath the limbic system, focuses on survival. It only concerns itself with the self. Our non-conscious impulses like breathing, heartbeat or pulling our hand from a hot pan without conscious thought emanate from this part of the brain.

The authors theorize this last brain section, what they dub the “old brain,” ultimately makes all decisions (using input from the other two). The body of evidence supporting the theory is overwhelming. One passage from How the Brain Works by human brain scientist Leslie Hart says:

“Much evidence now indicates that the old brain is the main switch in determining what sensory input will go to the new brain, and what decisions will be accepted.”

And they cite Dr. Joseph LeDoux’s work (author of The Emotional Brain) that the amygdale — located in the old brain — has a greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on the amygdale, allowing emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking.”

How This Makes Your Copy More Effective

So what does this have to do with phishers hacking Twitter — and with making your marketing messages more effective?

Since the old brain ultimately makes all decisions — and the old brain is totally concerned with the self (i.e., survival) — it makes sense a “self-centered” appeal will outperform others. This is scientific rational for a proven concept. (See my post on the power of the word “you.”)

When a message from a trusted source says, “Did you see this pic of you?” — my limbic/self-centered “old brain” decides, “Hey, this is about ME — I’m checking it out.”

Marketing is about persuasion. Whether you are communicating to a busy physician, a chronic asthma sufferer or an alcoholic’s caregiver, you are trying to persuade your audience to do something (e.g., prescribe this drug, ask your doctor about this treatment, adhere to your regimen, click this link).

If you want to be effective, you cannot merely educate. You must appeal to the self-interest of your audience. Their old brain always asks, “Is this important to ME?”

Hackers clearly understand the power of appealing to our old brain’s self-centeredness. Do you?


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