Marketing to Our Lizard Brains: The Psychology of Public Relations

In this age of information, we’re bombarded by anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 marketing messages in a day, and it can be hard for marketing and public relations professionals to figure out how to cut through all this noise. In a session of the Public Relations Society of America’s Western District Conference, Elizabeth Edwards of Volume PR presented several marketing tactics that appeal directly to our “lizard brains,” or the most basic, instinctual brain functions common to all humans.


Our brains instantly and easily recognize contrast messaging—it’s simple and straightforward, and doesn’t require a lot of thought. Pain/gain messaging is an example of this—illustrating the pains that clients face juxtaposed with the way a business can solve these pains—as is before-and-after messaging, with an image of an experience without a business’s products or services held against an image of that same experience, this time with the goods or services. Contrast messaging is all about simplifying and delivering, and can be especially effective when used with visuals.

Appeal to the person, not the cause

Teenagers have been using the peer pressure tactic for decades, to great effect. Humans are social creatures, and we’re more likely to do something if we’re told that many other people have done it as well. For example, hotel rooms with signage that says “Other guests recycle their towels…will you?” often have higher towel recycling rates than hotels with signs that simply say “Please recycle your towels.”

However, this can have an adverse effect if used negatively. A national state park which used messaging along the lines of “Please do not steal the petrified wood—too much wood has been stolen already” actually saw an increase in the amount of petrified wood theft.

Create scarcity

The potential for loss plays a larger part in decision-making than potential gain. For this reason, it can be beneficial to create scarcity around products and services. Scarcity can be created through limited-number tactics, such as selling only a small number of priority tickets to an event or publicizing a limited-edition item which will only be available for a 48-hour period.

Ask for something big, and then for something smaller

In her presentation, Elizabeth cited a study where a group of college students was asked if they would be willing to take juvenile delinquents to the zoo for two hours each month. 83% of them said “no.” The group was then asked if they would be willing to counsel juvenile delinquents for two hours each week for the next two years; the answer was a unanimous “no.” Finally, the group was asked whether they would be willing to take juvenile delinquents to the zoo once a month—the same question that had been asked initially. 51% now answered “yes.” It turns out that the human brain likes to think that it’s bargained and gotten a good deal—making a small request immediately after a huge request can often make someone agree to something they might not have before.

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