John Kay, an economist at Oxford University, argues that advertising doesn’t work because of explicit messages. He suggests that one context is particularly important that of waste. By waste he means spending more on adverts than is necessary to functionally communicate the explicit message. That could be a 90-second ad, acres of white space on double-page spread or extravagant production values.
Advertising known to be expensive signals the volume of the resources available to the advertiser. As Kay says in his landmark paper:
The advertiser has either persuaded lots or people to buy his product already, a good sign, or has persuaded someone to lend him lots of money to finance the campaign.
Advertising works, not despite its perceived wastage, but because of it.
As psychologist Thomas Gilovich noted, “When examining evidence relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see, and conclude what they expect to conclude… For desired conclusions … we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe this?, but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, “Must I believe this?””
Excerpt from: Catalyst by Jonah Berger
To test this possibility, Bail set up a clever experiment. He recruited more than 1,500 Twitter users and had them low accounts that exposed them to opposing viewpoints. For a month they saw messages and information from elected officials, organizations, and opinion leaders from the other side. A liberal might see tweets from Fox News or Donald Trump. A conservative might see posts from Hillary Clinton or Planned Parenthood.
It was a digital version of reaching across the aisle. A simple intervention that could have big effects for social policy.
Then, at the end of the month, Bail and his team measured users’ attitudes. How they felt about various political and social issues. Things like whether government regulation is beneficial, whether homosexuality should be accepted by society, and whether the best way to ensure peace is through military strength.
It was a huge undertaking. Years of preparation and thousands of hours of work. The hope was that, as thousands of pundits, columnists, and other talking heads have argued, connecting with the other side would bring people closer together.
But that’s not what happened. Exposure to the other side didn’t make people more moderate.
In fact, just the opposite. Exposure to opposing views did change minds, but in the opposite direction. Rather than becoming more liberal, Republicans exposed to liberal information became more conservative, developing more extreme attitudes toward social policies. Liberals showed similar effects.
Excerpt from: Catalyst by Jonah Berger
‘The heart has its reasons,’ Blaise Pascal wrote more than three centuries ago, ‘which reason knows nothing of’. Sot with the conscious and unconscious minds. Head cannot look into Gut and so it has no idea how Gut assembles its judgments, which is why psychologists believe that focus groups are far less insightful than some marketers think. If you put people together in a room, show them a car commercial, and ask them how they feel about the car, you will get clear answers. ‘I don’t care for it,’ a man may say. Fine. Why not? He frowns. ‘Um, the styling on the front is ugly. And I want a more powerful engine.’ That looks like good insight, just the sort of thing a company can use to design and market its products. But it’s not. This man’s snap judgment – ‘I don’t like that car’ – came from Gut. But the interviewer is talking to Head. And Head doesn’t have a clue why Gut doesn’t like the car. So Head rationalizes. It looks at the conclusion and cobbles together an explanation that is both plausible and quite possibly, wrong.
Excerpt from: Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner
The findings Bergen describes also suggest the reason writers are continually encouraged to ‘show not tell’. As C.S. Lewis implored a young writer in 1956, ‘instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. The abstract information contained in adjectives such as ‘terrible’ and ‘delightful is thin gruel for the model-building brain. In order to experience a character’s terror or delight or rage or panic or sorrow, it has to make a model of it. By building its model of the scene, in all its vivid and specific detail, it experiences what’s happening on the page almost as if it’s actually happening. Only that way will the scene truly rouse our emotions.
Excerpt from: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
As early as 1951, the Taiwanese government sought to address this problem by doing two things. First, it unified all receipt and invoicing platforms into a central system, which meant that all businesses which gave out receipts would automatically send the unique receipt numbers and invoice amounts to the government for tax reporting. (In fact, in Taiwan most people don’t need to hire accountants to do their taxes – the government can directly tell you how much you owe them or how much they should return to you).
But the second step is where we see true innovation. The Taiwanese government turned each receipt and invoice number into a lottery ticket for citizens to play. For every odd-numbered month, citizens can see if their receipt numbers match the winning prize. The first place would win the equivalent of $62,000 – about five years of salary for an average new college graduate, while the second place would win $6,200, with subordinate prizes scaling all the way down to $7.
Because of this “Uniform Invoice Lottery” system, consumers are now demanding receipts and invoices from businesses, preventing the business from evading taxes by exchanging cash under the table (or purchasing with Bitcoins). In addition, consumers are more likely to spend money.
At the same time, we should be open-eyed about the challenges we’ll face as we make that shift. Take this example from Mexico City: City officials in 1989 banned the general public from driving one weekday per week, based on the last digit of their license plates. The intent was to encourage use of mass transit options and thereby improve air quality. It was a noble upstream effort to prevent air pollution.
It didn’t work. Many Mexicans bought a second car often an old clunker, to keep costs down—so they could drive every day. Air quality did not improve.
Good intentions guarantee nothing.
All the efforts really did the trick. By the measures available, the educational program was a stunning success. In August 1991, right before the effort began, the National Cancer Institute and the produce growers conducted a telephone survey. About 8 percent of Americans were aware that they should eat at least five servings of produce daily. By 1997, the results were strikingly different. Thirty Nine percent of Americans knew that they should eat five servings a day. That’s a campaign that any political adviser would be proud of.
But this is not a book about campaigns and policy. This is a book about actually changing lives. So the real question is: What about people’s actual behavior? The program’s purpose was to get people to consume more fruits and vegetables. Did it?
At the beginning of the campaign, from 1988 to 1994, 11 percent of Americans ate five servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Almost a decade later … it was still 11 percent. The change in awareness was real; the change of behavior was nonexistent.
“Louis XI (1423-1483), the great Spider King of France, had a weakness for astrology. He kept a court astrologer whom he admired, until one day the man predicted that a lady of the court would die within eight days. When the prophecy came true, Louis was terrified, thinking that either the man had murdered the woman to prove his accuracy or that he was so versed in his science that his powers threatened Louis himself. In either case he had to be killed. One evening Louis summoned the astrologer to his room, high in the castle. Before the man arrived, the king told his servants that when he gave the signal they were to pick the astrologer up, carry him to the window, and hurl him to the ground, hundreds of feet below. The astrologer soon arrived, but before giving the signal, Louis decided to ask him one last question: “You claim to understand astrology and to know the fate of others, so tell me what your fate will be and how long you have to live.” “I shall die just three days before Your Majesty,” the astrologer replied. The king’s signal was never given. The man’s life was spared. The Spider King not only protected his astrologer for as long as he was alive, he lavished him with gifts and had him tended by the finest court doctors. The astrologer survived Louis by several years, disproving his power of prophecy but proving his mastery of power.”
As Shakespeare wrote, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.
A few hours before I sat down to write this chapter, I received a parking ticket. It was only for £25 and I was completely to blame, but it nevertheless annoyed me to an extraordinary degree – and it is still annoying me now. Perhaps a parking ticket is made even more annoying because we can see no way of reframing it in a positive light.
Could the local authority that issued me with the ticket give me a chance to play the same mental trick on myself as the easyJet pilot – a reason, however tenuous, to feel slightly upbeat about the fine? For instance, how different would I feel if I was told that the money from my fine would be invested into improving local roads or donated to a homeless shelter? The fine would have the same deterrent effect, but my level of anger and resentment would be significantly reduced. How would that be a bad thing?
Pain […] is, in almost all cases, a more pungent sensation than the opposite and corresponding pleasure. The one almost always depresses us much more below the ordinary, or what may be called the natural state of our happiness, than the other ever raises us above it.
The taxpayers of New Jersey and Pennsylvania felt the brunt of this firsthand in a real-life experiment in 1992. Both states switched that year to a no-fault insurance regime where consumers could save money by limiting their right to sue for tort damages, but the way the option was framed differed by state: New Jersey made limited right to sue the default option, while Pennsylvanians were presumed to select full right to sue, unless they opted out. This small change in the status quo had a profound effect on their behavior: 75 percent of Pennsylvania consumers paid to retain full tort, while only 20 percent of New Jersey consumers did.
Similar effects have been found with many other kinds of behavior, including student loan repayment and even, interestingly, willingness to donate organs.
Another experiment: students and professional real-estate agents were given a tour of a house and asked to estimate its value. Beforehand, they were informed about a (randomly generated) listed sales price. As might be expected, the anchor influenced the students: the higher this price, the higher they valued the property. And the professionals? Did they value the house objectively? No, they were similarly influenced by the random anchor amount. The more uncertain the value of something – such as real estate, company stock or art – the more susceptible even experts are to anchors.
Excerpt from: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
In the mid-1960s psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published an astonishing set of data. They reported the result of an experiment in which a researcher, posing as a volunteer worker, had gone door to door in a residential California neighborhood making a preposterous request of homeowners. The homeowners were asked to allow a public-service billboard to be installed on their front lawns. To get an idea of just how the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. Although the request was normally and understandably refused by the great majority (83 percent) of the other residents in the area, this particular group of people reacted quite favorably. A full 76 percent of them offered the use of their front yards.
The prime reason for their startling compliance has to do with something that had happened to them about two weeks earlier: They had made a small commitment to driver safety. A different volunteer worker had come to their doors and asked them to accept and display a little three-inch-square sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. It was such a trifling request that nearly all of them had agreed to it. But the effects of that request were enormous. Because they had innocently complied with a trivial safe-driving request a couple of weeks before, these homeowners became remarkably willing to comply with another such request that was massive in size.
One stark and surprising study nicely illustrates the direction of such research. Conducted by Israeli Danziger of Ben-Gurion University, the study looks into the parole decisions of Israeli judges. The researchers examined 1,112 parole hearings by Israeli judges, and observed a startling trend: at the start of the day, around two-thirds of people before the court were given parole. Before the lunch break, this fell almost to nothing – but straight after a break, this once again jumped above 60 per cent again. The pattern was repeated again through a second meal break.
Of the twelve journals, only three spotted that they had already published the article. This was a grave lapse of memory on the part of the editors and their referees, but then memory is fallible; however, worse was to come. Eight out of the remaining nine articles, all of which had been previously published, were rejected. Moreover, of the sixteen referees and eight editors who looked at these eight papers, every single one stated that the paper they examined did not merit publication. This is surely a startling instance of the availability error. It suggests that in deciding whether an article should be published, referees and editors pay more attention to the authors’ names and to the standing of the institution to which they belong than they do to the scientific work reported.
Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland
Scarcity is a great way to make something seem more attractive and valuable. The Blues Brothers famously played ‘for one night only’ and Bernd Pichetsrieder, the great BMW marketing guru insisted on ‘always selling one less than you can’.
This kind of strategy is sometimes called the ‘velvet rope’ – ‘you can’t come in’ often makes something that much more appealing. This was also the trick behind the story of how Frederick the Great turned Prussia into a potato eating nation – he insisted that no-one but the nobility could eat the potato. The ‘aspirational’ root vegetable? Believe it.
Wansink moved broccoli to the beginning of the line. The first thing hungry students now saw wasn’t fast food. Fruit was taken out of functional containers and put in an attractive wooden bowl. The salad bar went in front of the tills, making it more prominent, something you couldn’t avoid. The ice cream freezer went from invitingly transparent to opaque. Buying sugar-rich desserts was made more complex, requiring additional calculations. Wansink hadn’t actually added anything, the food on offer was the same, but he rearranged the process. The results were clear.
Broccoli consumption increased by 10-15 per cent. Fruit sales from the wooden bowl doubled. Sales of salad tripled. The percentage of students buying ice cream fell from 30 per cent to 14 per cent. In general the composition of meals was far healthier. Arrangement, not any other inducement, led to healthy eating. Wansink studied other instances of how food’s presentation and arrangement affects our relationship with it.
Recently, the Behavioural Insights Team began altering the letter sent to British citizens if they failed to pay taxes on their car. The traditional letter was all text, informing the subject that if they didn’t pay now they would be hit with various penalties, including a clamped or and hefty fines. To increase the effectiveness of the letter, the scientists began experimenting with various forms of personalization. The first variant involved making a more specific threat, telling recipients that they would lose their particular model of car if they didn’t pay the tax. The second variant featured a personalized visual, so that the letter came attached with a photograph of the actual car question. While both approaches increased compliance, the customized picture was the most effective—it increased the compliance rate from 40 to 49 percent.
About thirty years ago, an economist at the Bank of Israel named Michael Landsberger undertook a study of a group of Israelis who were receiving regular restitution payments from the West German government after World War II. Although these payments could without exaggeration be described as blood money – inasmuch as they were intended to make up for Nazi atrocities – they could also fairly accurately be described as found money. Because of this, and because the payments varied significantly in size from one individual or family to another, Landsberger was able to gauge the effect of the size of such windfalls on each recipients spending rate. What he discovered was amazing. The group of recipients who received the larger payments (which were equal to about two-thirds of their annual income) had a spending rate of about 0.23. In other words, for every dollar they received, their marginal spending increased by 23 percent; the rest was saved. Conversely, the group that received the smallest windfall payments (equal to about 7 percent of annual income) had a spending rate of 2. Or, more accurately, for every dollar of found money, they spent $1 of found money and another $1 from “savings” (what they actually saved or what they might have saved).
In 2005 a flagging Japanese economy convinced Takashi Hashiyama, president of the electronics firm Maspro Denkoh, to sell the corporate collection of French impressionist paintings This included a major Cezanne landscape and lesser works by Sisley, van Gogh, and Picasso. Both Christies and Sotheby’s gave presentations to Hashiyama touting their expertise and ability to achieve the highest auction prices. In Hashiyama’s judgment, the presentations were equally convincing. To settle the matter, he proposed a game of rock, paper, scissors.
“The client was very serious about this,” Christie’s deputy chairman Jonathan Rendell said, “so we were very serious about it, too.” The money was serious, too. The Maspro Denkoh collection was valued at $20 million. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s quickly agreed to the game.
In contrast, Kanae Ishibashi, the president of Christie’s Japan, began researching RPS strategies on the Internet. You may or may not be surprised to learn that an awful lot has been written on the game. Ishibashi had a break when Nicholas Maclean, Christie’s director of impressionist and modern art, mentioned that his eleven-year-old twin daughters, Alice and Flora, played the game at school almost daily.
Alice’s advice was “Everybody knows you always start with scissors.” Flora seconded this, saying “Rock is way too obvious… Since they were beginners, scissors was definitely the safest.”
Both girls also agreed that, in the event of a scissors-scissors tie, the next choice should be scissors again — precisely because “everybody expects you to choose rock.”
Ishibashi went into the meeting with this strategy, while the Sotheby’s rep went in with no strategy at all. The auction house people sat facing each other at a conference table, flanked by Maspro accountants. To avoid ambiguity, the players wrote their choices on a slip of paper. A Maspro executive opened the slips. Ishibashi had chosen scissors, and the Sotheby’s representative had chosen paper. Scissors cuts paper, and Christie’s won. In early May 2005, Christie’s auctioned the four paintings for $17.8m, earning the auction house a 1.9m commission.
So we use others as a helpful shortcut. A filter. If a book is on the best-seller list, we’re more likely to skim the description. If a song is already popular, we’re more likely to give it a listen. Following others saves us time and effort and (hopefully) leads us to something we’re more likely to enjoy.
Does that mean we’ll like all those books or songs ourselves? Not necessarily. But we’re more likely to check them out and give them a try. And given the thousands of competing options out there, this increased attention is enough to give those items a boost.
Knowing others liked something also encourages people to give it the benefit of the doubt. Appearing on the best-seller list provides an air of credibility.
The ‘Save More Tomorrow’ programme tackles both of these barriers head-on by, first, auto-enrolling people onto workplace saving schemes to combat inertia. People are obviously completely free to opt back out, but, human nature being what it is 90 per cent stay on the scheme, with their inertia now working for them rather than against them. An auto-escalator then ups the contributions, not immediately but over time (the tomorrow bit). This shifted the reluctant hugely: when asked whether they would up their contributions now by five percentage points, most said no (we need the chocolate now). But when asked whether they’d commit to saving more in the future, 78 per cent said yes.
The impact of ‘Save More Tomorrow’ has been substantial. Before the programme, the average saving rate for workers in the sample was 3-5 per cent, but after four years this had increased nearly four-fold to 13.6 per cent.
There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.
Obesity is contagious. If your best friends get fat, your risk of gaining weight goes up.
Broadcasters mimic one another, producing otherwise inexplicable fads in programming. (Think reality television, American Idol and its siblings, game shows that come and go, the rise and fall and rise of science fiction, and so forth.)
The academic effort of college students is influenced by their peers, so much so that the random assignments of first-year students to dormitories or roommates can have big consequences for their grades and hence on their future prospects. (Maybe parents should worry less about which college their kids go to and more about which roommate they get.)
In the American judicial system, federal judges on three-judge panels are affected by the votes of their colleagues. The typical Republican appointee shows pretty liberal voting patterns when sitting with two Democratic appointees, and the typical Democratic appointee shows pretty conservative voting patterns when sitting with two Republican appointees. Both sets of appointees show far more moderate voting patterns when they are sitting with at least one judge appointed by a president of the opposing political party.
In one especially elegant and effective experiment, psychologist David Strohmetz and his colleagues arranged for waiters to hand customers their bills with or without sweets, and examined the impact on tipping. In the control condition, diners were unlucky enough to receive their bills without any sweets at all. A second group was given a single sweet. Compared to the control group, this simple gesture of kindness resulted in a measly 3 per cent increase in tips. A third group of customers received two sweets each, and, compared to the control group, gave 14 per cent larger tips. Not bad. However, here comes the really clever bit. In the fourth and final condition, the waiters were asked to present the bill to customers along with one sweet each, then, just as they were turning away from the table, reach into their pocket and quickly hand everyone a second sweet. In terms of sweets per customer, everyone ended up with exactly the same number of sweets as those in the third group. But psychologically speaking, this was very, very different. The waiter had just carried out an unnecessary and nice favour, and, because of that, tipping increased by an impressive 23 per cent.
Half of the respondents, drawn from a national sample of relatively affluent households, were asked whether they could comfortably save 20 percent of their income, and the other half were asked whether they could comfortably live on 80 percent of their income. Of course, to save 20 percent of your income is to live on 80 percent of it. Nevertheless, whereas only half of the respondents thought they could save 20 percent of their earnings, four out of five thought they could comfortably live on 80 percent.
This difference in reactions cannot be chalked up to simple financial illiteracy. People find beef that is 80 percent lean more appealing than beef that is 20 percent fat. They are more impressed by condoms whose manufacturers boast of a 95 percent success rate rather than a 5 percent failure rate. They are more supportive of taxes on the rich when the existing level of income inequality is described in terms of how much more the rich earn than the median wage earner tan when it is described in terms of how much less the median wage earner earns than the rich.
This was what the network scientist Duncan Watts and colleagues found in a famous 2006 experiment. Groups of people were given the chance to download songs for free from a Web site after they had listened to and ranked the songs. When the participants could see what previous downloaders had chosen, they were more likely to follow that behavior so popular songs became more popular, less popular songs became less so. These socially influenced choices were more unpredictable; it became harder to tell how a song would fare in popularity from its reported quality. When people made choices on their own, the choices were less unequal and more predictable; people were more likely to simply choose the songs they said were best. Knowing what other listeners did was not enough to completely reorder people’s musical taste. As Watts and his co-author Matthew Salganik wrote, “The ‘best’ songs never do very badly, and the ‘worst’ songs never do extremely well.” But when others’ choices were visible, there was greater chance for the less good to do better, and vice versa. “When individual decisions are subject to social influence,” they write, “markets do not simply aggregate pre-existing individual preference.” The pop chart, in other words, just like taste itself does not operate in a vacuum.
In another experiment, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller quantified how sexually attractive a woman is to a man by recording the earnings of lap dancers in a strip club. And he tracked how this changed over their monthly menstruation cycle. As it turned out, men gave twice as much in tips when the dancer was ovulating (fertile) as when she was menstruating (not fertile). But the strange part is that the men weren’t consciously aware of the biological changes that attend the monthly cycle – that when she is ovulating, a surge of the hormone estrogen changes her appearance subtly, making her features more symmetrical, her skin softer, and her waist narrower. But they detected these fertility cues nonetheless.
I don’t want to be a salesman. I want to be an artist. I know it’s not easy, but it’s what I want.
If I can’t be an artist, at least I want to be helpful. I want to change things. I’ve seen the damage that crass consumerism can do. I don’t want to be a peddler. I am nobler than that.
You know what I mean, right? You agree, right
Well, here’s the thing. If you’re in advertising, you’re a salesman.
It doesn’t matter what you think you are or what you want to be. You’re a salesman. I don’t like it either.
One of the problems advertising has always faced is that there are a lot of people in business who don’t want to be salespeople.