The internet is changing our brains: consumer truth is even more elusive than ever


We’re all guilty. We let Netflix coax us into one (or five) more episode of House of Cards. Agreeing with Instagram that, yes, it is essential to look at that picture of someone else’s feet because it’s their first post in a whole week. Feeling utterly thrilled that more than 50 people liked that hilarious memory Facebook got you to share.

And whilst we’re aware that we are being lured into an endless loop of compulsive behaviour and instant gratification, the addiction is too strong for many of us to break. You may struggle to understand your powerlessness, but there is a scientific explanation: our brains are being re-wired. Neuroplasticity – the process through which the brain alters its behaviour based on new experiences – is being accelerated.

According to recent research behind the M&S ‘Spend It Well’ campaign, autopilot decision shortcuts are encroaching into all aspects of our lives – often with negative impact on our mental health. Technology and social media were found to be a significant contributor.

Others have observed further personality-altering side effects of online addiction. We’re losing the ability to reflect, says Teddy Wayne. Why daydream when you could be watching a TED talk? Why ever be bored when you could scroll even further down your endless Facebook feed? When constant distraction stops our minds wandering, we lose our capacity for introspection, contemplation and observation.

“It seems counterintuitive to say that we are entering an unreflective cultural phase, as our time tends to be criticized for its self-absorption. But our solipsism is frequently given outward expression rather than inward exploration”

This outward expression is all about speed and brevity: 140 characters, a snapshot, a status update. Thoughts that might once have developed, changed course, deepened – are let loose instantly so we can feel part of ‘the conversation’. The speed of social media is fundamentally at odds with deliberative thought.

This has obvious implications for market research. Capturing real behaviours and attitudes is critical: but the social media age is making it making this harder to pin down. As behaviour becomes increasingly ‘automated’, can we expect our respondents to be able to tell us the truth – even if they wanted to? Is the ‘will say / can’t say’ category growing?


We need to work even harder to access these difficult-to-reach corners of the consumer mind. In both qual and quant we strive to reveal both ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ thinking.

Encouraging periods of reflection before a group – including exercises that challenge automated thinking – are effective in revealing attitudes and motivations that consumers are largely oblivious to (System 2). In quant, we challenge people to think harder about their responses. This self-revelation has the happy side-effect of getting respondents more engaged in the research – it’s always fascinating to discover stuff you didn’t know about yourself.

More than ever we must understand consumer’s System 1 thinking – their instant, instinctive, more emotionally-driven selves. In both quant and qual our focus is on expanding those methods that encourage respondents to reveal more by them thinking less.


Thinking outside the man box


“I’d love to see a pretty bird behind the counter, now that would make me shop there”

Concealing a groan and a roll of the eyes is a skill all quallies will have mastered during their formative fieldwork experiences. Nothing prompts inner despair as much as a focus group of youngish blokes threatening to descend into a session of posturing and posing.

For obvious reasons, this behaviour is a huge challenge in qualitative research. Moderators work hard to reveal attitudes and emotions that consumers struggle to express even to themselves. Posturing male groups make this job even tougher which can lead to narrow and stereotyped insights. At worst, this results in communications that don’t truly reflect the audiences brands are attempting to engage with.

The walls of the man box restrain the ability to express emotions, desire and especially weakness. Men feel under pressure to display a very narrow range of behaviours and attitudes to avoid being belittled or thought less of: strength, athleticism, promiscuity, lack of emotion. Whilst it can feel good to play up to this role, it can lead to potentially damaging behaviour.

But now this issue is being brought centre stage by a succession of personal and inspiring accounts by public figures willing to expose their emotions and ‘weaknesses’. Rio Ferdinand’s raw and honest account of his struggles to express his emotions while grieving, offered a powerful display of how hard it can be for men to accept weakness and emotion. Prince Harry, Skepta and Bruce Springsteen have all recently discussed their personal experiences with mental health and depression in important pieces that are starting to challenge ideals of laddish machismo.

Few brands are catching on to the idea that promoting healthier attitudes towards masculinity can be beneficial commercially as well as for society. Those who recognise and subvert tradition really stand out. Pot Noodle recently took a humorous look at stereotypical masculinity with a twist ending to their ‘You can make it’ TV advert forcing viewers to challenge the way they think about masculine roles. Lynx have also been commended for creating content and advertising that radically changed the outdated perspective of a brand typically associated with laddish masculinity. Importantly, the dramatic change in perspective was borne out of research conducted on young men’s attitudes, behaviours, and understandings of manhood.

Just as brands must reassess how they represent and communicate with women, there is an equally big challenge when it comes to engaging their male targets. Research can and should be the catalyst here. We have the tools and competences to create an environment where the walls of the man box can be broken down, allowing men to open up and help us recognise a much broader, multifaceted vision of masculinity.

By Sam,


No more excuses: how research can help confront sexism in advertising

marchIt was International Women’s Day last week – you probably noticed. Our Facebook newsfeeds were full of photos of friends’ mums from the 60s, quotes from feminist heroes and plenty of flexed bicep emojis.

In the media, we saw shocking reminders of the scale of the challenge: there’s still a long way to go until we reach gender parity – and with Trump in the White House, the battle has ramped up. Fourth wave feminism is known (and criticised) for its ‘slacktivism’ but so far in 2017 we appear to be witnessing a rise in genuine activism: women across the world are embracing those ‘unfeminine’ impulses to get angry, be difficult and take up space.

This theme is being reflected in advertising. Acknowledging a history of colluding in female oppression and responding to a consumer call for change, many brands are confronting gender stereotypes in a powerful way. Campaigns like This Girl Can, Like a Girl and Beauty for All are taking on an overtly activist role. Providing confidence mentorship, engaging community and challenging gender narratives, these campaigns are smashing stereotypes on the head.

They’re not just doing it out of a sense of social justice. They’ve performed incredibly well commercially. It’s not just responsible to confront sexism – it pays.

So why are these brands considered so brave and disruptive? It’s because so much advertising is still rooted in outdated gender codes. A recent Unilever study found that across a range of 1,000 current ads, 3% of women were depicted in leadership roles, 2% were portrayed as intelligent and 1% as funny. So it’s not surprising that 40% of women don’t relate to women see in commercials. To add another statistic, we need more than 3% of commercial directors to be women.They’re not just doing it out of a sense of social justice. They’ve performed incredibly well commercially. It’s not just responsible to confront sexism – it pays.

So why are these brands considered so brave and disruptive? It’s because so much advertising is still rooted in outdated gender codes. A recent Unilever study found that across a range of 1,000 current ads, 3% of women were depicted in leadership roles, 2% were portrayed as intelligent and 1% as funny. So it’s not surprising that 40% of women don’t relate to women see in commercials. To add another statistic, we need more than 3% of commercial directors to be women.

But maybe there’s a more nuanced explanation. Anthropology and the concept of silos explain how consumers might – subconsciously – help advertisers perpetuate sexist tropes.

In ‘The Silo Effect’ Gillian Tett explores how corporate silos stem from a human tendency to categorise. We make sense of the world by putting things into boxes. These become cultural norms so woven into our lives that we don’t question – or even notice them. She asks:

“Why do any human beings accept the classification systems they inherit from their surroundings, especially when these social norms are potentially damaging?”

Women in ads might not reflect the lives that many viewers live or aspire to today – but they are incredibly familiar. It’s when brands bust out of these cultural silos that we notice what they are standing up against. At best it forces us to question not just the way we are advertised to but how we see ourselves.

As researchers we see the world through an anthropological lens: we’re here to question cultural patterns and consumer perspectives. But when we get involved in creative development and ad testing, research should work harder to understand how brands can make less conventional but deeper connections with women. We believe in asking more challenging questions, putting ideas and executions through a stronger testing process. A Bechdel test for advertising, if you like.

We are living through a consciousness-raising moment in history. Our political backdrop – combined with a very visible feminist movement – is forcing more women to question more of what they see happening around them. There’s never been a more pressing time to change the way we advertise to women – and as researchers we can help make sure this is done in way that truly engages and challenges the consumer.

By Natalie.






Randomness and serendipity in research


‘So why does Keith Lemon remind you of Nandos?’

Not the sort of question I thought I’d be asking in my first focus group at Voodoo. However, in the next 15 minutes I found out that Giraffe was more of a Jonathan Ross (‘He’s interesting, funny – quite honest), nobody wanted to go for a drink with Yo Sushi, and, according to one respondent, pizza is like a page three model. ‘Nice to look at but not a lot going on up there’, he explained, thoughtfully.

So what do TV hosts and page three girls have to do with the casual dining sector? Absolutely nothing – but then that’s the whole point. Introducing chance and juxtaposing seemingly unconnected topics is well known as a way of making people think quickly and creatively, often leading to deeper thoughts and insights as they try to figure out exactly what is going on in their own minds. David Bowie, for instance, wrote several songs by using the ‘cut up’ writing technique (originally borrowed from William Burroughs). He would take a line of text, cut it up into one or two word fragments, and rearrange them to create an entirely different sentence. Which explains why Diamond Dogs makes so little sense. And it happens in science too: Whilst working on the problem of focusing the Hubble telescope, NASA engineer, James Crocker, found a solution whilst taking a shower in a German hotel room. He noticed that the shower head had a system of adjustable rods that could be used to accommodate any person, regardless of height. By applying this new information to solving the telescope problem, he was able to create a new way of refocusing it.

Whilst studying Library Science at university I was interested to see that more and more articles being published on how we can encourage creativity by introducing randomness and serendipity into the ways that we present information, whether in a physical library, or online. But this isn’t just something to be applied in academia – it can be relevant in our everyday lives. Maybe that’s why it’s more inspirational to browse in the random environment of a second hand book shop rather than simply searching for a known item online.

But why should we apply randomness to research?

Most moderators will have noticed that focus groups tend to talk themselves into an overly rational viewpoint. Ground-breaking advertising campaigns will be easily maligned by respondents because they’re ‘a bit silly’ or ‘don’t make sense’. The great thing about using this technique is that you gain the quick and honest ‘System 1’ response from the respondents before their ‘System 2’ has a chance to kick in and remind them that they’ve never actually seen a gorilla playing the drums to a Phil Collins song before.

So in future, perhaps we should refrain from asking respondents whether they ‘like’ a brand, because their answers won’t really tell us that much. What we really need to know is how much that brand reminds them of Keith Lemon.

By Rose Munro



Tweecle Tarts



It’s November. The nights are closing in. Donald Trump might just win and innocent people still have to watch Ed Balls dance. Summer has gone and so too has the Great British Bake Off – a rare ray of sunshine on this cold, cold island now eclipsed.

But it went out in style. In fact, a staggering 14.8 million of us tuned in to see Candice pout her way to glory in the series’ BBC swansong. Baking is now officially more popular with the British public than football.

The question is why has Bake Off been so popular? And what can such a massive public event tell researchers like us about the national psyche?

Central to the success of Bake Off are its nostalgic undertones. Bake Off has triumphed because of the quaint vision of the past it relies on – a past characterised by homemade jam, village fetes and saucy puns.

It’s easy to sneer at the Bake Off as twee ‘austerity nostalgia’ and write it off as the televisual equivalent of a tea towel that says Keep and Calm and Eat Scones. Doing so, however, misses the point. Genuine nostalgia is too powerful an emotional touchstone to dismiss as twee or saccharine.

Nostalgia was initially diagnosed as a neurological disease affecting Swiss mercenaries suffering from cowbell-induced brain damage (no, really). Now, though, nostalgia is seen as a positive and universal emotional force by psychologists.

The University of Southampton’s Dr. Tim Wildschut, for example, has published research showing that nostalgia not only makes people feel good about themselves, but also lends meaning to people’s lives and strengthens social bonds.

It’s no surprise then that in times so uncertain people are looking to feel good about themselves and the world around them through the telly. The rosy glimpse in to yesteryear offered by the Bake Off makes it the epitome of comfort viewing. It also gives viewers a sense of community both before and after viewing. Who knew that some beardy bloke putting a baked Alaska in to a bin because he was upset could be so talked about he’d get a slot on Newsnight? This is all goes some way to explaining the show’s staggering popularity and the furore surrounding the £75 million move to Channel 4.

That nostalgia is so powerful is an open-secret in the world of advertising and marketing. In recent years nostalgic imagery has been deployed by brands time and time again, helping to sell everything from Milk Tray to Microsoft.

But it’s important to not just rely on nostalgia, but to understand how and why it affects us. It’s very easy to get wrong and get left looking hackneyed and cynical. Great research can tap in to how and when nostalgia washes over us – that classic Proustian moment – and helps us to achieve a little bit of that Bake Off magic.


By Rob Booth

A Researcher’s Role Model

I’ve recently just started working at Voodoo – fresh from University via a short interlude in Italy.

Starting a ‘proper’ job for the first time is one of those things you only ever do once. Inevitably, I worried about how I should present myself. And who should be my role model?

One of the first things my new colleagues at Voodoo made clear is that finding out what really drives people is hard. We all put up fronts, say things we don’t really mean and in general make it hard for us to find out what is really driving them.

The multifaceted nature of attempting to understand people would send my science studying university friends running for the hills. They like finding the single ‘correct’ answer. Fortunately, that didn’t sit well with me. This ‘single answer’ thought process, in my very honest opinion, is narrow minded, archaic and quite frankly, boring as hell. For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by what really makes people tick.

But how? Voodoo’s mantra is to make research fun and then to simply ask nicely – and persistently: then the veiled information will begin to reveal itself amongst the bullshit people usually tell you and themselves. Sounds simple enough, right?

So who should I aspire to emulate? Out of nowhere, a person came into my mind.

Louis Theroux.

I remember my first exposure to a Louis Theroux documentary: how, somehow, his combination of humour, silliness and integrity revealed something bigger, a deeper truth.

His work is hugely entertaining and can bring tears of laughter to even the most miserable of people, but it became apparent Louis’s on screen persona was nothing to be laughed at. His indisputable likability, charm and laidback nature can only be described as a form of journalistic bewitchery, which enables him to make the interviewee feel as if they have the upper hand. He doesn’t patronize or pretend to be like his subjects. But he gains free rein to ask shockingly personal questions and voice his brutally honest opinions without receiving a punch square in the face.

The depths of inner revelation that comes out of the most dangerous, unusual and occasionally psychotic mouths demonstrates his profound skill. Louis always gets his man or woman. Yet his mask of innocence and foolishness remains in place to the end.

I think I’ve found my role model – someone who has mastered the art of asking nicely. Whether you want to know why a convict decided to make it onto America’s most wanted list or why Maureen chooses Rich Tea over Malted Milk the method remains the same.

By Elisha Warren

Trainee Research Executive 

Survey gamification: a road to nowhere

no mans sky

Games are huge – and with the launch of No Man’s Sky huge takes on a whole new meaning. I love games – enough to once set up a game company. And, at Voodoo, we believe that research should see itself, at least in part, as in the entertainment business.

So you would think we would love survey gamification. We don’t. It’s a bum idea.

Of course we can learn a lot from the huge and hugely successful games market. They can teach us a great deal about pleasing environments, intuitive design and simple interfaces.

And they can also help us consider different ways of responding and matching them to different types of thinking. Sometimes our survey needs to be in shoot-em-up mode – capturing rapid responses in point and click style. Other times we need to be in strategy, problem-solving mode, uncovering ‘type-2’, considered thinking.

But gamification is a dangerous path. It is an attempt to ‘sweeten the pill’. It takes a number of forms.

One is ‘let’s make our survey look more like a game’.  This is well-intentioned and it sounds harmless. Trouble is the way it is executed almost invariably has negative effects. Game ‘window-dressing’ obscures what your study is really about. Game mechanics often actually makes your survey slower and harder to complete (dragging without purpose takes a lot longer than tapping.) And visual gamification as adornment can trivialise your content and seriously patronise your respondents.

Fortunately, with the decline in Flash, most of the sillier excesses of this mode of thought appear to be on the way out.

The other is to go one step further – a survey shouldn’t just look like a game it should be a game. To a game-lover like me this can sound beguiling – but then I am a game-lover. Lots of people are not. Developing a truly compelling game that draws most people in is hard.

More than this, games impose their own sets of rules and objectives. Game your survey well and people may play – but are they now responding in the way you want them to? How do you ensure that playing the game does not ‘distort’ their answers? The desire to win changes things.


So let us not try to turn our surveys into games. Rather, let us learn from the way successful games treat their players. They put the player at the centre of the action. They are built with the player in mind. They engage and immerse.

There are not many online surveys you could say the same of. Most give scant attention to respondents. Rather, they are slaves to the machine, factory workers on a production line. Turn this on its head – make the survey the slave of the respondent – and you will rarely need to turn to playing games to keep them engaged.

Put the user in control. Give them an environment they can shape and feel comfortable in. Ask questions in ways that draw people in and get them thinking. Develop surveys that dynamically respond to their responses. Through involvement and listening you can earn attention. And you will be rewarded with deeper, richer, fuller responses.

Games have a lot to teach us. But take out the wrong lessons and you’ll aim at the wrong target. And that’s game over.