Inspiration from Infomercials

American actress Carmen Electra doing an infom...

“But wait, there’s more!” I love to use that line in my A&P classes. Just when my students’ heads are starting to swim and their interest beginning to flag, I’ll pull it out with a wicked grin before revealing the next daunting step in a complex process. “But wait!” usually brings a chuckle because everyone gets the reference: the ubiquitous infomercial.

The Today Show recently featured a spot on the making of infomercials that grabbed my attention and led to a little research.  It turns out that those cheesy spots are big business, bringing in literally billions of dollars annually.  That can be a pretty sweet return on the $500,000 or so that the typical spot costs. Of course, for that type of investment, the purveyors of the gadgets expect some expert production. It’s no surprise that the makers of the ads know a thing or two about neuroscience, particularly the motivations of our buying behaviors.

Consumer Reports offered these insights in February 2010:

The secret lies in neuroscience. Infomercials are carefully scripted to pump up dopamine levels in your brain, says Martin Lindstrom, an advertising expert and author of “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” which details how ads affected 2,000 research subjects.

“Infomercials take viewers on a psychological roller-coaster ride,” Lindstrom says. The fun starts with dramatizations of a problem you didn’t know you had, followed by the incredible solution, then a series of ever more amazing product benefits, bonuses, and giveaways, all leading to the final thrilling plunge of an unbelievably low price. After the ride, Lindstrom says, “dopamine levels drop in 5 or 6 minutes. That’s why infomercials ask you to buy in the next 3 minutes.”

Dopamine Pathways. In the brain, dopamine play...

Dopamine Pathways. In the brain, dopamine plays an important role in the regulation of reward and movement.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Could we, as hucksters of knowledge, borrow a few of the same tricks to support student learning behaviors?

  • Focus on solving problems. Which sounds more appealing to you: a didactic discussion of a body part or process, or a scenario featuring an interesting disease process resulting from a malfunction of that system? I thought so. After practicing medicine for many years, I know the most about the problems that affected my patients.  Even a picture or scenario linked to the day’s topic seems to help hold my students’ interest.
  • Demonstrate the products. My lab/classroom is filled with interesting models and slides, so it’s a snap to demonstrate the structures that we’re discussing. However, classes that don’t have such great toys could still benefit from demonstrating how the knowledge “product” can be used.
  • A ton of work goes on behind the scenes. We can’t just stroll into our classrooms without a plan of action or “script.” We need to be sure that all our props are handy.  Sure, this takes a little extra work and effort, but it makes our jobs so much more fun…and effective.
  • Integrity matters. The producers of infomercials spend big bucks to secure the endorsements of celebrities that the public deems trustworthy.  The only celebrity you have is YOU, so you need to exude integrity.  Students know if you can be trusted.
  • Create a sense of urgency. The experts say the dopamine rush that makes us want to buy lasts for only a brief time after the information is presented.  Structure your class so that students have frequent opportunities to “buy” the information that you’re “selling” before the dopamine rush that accompanies pleasure in learning fades.

Do you have a tactic that helps you “sell” your educational goals to your learners?


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