Storytelling in Context: Neuroscience, Anthropology and Psychology

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It’s not just the way you tell ‘em, it’s where. Storytelling’s success relies as much on environment as on content. Anyone who has watched a film in a darkened room, with the smell of popcorn in the air can attest to that.

Advertising is no different. With myriad formats available online, it’s time to assess how these different digital advertising experiences affect our reception of ads. So with that in mind we’ve set about discovering the real effects of context on storytelling. For advertisers it means improving how ads are placed, the content of those ads themselves, and the insights that inform them.

At Advertising Week Europe we’ll uncover how context works from three separate perspectives – neuroscience, psychology and anthropology. Rather than hi-falutin’ academic topics, these disciplines all provide insights into the way context affects our media consumption habits.


The insights provided by neuroscience are perhaps the most mind-blowing (excuse the pun). Recent advances in our understanding of the way hormones and endorphins operate has gone a long way to explain our behaviours, moods and decision making. It’s under-applied when it comes to advertising, but ‘neuro-marketing’ is set to explode in the coming years.

Dr. Ali Jennings explains how stories take us on a roller-coaster ride of feelings, thanks to the way they control our hormones. For instance, he explains, at the start of a story, in response to a dramatic plot point, we release Cortisol, the stress hormone. But once the narrative is resolved we release Dopamine, a chemical which rewards us. And here’s the clever bit: if our product performs part of that resolution, we actually emphathize with the product. Here’s a great recent example, note how you feel relief, and empathy at the exact moment the chocolate bar changes hands:

But such stories only work in a conducive context. Jennings reveals that if a story (advertisement) takes place in an appropriate, relevant environment, we’ll pay attention. If an ad appears somewhere irrelevant – out of context – we simply don’t even see it.


The discipline of anthropology has found a new lease of life in the 21st Century as it turned its attention to digital communities. The anthropological approach inverts usual thinking, as it often focusses on small scale communities. In the era of social media, this provides valuable insight into how and why people behave like they do online.

Alexandra Georgakopoulou-Nunes talks about the concept of ‘context collapse’. As social media provides a meeting place for all kinds of communities, their messages are de-contextualised in the myriad of other content in our social feeds. For brands this is a real concern, as we cannot control what contextual factors our paid social messages will be surrounded by: contradictory messages, negative comments or sentiment, and bad sharing associations.

Of course, the flip side of this is that we have the ability to piggy-back onto influencers, and use their curated environments to our benefit. In this way the booming Influencer marketing sector has used context to its advantage. This slightly mind-boggling example from adidas shows how, when done well, using social cliques is extremely powerful in activating a passionate user base.


In storytelling we use motifs that suspend disbelief (once upon a time…, campfires, cinematic establishing shots) to lure the audience into our tales. Likewise, different commercial environments provide contexts conducive to their desired behaviour – the timelessness of casinos encourages us to gamble, the cosiness of a café that makes us linger. These are all contextual cues that we subsequently embody in our consumption.

Online, we’re more limited in our capacity to create context, but there are still plenty of opportunities. For example, news publishers create an aura of trust that appeals to premium brand advertisers, or entertainment sites trade on excitement through lurid typography, pop-colour or photography. Within these contexts users display different behaviours, and as such, they are appropriate places for different brands to advertise.

Taking psychological theory then, we can divide consumer decision making into two streams: emotional and rational. This is famously explained in Daniel Kahneman’s ‘system 1 vs. system 2’ thinking, but understanding context allows us to apply this thinking with greater power. We could consider using ‘system 2’ (logical / product-feature orientated) ads on sites where consumer decisions are happening (review sites, trade magazines) and system 1 (emotional / brand) advertising on more unfocused inventory (entertainment, news sites).

Context Is Everything: How Contextual Advertising Works

At Advertising Week Europe our panel will delve into each of these topics, and how advertisers and publishers can apply them. The rise of contextual advertising is a symptom of digital culture, we must understand how it works so we can make the most of it, and tell our stories to the right people, in the right place. I hope you join us on March 20.

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