Category Archives: memory

Microsoft ends Encarta. Will your memory be next?

Microsoft has announced it will discontinue the Encarta encyclopedia this fall — a sad bit of news for those of us who grew up struggling with DOS and floppy discs and were suddenly delighted to find all the world’s information on a set of computer CDs. More than a victory for Wikipedia, the move points to a future where storing information locally really doesn’t matter that much anymore, since you can rapidly pull anything out of the cloud.

Which brings up your mind. We have to wonder, what is the rationale for learning new languages or memorizing presidents if all that data can be transcribed and pulled forth at the touch of a keystroke? In a few hundred years, human beings may be prized more for their ability to search and less for their ability to remember. Computer banks may become the real memory systems; just as social media now has extended our personal Dunbar numbers to allow for 1,500 relationships instead of 150, it may be more efficient to let data chips record the world, and we’ll simply learn to call up the right search query. With the ubiquity of GPS and video and human relationship mapping, pulling the universe together is only a step away. Why should we have to remember all that?

Just a thought. We had another point, too, but forgot.

Via Jonathan Nafarrete.

Hudson River plane crash: Almost out of time

Yesterday afternoon we saw this photo of US Airways Airbus A320 floating in the Hudson River and were mesmerized, upset, strangely euphoric. We saw it again this morning and thought, hm, already know that story. Reviewing it this afternoon we thought, ugh, the composition is horrible — and that cell phone camera has lousy resolution. What a crappy photo.

Why does the value of this image decay over time? Why is “news” more powerful when recent? Bill Green has a nice rant today about the rush for consumers to become reporters via Twitter, even if it leads to inaccuracy, with mainstream media reflowing the reports to get as close as possible to the actual moment of the news event. A picture of a bird being sucked into an engine would be powerful, but 1,000 times more so if posted online only seconds after the plane hit it.

Robin Le Poidevin of Leeds University wrote a few years back that human perception of time may be an actual sixth sense; even if your eyes and ears were shuttered, you’d still note the passage of time by the simple thoughts flowing in your head. He wrote “perception of temporal duration is crucially bound up with memory” — that is, your memory acts like a radioactive particle decaying slowly into the past. With every passing hour, your experience of the world moves from colorful reality to grainy, black-and-white ghosts.

Humans judge sensory input in context — so the closer something happens to now, the more powerful it seems because it is associated with all the recent, still-vivid memories flooding your mind. Our brains, of course, quickly forget things, even those that we manage to transition to long-term memory … so as our mental context to judge events degrades, we may devalue the events that happened next to them on the same mental clock.

A kiss this instant is exciting. A minute ago it’s a warm memory. A decade ago and the event dissolves into a story in some dry novel, barely worth a revisit.

Perhaps our modern itch to quicken the pace of news reports is more than media frenzies or technology enablers, but instead tied to evolution, the fact that what happens at this exact second — or close to it — may swing our survival. An inbound storm, a report of lions in the savanna, word that the clan next door is preparing for war are all threats our ancestors met and survived to pass their genes down to us.

So we watch what happens close to us in our random location on the spectrum of time. This explains why you throw out old magazines, even if you haven’t read them, or why grainy photos from amateur cell phones make Page 1 in national newspapers. We care about what is close, not distant, and that includes the vast fading spectrum of time.

Chevy Vegas and Dodge Darts: Consumers remember when you’re bad

When we were a teenager learning to drive, our father told us of a Dodge Dart he once owned where the shift lever came off in his hand. We laughed as he recalled the f***-ing crappy design and how it almost killed him, as he went down a hill across an intersection with the rod waving in the air … it was in fact the first time we heard our dad drop the F bomb.

More than 25 years later we still think of American cars as substandard, even though some, especially Ford, have improved quality and come forth with innovative, efficient designs.The ad above, for the 72 Chevy Vega, may represent the worst automobile of all time, according to a U.S. consumer survey. That car was littered with design defects; pistons were mismatched to cylinders, the carburetor tended to catch fire, the body oozed rust. Bob Eicholz of Hollywood, Calif., commented “after 20,000 miles of gentle driving, it needed a valve job, and possibly a new engine, a new clutch, a new transmission sync gear and new tires.”

The irony of marketing is that consumers need incredible stimuli to think differently about a product tomorrow, but they carry word-of-mouth opinions from yesterday for decades. Once a person’s mind is set against a product, it’s almost impossible to change. The recoil of Americans as they ponder a vast bailout for the U.S. auto industry is almost amazingly unpatriotic, until you consider the pent-up anger consumers feel based on decades of automotive design incompetence. Yes, U.S. cars have improved dramatically … but buyers still remember.

As you head into the new year it might be worth mapping what customers think about your past products. Like a therapist trying to improve a relationship, you can’t move people forward until you address the sins of the past.

Bad word of mouth: Why smoking Santas are remembered

Santa remains a powerful tale because your grandma told your mom and she told you. And if you think back, the story freaked you out as a kid.

We thought of this over lunch reading how an artist named Haddon Sundblom created the iconic image of a rotund man in a red suit in the 1930s for Coca-Cola, riffing on earlier cartoons by Thomas Nast. Soon Santa was everywhere in marketing. Camel ads touted a good smoke. Necco candy wafers showed Santa’s head popping out of a box. Painter Sundblom even put an unclothed woman in a Santa robe on the cover of Playboy magazine in 1972.

Beneath it all was word of mouth. Santa became folklore because he was the exact opposite of the robber barons and business fat cats who were blamed for the Great Depression — a powerful leader who gave riches away instead of keeping it. In the economic recovery after World War II, U.S. consumers were ready to shop. A rich dude handing out stuff? Sign us up and we’ll tell the kids!

Santa is a good story because he has a dark side, too.

Negative tones make messages more credible. Chung-Ang University in South Korea ran a study asking 143 participants to shop online for digital cameras and movies. Sure, those who read 100% positive reviews thought more highly of the product. But the study revealed that participants exposed to 20% negative reviews and 80% positive had the highest shift in opinion toward the source — the dose of ire made the story irresistible.

The point for marketers is that advertising fails if the message is purely controlled and purely positive. Consumers are suspicious; they’ve heard it all before; and if you don’t allow any negativity to touch your product, you may not be remembered.

Santa remains successful because he has a bit of darkness in his story; he creeps into homes at night, he might punish you if you’ve been bad, he could use bariatric surgery, and come on, the man nibbles on cookies without cleaning up the mess. The original 1880s cartoons by Thomas Nast showed St. Nick holding a pipe, not a Coke. So how can we forget? Like a secondhand whiff of cigarette at a hip party, a little naughtiness makes the message feel more right.

Holiday music and consumer memory

The first song was probably Yo, Yo, Yo, that Plant is Poisonous.

McGill psych professor Daniel J. Levitin has a theory about why we endure the same holiday songs year after year. It seems that music helps human minds remember data because the words associated with it are tough to forget; so for millennia, long before Gutenberg and hieroglyphics, songs were employed to pass along data vital to our survival. Levitin notes that because holiday tunes must appeal to the broadest possible audience as they encode tradition, they also tend to be the most insipid — unnuanced oatmeal for the ear. Human minds wear out when they hear the same message.

Marketers should listen up, because the “please stop the madness” trend to not like repetitive music affects them as well. Levitin writes “We are living in a time of unprecedented nonsocial access to music. The average 14-year-old will hear more music in a year than his great grandfather would have in a lifetime.”

Same goes for marketing messages. The growing trend of profanity, nudity, sex, and manufactured scandal could be marketers’ way of trying to find new melodies that stick in a world saturated by old advertising tunes. Not that it’s right; but expect more noise to come.

Video: Klip Collective.

The Rutledge Inn is gone. Totally gone.

We took a road trip last weekend to our teenage haunts, and on a whim drove past a country inn about 10 miles from the old home, on the edge of a Vermont lake, where we spent two summers working to save money for college. It was a magical resort, the location of early romances (the inn had more than a dozen waitresses compared to us few “handymen”), and had the old-fashioned entertainment that once ruled vacation spots in New England. Boat rides. Shuffleboard. Thursday evening picnic and talent show by the staff. Necking on the shore.

Trouble is, the inn is gone. The main building has been razed, the dance hall removed, and in their place is an empty lawn on one side of the lake road and a new McMansion on the other.

We drove back to reality and Googled “Rutledge Inn, Vermont,” to try to find a record or photos of what we remembered. A big wraparound porch. A dozen cottages hidden in the trees. A laundry outbuilding out back that once caught fire, and made us a modest hero for seeing the blaze and rushing in to stop it.


All of this made us realize how new today’s information nimbus of the internet is. In 2008, you can find almost anyone or anything of note online, with reviews, photos, histories of communications, an entire wikipedia on almost any topic. But that all began back in about 1999, and before then, anything you remembered either made a book, or hopefully a few photos in a cupboard.

Anything before the internet is fragile and fading fast. The Rutledge Inn stood for about a century, generated untold love tangles and perhaps a few children, and Google has barely a whiff of its passing. Some engineer named Paul mentions it briefly on his cycling blog, but that’s it.

We wonder if today’s blogs and electronic records will really be more lasting than old photos a few decades from now. We also wonder if Paul dated the same waitress.

Impressions recalling impressions

Robert Krulwich tells an eerie story on NPR tonight of David Stewart, a man who slowly went blind over five decades due to a hereditary disease. Then one day in his 80s, Stewart was listening to a book on tape about George Washington’s adventures on the Hudson River. And right before him, a sailor appeared in the room wearing a blue cap, looked him in the eye — and winked.

Scientists say this type of extraordinary hallucination is common among people who, like Stewart, once could see but now are blind. The phenomenon is similar to amputees who feel the aura of a missing limb. The newly blind have vivid impressions of people, flowers, art, that are amalgams from their memories. Apparently the cells in the brain that once received signals from the eyes have nothing to do, so may misfire and tell the mind that new sight images are arriving.

Stewart’s brush with phantoms reminds us that all impressions are interpreted in the eyes of the beholder. Two consumers can see exactly the same commercial and one may laugh while the other is affronted. Even the logic of communications can be disputed based on our differing histories. Will the use of a racial image offend? Is the business deal a conflict of interest? Are you really sure we look good in plaid?

Next time your marketing team or agency falls into debate over which creative message is right, think back on David Stewart, and remember: Everyone will see something slightly different. There is no clear image. Because every mind designs an answer based on its prior perspective.

Why some memories stick: Jingles all the way

Sometime on Jan. 1, 2008, the radio networks of the United States will switch from a five-week rotation of holiday Christmas classics back to regular music programming. Which makes us wonder: What is it about some traditional music, and some repeat impressions, that can be so compelling for humans?

This is no trivial question, given the trend in advertising to constantly barrage consumers with the latest, and often loudest, new concept. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist best known for being portrayed by Robin Williams in the film Awakenings, has studied the effects of music on memory and found that, somehow, music is rooted in the most primitive parts of our minds.

In simple terms, music combined with communications hits the brain with a form of double impression — the message sinks in deeper, and once in, the music replayed can accurately withdraw it. This is important, because our minds often have trouble processing or recalling memory accurately without strong cues.

Sacks tells of his own memory slipping when he thinks back to a North London bombing during World War II. He vividly recalls seeing two bombs fall:

On another occasion, an incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire-indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal …

Trouble was, Sacks never saw the second bomb explode; his brother Michael told him recently that his memory had deceived him.

I was staggered at Michael’s words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law and had never doubted as real?

“What do you mean?” I objected. “I can see the bomb in my mind’s eye now, Pop with his pump, and Marcus and David with their buckets of water. How could I see it so clearly if I wasn’t there?”

“You never saw it,” Michael repeated. “We were both away at Braefield at the time. But David [our older brother] wrote us a letter about it. A very vivid, dramatic letter. You were enthralled by it.” Clearly, I had not only been enthralled, but must have constructed the scene in my mind, from David’s words, and then taken it over, appropriated it, and taken it for a memory of my own.

This is extraordinary — one of the most brilliant men in the study of neurology can’t recall accurately seeing a bomb explode, and admits it. It points out that advertisers and communicators need far more the CPMs and GRPs to make an impact on the consumer’s mind; they need something heavier to make the impression stick, and be recallable.

Music is one powerful tool, and advertisers have long used it. If you think back to the 1970s, many TV and radio commercials had musical narratives — Oscar Mayer had a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a, Coke taught the world to sing in perfect harmony, and Burger King sang about having it your way. Even the famed early outdoor signs of America had a musical cadence: Around the corner, lickety-split, beautiful car, wasn’t it? Burma-Shave. Our dad saw that in the 1940s, told us the rhyme in second grade, and we still recall it. For some reason, the use of music jingles in advertising has faded. Perhaps the market was oversaturated, and like the 1970s moustache music just went out of vogue.

Musical communication reaches something primitive in all of us, tied to deep memories and our desire to survive. However annoying, we can’t get some tunes out of our mind. Soon, we bet, some clever marketer will bring the jingle back.

The new cult of celebrities in U.S. marketing

At some mysterious point, supermodels disappeared from U.S. media and music-film-news-scandal celebrities took their place. Bob Dylan is now pitching Cadillacs, former President Clinton is pushing books, Russell Crowe and Lindsay Lohan sell magazine covers, and in the most mysterious twist, Gwen Stefani is now selling perfume with photo shots (above) that make her a dead ringer for early Madonna — a brilliant two-for-one marketing stroke.

We wonder what the psychological resonance is between us consumers, our fantasy idols, and the products marketers want us to buy. Do impressions impress more if our eyes are drawn to stars? Is our memory of the impression heightened by the emotional response of seeing a movie or music star next to sheet metal or scented liquid? Did 1990s supermodels grow too tall, anorexic and sterile, causing our evolutionary reproductive instincts to rebel?

Dunno. But the L.A.M.B. perfume should be a hit.

Recall this: Hitchcock, marketers and bloody impressions

Remember the shower scene in Psycho? Of course you do. We first saw Hitchcock’s classic on television as kids, and the quick-cut montage scared the pants off us. Researchers have long known that human memory is enhanced by episodes of heightened emotion. Back in 2003 scholars at University College London found that asking people to remember a series of words, where startling terms such as scream or murder were included, led to improved recall.

The London study also found recall was worst for regular terms shown immediately before the shocking terms — for example, if the word bread preceded scream, people were less likely to remember the term bread.

This points to two things for marketers: Shock and scandal may work well in ad messaging, since heightened emotional response will drive recall. And second, if your messaging is plain but your competitors’ is shocking, your competitor may win the recall battle by clouding you out. It’s all complicated, something about stress hormones from the adrenal glands on the amygdala flooding our brains. But at least we now understand why Victoria’s Secret once put Bob Dylan in a lingerie commercial. The horror — we still remember.