Marketing to the Teen Brain


Any parent whose kids have reached teenage years can tell you that teens think differently than adults. Now, neuroscientists are finding just how differently the teen brain works. Of particular interest to those involved in neuromarketing and neuroeconomics is that the areas of the brain used to make decisions differ between teens and adults. From Why adolescents put themselves first in New Scientist:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuroscientist from University College London, UK, has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 19 adolescents (aged 11 to 17) and 11 adults (aged 21 to 37) whilst they were asked questions relating to decision-making. Questions such as: ?You?re going to the cinema, where do you look for film times??

Blakemore found that teenagers rely on the rear part of the mentalising network to make their decisions, an area of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus. In contrast, adults use the front part, called the prefrontal cortex.

The superior temporal sulcus is involved in processing very basic behavioural actions, whereas the prefrontal cortex is involved in more complex functions such as processing how decisions affect others. So the research implies that “teenagers are less able to understand the consequences of their actions”, says Blakemore.

Other tests showed that teens were slower to respond to questions about the feelings of other people than adults were, implying that the adults were more readily able to put themselves in the position of others.

What’s the marketer to draw from this preliminary work? I’d say the key takeaways are that teens tend to be more self-centered in their decision making and that they employ fewer cognitive processes in their decision-making. (Feel free to exclaim, “Well, duhhhhhh!”) These conclusions won’t be a surprise either to parents or to marketers already selling to teens, but it’s interesting to get a better understanding of the underlying neuroscience. The work suggests that marketing pitches based on comparative data or other information that requires cognitive processing are less likely to work with teens even if they test well with adults.

I’d be a bit cautious about applying the conclusion that teens are less likely to be concerned about the feelings of others. While it’s probable that their altruistic inclinations and overall emotional intelligence are indeed less developed on average than those of adults, that doesn’t mean that teens are oblivious to how others react to them. A parent who has tried to convince a teen that a non-iPod MP3 player is better than a more costly Apple product with fewer features, or that a well-made pair of unbranded jeans will serve just as well as the pair with the trendy designer label that costs three times as much, knows that teens are excruciatingly aware of how their social peers will react. In the complex social networks formed by teens, individuals are very concerned about how others will respond to their clothes, their behavior, etc. and will indeed make buying decisions based on these concerns rather than logic.

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