How Does Memory Work? And Why Should Marketers Care?

Posted by Mr. Clayton W. Lord, Oct 03, 2012 2 comments

Clayton Lord

In October 1850, George Upton ducked into a Boston concert hall to hear a young, beautiful blond woman named Jenny Lind sing. Lind, who had made her career as an opera singer in England, was embarking on a U.S. tour, and the frenzy that surrounded each of her tour dates was extraordinary—the “Jenny Lind fever” riled up thousands and thousands of people at the 96 stops she would make down the Eastern seaboard.

Tickets sold for astronomical sums, and in the case of Boston, were oversold, meaning that the people outside the theatre rioted at the idea they would not get to see her. She was the Lady Gaga of her age and was considered to be the best singer of the 19th century by many—a “nightingale,” an “angel.”  Her appearances caused huge congestion—thousands of people would meet her at the station stops along the way.

Upton, 58 years later (!), would remember Jenny Lind “gliding down the stage with consummate grace” with a clarity that bespoke of the impact she had had on him:

“Her voice, as I remember it, was of full volume and extraordinary range, and had a peculiar penetrating quality also, because of its purity, which made its faintest tone clearly audible…her high notes were clear as a lark’s, and her full voice was rich and sonorous.”

Later, he would go on to say:

“I have borne her in my heart and memory across two generations and she remains for me still the one peerless signer I have heard on the concert stage.”

Unfortunately, Jenny Lind died just as the first audio recording instruments were being invented, so in 1908, when Upton wrote down his memories of Lind and her voice, the only residue that remained was what was in his mind.

Her art had transitioned into being only the memory of that art—the ephemerality of her voice having had no place, in those days, to become less ephemeral.

And yet 60 years later an old man at the end of his life could close his eyes and hear her voice, clear audible, crystallized in his mind even as the notes and the woman that sang them had long dissipated into nothing. What power.

Strong memories are tied up in strong emotions. Negative strong memories become tied to the emotions you were feeling, as well as to a heightened awareness of certain (but not all) details of the event. Biologically, this makes sense, as when being hunted on the savannah it was worth it to remember the particulars and have a strong emotional red flag that shot up whenever you were in that situation again.

Strong positive memories work the same way. In the case of Upton and Lind, he remembers her voice so particularly because it was the cause of his strong emotion. It lodged in his brain over the course of 60 years.

Upton’s recollection of Lind’s singing is likely tinged, though, by other things he heard and saw about Lind’s singing, her tour, her life both before and after the performance. Lind was managed on the U.S. tour by P.T. Barnum, the famous showman and huckster. Now, and even then, there is a lot of discussion about whether she really was as revelatory as Upton remembers.

Critics wrote of her style being cold and fitting of “colder climates,” and of her lower register being husky and apt to slide out of tune. But Barnum, a consummate salesman (who incidentally, it was rumored, had never heard Lind sing when he went to England and agreed to pay her $170,000 for the tour) booked her on the basis of her reputation and then carried out a mass marketing plan that would make any marketer proud:

“From her opening concert in New York City’s Castle Garden to subsequent performances in cities and towns across the country, Barnum fueled public fascination with Lind by orchestrating events and negotiating Lind-endorsed products (including Jenny Lind songs, clothes, chairs, and pianos)…Barnum shrewdly promoted Lind’s character—her modesty, benevolence, and selflessness—as much as her artistry. One scholar contends that because of Barnum’s promotion, Lind became ‘the standard for measuring not just sopranos, or even women artists, but women’ throughout the 1850s.”

Research from the neuropsychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown the importance of these peripheral tweaks to the “real” memory in other circumstances. Loftus, famously, showed subjects video of a car accident at a stop sign and then asked a subset of them whether the car ran the “yield” sign. When asked to recall, a majority of those subjects recalled a yield sign. The memory was actually changed fundamentally by outside forces.

Which is all to take nothing away from Jenny Lind. I’m sure her singing was beautiful—and regardless of how beautiful it truly was, the combination of her voice, savvy marketing and promotion, crowd adoration, and a variety of memorabilia to take home after, allowed her memory to live on in the synaptic pathways of Upton for sixty years.

We market. We package. Our job starts way before the lights go down, and continues long after the lights go up. It is advertising, yes, but it’s also little nudges afterward, beautiful pictures, sound clips, souvenirs.

We make and promote the ephemeral—it ceases to exist the minute the breath passes the lips—but that ephemeral can become transformative, literally realigning neurons in the brain, literally physically changing the people who take in the art.

That’s how memory works. And that’s why marketers should care.

2 responses for How Does Memory Work? And Why Should Marketers Care?


Ms. Devra L. Thomas says
October 04, 2012 at 7:19 am

I just have to chuckle and say "There's nothing new under the sun." Our work may be more instantaneous, but nothing's really changed in over a hundred years. Which, in one small way, is comforting.

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October 03, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Thanks for this provocative post, Clayton. Everything arts organizations do leading up to the event, at and after the performance or exhibition either builds up the experience or tears it down. Your thoughts remind me of Alan Brown's breakthrough research about the importance of preparation for an event -- the more an audience member knows about what's coming, the more he/she anticipates the event -- the more compelling the live experience will be -- as well as the afterglow.

I'm also struck by another performance phenomenon which our colleagues in popular music know all about. It's the aspect of BEING THERE. Were you there when ... sang ...? If so, you're part of a special community and so am I. I know I felt this way about "running the marathon" seeing The Coast of Utopia -- 3 Tom Stoppard plays in one glorious day. It was an event, a rite of passage and a communal experience I'll never forget.

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