London: Nick Baily, a 17-year-old from Detroit, had been dreaming of this day. On 6 November 2006, Nintendo released its highly anticipated Wii gaming system—the machine that, through a hand-held remote control, allows players to simulate the swing of a bat, the arc of a tennis serve, the roll of a bowling ball or the rush of a linebacker crashing into the end zone. After 17 hours of waiting in line at his local Toys ‘R’ Us, the high school senior rushed home excitedly, his Wii box tucked under one arm.
Cause and effect: Lindstrom says mirror neurons, identified in the late 1980s, explain why we sometimes do things we can’t explain.
Now, most new Wii owners would breathlessly tear open the box, hook up the machine to the TV set and test the new gadget right away. Not Nick Baily. Before opening the container, he set up his video camera, clipped a microphone to his shirt lapel, adjusted the video camera’s controls and pressed record. Only then, with the video rolling, did he begin unsealing his Wii.
A couple of hours later, Nick’s very own grand opening could be viewed on YouTube. And, it was, about 71,000 times in the first week alone. It seemed that simply watching someone else enjoying the unveiling of a new Wii gave Nintendo fans out there almost as much pleasure as opening that new Wii themselves.
In fact, there are entire video-sharing sites devoted to this kind of vicarious pleasure: On www.unboxing.com, computer users can watch strangers from all across the world slit or scissor open their various purchases.
But why? The answer can be found deep inside our brains where you’ll find something called “mirror neurons”.
Mirror neurons were identified in the late 1980s at a university in Parma, Italy, by Giacomo Rizzolatti who had been monitoring monkeys. Rizzolatti discovered that if one monkey watched another picking up a nut, its brain imitated the action, embedding the sense that it was actually collecting the nuts itself.
Humans are equipped with exactly the same neurons. Imagine the sound of fingernails being scraped across a blackboard. It’s all too easy to imagine. You can hear the sound in your mind. You can probably appreciate the bodily sensation it evokes, even though, you’re reminiscing about the sound. These are mirror neurons in action.
From the moment we’re born, we are driven by mirror neurons. Poke your tongue out at a baby and the baby will imitate your action. Why is this so interesting and so pertinent to this article? Because it reveals why we’re hardwired to imitate, cradle to grave.
I’ll never forget passing by a nightclub in central New York City and seeing the young people who were queuing up outside. All the guys, and lots of girls, had positioned their outer clothing to allow the apparently fashionable hip bands of their underpants to be visible. It looked peculiar to me at the time. Why would you reveal your underpants—as an ostensible fashion statement?
Weeks afterwards, I strolled past a similar line of young people outside a nightclub in Sydney, Australia. And guess what? The kids were dressed in exactly the same fashion. It was the same in Tokyo, Paris and Copenhagen. The undies phenomenon started somewhere by someone, and heaven knows why, was picked up by others until it spread around the world like a virus.
We love to imitate. The way we dance, the way we gesticulate—think Rappers—or the way we play computer games. Mirror neurons are at work through every detail of life.
The world of advertising can learn a lot from the young people queued up conveniently for anthropological observation outside night clubs. Imitation is not just a fun hum (a common or ordinary) trait. It’s behaviour that’s hardwired in our brains. That’s why fashion exists, why sport is so popular, why we experience the playing of it vicariously as we watch a game, why trends become fads, and fads become must-haves. And, all this brings me back to Nick Baily from Detroit and the half-million viewers around the world who have by now watched him unwrap his Wii.
Mirror neurons explain why we sometimes do things we can’t explain. They can also be a source of valuable instruction for product marketers, able to turn a brand from a moderate success into a runaway success that no one can live without.
Martin Lindstrom is a global branding expert and author of BRANDsense and BRANDchild. His latest book is Buyology, which will be released by publishers Doubleday New York on 21 October.