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Engaging the Autopilot

At MSW●ARS Research we talk a lot about our non-conscious “autopilot” and the role it plays in influencing brand choice.  Our autopilot is that 90%+ of cognitive capacity that operates below the level of consciousness, like keeping our car on track as we drive to work while our conscious self thinks about the day ahead.  It is that enormously talented part of us that tirelessly executes seemingly trivial yet complex tasks and in so doing renders a wide variety of essential judgments about the immediate world around us.   Not only is our autopilot capable of physically guiding our vehicle down the highway with astonishing precision, but in doing so it is also capable of detecting often subtle social cues such as whether the driver in the next lane over is angry and unstable or just listening to Megadeth at full volume.

It’s amazing when you stop to think about all the autopilot does.  It is the source of our perceptions and intuition.  It immediately identifies that slow moving blur in our peripheral vision as a “deer”.  It develops our initial impression of what is going on around us and it connects these impressions with past experience to anticipate what might happen next.  Will that deer jump out into the road?  It can match events with our metal map of the world and quickly identify something as new or not “normal”.  It makes rapid and for the most part accurate judgments about safe or unsafe, good or bad, approach or avoid, and it alerts our conscious “self” when more deliberate thinking is required to deal with a situation.

Compared to our plodding conscious thought process our autopilot is running at the speed of light while processing a far greater volume of information.

Yet given the enormous influence our autopilot has over our choices and behaviors it’s surprising how little it has been studied by marketing researchers.  Most market research comes from survey-based questionnaires or focus groups which by their very nature, reflect a dialog with only the conscious self, that place where our feelings, impulses, and behaviors have already been rationalized, reflected upon, put into words, and expressed within the given social context.

We know that most “low involvement” brand choices are made on autopilot.  And we know that the autopilot lies at the core of attitude formation precisely because it is constantly making snap, emotional judgments about people and objects around us.

MSW●ARS has long known the value of tapping directly into the autopilot via direct observation of respondent behavior at the moment they engage with a TV, print, or digital ad, or with a product or package design.  We have drawn from neuroscience to build an extensive set of tools to capture the in-the-moment physiological response to marketing stimuli:

  1. Facial Expressions are recorded and coded as a standard part of our TouchPoint*Plus multi-media testing system, for pre-testing TV, print, and digital ads.

  1. EEG and GSR provide a window on the autopilot making snap judgments as they happen, in-the-moment.


  1. Eye-tracking is used to know which elements of a complex stimulus such as a store shelf, package label, or print ad are causing the responses we observe.


  1. We also observe Rapid Response Times to understand implicit associations that the autopilot relies upon when making snap judgments.


All of these neurometrics are available as add-ons within our TouchPoint line of multimedia copy tests, our Identify product naming studies, Filter package tests, as well as custom designed projects.  Contact your MSW●ARS representative to learn about how adding these techniques to your next project can help your brand engage consumers’ autopilot.

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