Few would argue that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in the English language, but we don’t see Madison Avenue putting much of their copy in sonnet form. And while I don’t expect to see a surge in the use of iambic pentameter in print ads, it turns out that Shakespeare may have something to teach 21st century advertising copywriters. Neuroscience researchers at the University of Liverpool have found that reading Shakespeare can cause positive activation of the brain. Using electroencephalography (EEG), now supplemented by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), researchers monitored brain activity in subjects as they read Shakespeare.
Shakespeare uses a linguistic technique known as functional shift that involves, for example using a noun to serve as a verb. Researchers found that this technique allows the brain to understand what a word means before it understands the function of the word within a sentence. This process causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.
A phrase like “he godded me” is an example of this creative misuse of common words that causes the burst of brain activity, according to Reading Shakespeare May Have Dramatic Effect on Human Brain.
Professor Neil Roberts, from the University’s Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre, (MARIARC), explains: “The effect on the brain is a bit like a magic trick; we know what the trick means but not how it happened. Instead of being confused by this in a negative sense, the brain is positively excited. The brain signature is relatively uneventful when we understand the meaning of a word but when the word changes the grammar of the whole sentence, brain readings suddenly peak. The brain is then forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of this unusual word.”
This is another indication that a favorite technique of copywriters – substituting an unexpected word in a familiar phrase – has a neuromarketing basis. This strategy was described in our previous article, Surprising the Brain. Although both the research techniques and the specifics of the “surprise” differ, the basic concept is similar: using familiar words in a surprising or puzzling way gets the attention of readers more than conventional usage.
The Liverpool researchers think that this unconventional use of words and resulting high level of brain stimulation is one reason for the dramatic impact of Shakespeare’s work. So, if you are responsible for writing ad copy, take a lesson from the Bard and shake up the way you use your words. Even if your advertising prose doesn’t end up being taught in literature classes centuries from now, it may do a better job of selling today!