Brand names have a unique impact on our brains and engage the "emotional", right-hand side of the brain more than other words, new experiments suggest. They are even more easily recognised when they are used in capital letters, reports the UK science journal the New Scientist this week.
"It is surprising," said Eran Zaidel, head of the University of California in Los Angeles laboratory where the research was conducted. "The rules that apply to word recognition in general do not necessarily apply here."
According to the New Scientistour brains do not process all types of words in the same way. For example, some patients with head injuries can quickly match a personal proper name like Bill Clinton to a photo - but common nouns like "house" or "paper" mean nothing to them.
Possidonia Gontijo of the University of California in Los Angeles wondered if our brains lump brand names into their own special category. They are unlike any other class of word because they are consistently represented in the same way, with unique fonts, cases and colours.
And unlike proper names, they usually apply to a group of objects. Most people know of only one 'Taj Mahal', for instance, but "Sony" conjures up everything from TVs to computers and cameras.
Gontijo and her colleagues tested how quickly and accurately 48 students recognised hundreds of words as real or not. The real words were brand names like 'Compaq' and common nouns like 'river'. 'Non words' were 108 meaningless letter strings like 'beash' and 'noerds'. The students saw the words either all in capitals, or all in lower case, flashed to the left or the right side of a computer screen.
The results suggested that students recognised the common nouns most quickly and accurately, followed by the brand names, then non words. Whether common nouns were in capitals or lower case made no difference. But the students recognised brand names more accurately when they were in capital letters - information clearly of interest to advertisers.
Also, common names were most easily recognised in the right visual field - which connects most strongly to the left side of the brain. But this effect was less strong for the brand names, suggesting the right side of the brain plays a bigger role in identifying brand names.
Jones claims that this not totally surprising because the right side of the brain deals with emotions: "A brand's power is that it conjures up a whole range of associations and ideas, which are primarily emotional."
Additional work by Gontijo suggests that people recognise personal proper names more quickly and accurately than brand names, leaving brand names in a class all of their own.