10 findings from the psychology of advertising
1. Understate your advert
Almost everyone will always assume that when something good is about to happen (or indeed when it is promised) the goodness will turn out to be a lot better than it actually is. Everyone for example assumes that winning the lottery will make them incredibly happy - although the reality as reported by winners does not make bear out this notion.
Because of this effect we don't have to over play benefits of our products, because our potential customers will do that for us. Thus an understated promotion which shows benefits but doesn't shout them out can work particularly well, because the recipient of the advert will do most of the hard work - they will up the level of satisfaction in their own mind. They're ready to imagine the earth - let's help them do it.
Similarly people always have an over active imagination when it comes to disasters - we always imagine the results of disaster to be far worse than they actually are. Thus when selling salvation from disaster, we can be sure that our readership will over-imagine the disaster - so we can be controlled.
In all, the imagination of those reading our advert is a much more powerful tool than our words. This is of great benefit if we know how to use it because it overcomes all the limitations that are imposed by the Advertising Standards Authority in terms of what we are allowed to say.
Even better, because most advertisers ignore this approach and insist of shouting out the brilliance of their product, anyone who understates and remains calm is able to make a significant impact, especially on reasonably intelligent people. With every web-site being an "award winning web site" and with every house insulation system being "the leading" system, the public long ago began to discount such flimmery. Understating allows the reader to take the message on far further than we would ever dare go.
Source: Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University Psychological Science Vol 17, page 649
2. Use gut instinct
The brain is very good at very fast processing and instant decision making - what we often call "gut instinct". Generally when meeting someone new we can make our decisions as to whether we like them or not within on tenth of a second of seeing a face for the first time. What's more we rarely change these decisions.
Gut instinct is what we all use for complex decisions, so that is what the advertisement should allow the reader to use. In many cases there is no need to offer samples, trial runs and the like, even though you may feel that this is what the reader will need. Just offer the reader the chance to get straight on and do it.
Indeed I have come across companies that have been run for years on a process of encouraging potential customers to phone in to discuss their needs, on the grounds that otherwise no one will buy anything. But then, on analysing their sales these companies find that their customers are finding ways around the formalised approach in order to get a quick purchase.
What is happening is that the customer is saying "give it to me now" and the seller is saying, "no I must talk to you first," or "no you must see a sample first."
However there is a time when you might want to offer a choice - and that is where you are selling something that is very simple to understand.
In such circumstances you can offer your potential customer some facts and, as along as these facts are kept very simple, you can then give the recipient of the advert the time to digest the information and get a clear picture. This helps them weigh up the issues and then feel that they have done their "research" properly, and they are now ready for a purchase. .
This should not be thought of as a way of tricking the customer. Much of the time we make better decisions by letting our gut instinct work out what to do and what to buy - unless the choices are very simple. This may seem strange but it is a left-brain/right-brain issue. The right brain is brilliant at making instant holistic judgements - which is exactly what is needed in complex transactions.
The only time when it is not a good idea for the purchaser to make such a decision is when the whole sale is pitched at the emotive level - for example when selling cars, jewellery and the like. In such cases the customer's instinct might not serve you well since it will be rendered ineffective by the over-arching emotions. If you want your customers to make the right decision, don't combine emotion and gut instinct - but if the issue of whether the decision is right for the customer is not to be considered, then emotion plus an appeal to gut instinct can be exceptionally powerful..
Source: Ap Dijksterhuis University of Amsterdam. Science vol 311 p1005
3. Emotions are good - sometimes
The comments at the end of section 2 should not be taken to mean that emotions should not be used as part of selling. Indeed it can be argued that when you make up your mind about something then what happens is that your emotional system gets involved.
The problem is that emotions don't always allow us to make the right choice. Emotions can make us impetuous and risk prone - and indeed selfish.
Thus a person looking to launch a business, but who has always been an employee, might feel that she needs to "push the boat out" - and have the feeling that she has always been too cautious. In such a state of mind being cautious becomes associated with failure - the real winners (the rich, the successful) are seen as people who go out there are do it. Following such a scenario successful business people are not seen as those who carefully weigh up the options, consider alternatives, look at fall-back positions in case something goes amiss, but simply as those who go out and do it.
This emotional state leads a person to be very vulnerable to advertising that suggests that there are easy ways to make money, in the same way that advertising of certain clothes styles can lead one to be more attractive, or more successful.
Source: Daniel Fessler, University of California. LA. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes vol 95 p107
4. Work with the purchaser's preconceptions - or raise an interesting question to cause some doubts.
Most of us look to prove what we already believe to be true, rather than consider alternatives that might overthrow our current beliefs. Which obviously means that we should try to stay with the current views of people rather than overthrow them. Thus it is easier for me to sell direct mail advertising services to people who believe direct mail is a good way to sell, rather than for me to go out and convince someone who is prejudiced against direct that direct mail can work. Likewise if one is selling a high risk investment strategy then it is easier to work with people who are friendly to risk, rather than change the attitudes of those who are risk averse.
The trouble with this is that sometimes we do want to change people's thoughts. If the general feeling is that Apple computers are better for design work than PCs and you want to sell PCs to graphic designers you are going to have to face this issue.
Taking another example, we can see how this can work. Some people re-fill their laser printers using toner supplied by the manufacturer of the printer. Others prefer the cheaper generic brands. Getting people using the manufacturer's own supply to change to the generic brands is difficult, and a simply appeal to cheapness may not work since the preconception of the reader is that this cheap stuff is second rate, and may cause damage to the machine.
To overcome this one might write in an advert:
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using the manufacturer's own brand toner in a laser printer?
Such a question can raise interest even among the most committed, because it is not openly challenging their views but rather leading into what looks like an even handed debate. You might start, in this example, by saying that it is true that manufacturers can claim that their warranty is invalidated if you use someone else's toner. You could add that this might not be enforceable in law, but then you don't want to wait for a court case before you get your printer repaired. But it is also true that manufacturer's toner is much more expensive than alternative brands. So what is the way forward...
Thus the debate moves on and you gradually bring it round to the fact that your toner is guaranteed to give the same service as manufacturer brand, and that if it ever were to be the case that the manufacturer refuses to repair the machine, you'll replace the machine.
In other words, you work with the prejudices and gently turn them around, step by step. This approach means that the reader doesn't notice that persuasion is going on and so you are allowed to get your message across.
Source: Trends in cognitive sciences vol 11 p 37.
5. Never underestimate the overwhelming value of the irrelevant fact
Most of our decisions and judgements get attached to arbitrary facts and figures and become anchored to our perceived reality by completely irrelevant detail. This is particularly true when we are working with very limited information..
The most common example of this is the word: "Reduced". Wine in supermarkets is often seen to be reduced from £7 to £4 and this can enhance sales. What we don't know is that this is a £3.50 bottle of plonk which has been advertised at £7 for a month or two, and is now "reduced" to £4.
This linking of reality to irrelevant facts is known as "Anchoring" and is virtually impossible to shake off once it is implanted in our brains.
Much of the time these anchored facts are not facts at all - as in the case of the bottle of wine which was never "really" a £7 bottle of wine at all. In one of the most famous examples President Eisenhower in the US asked his advisers to report to him on the best ways of overcoming poverty and deprivation in order to make the United States a more just and equal society. His advisers told him to look at Sweden, a country with limited natural resources which had done wonders for its population through a programme of social democracy based around high taxation.
The left-leaning Sweden was not the model he was looking for however, and so Eisenhower told his advisers to stop talking about Sweden. Suddenly he said, "look what good that socialism did them - highest suicide rate in the world". The statement was completely untrue, but the slur stuck and for many years anyone who wanted to denigrate European social democracy trotted out this made up statistic.
Of course in advertising one cannot simply make up facts about one's rivals, but opinions do need to be anchored somewhere. Beer makers have used the approach by calling some brands "Export" while spreading the rumour that beer for export is stronger beer than the weak stuff sold on the home market. (This plays on the notion among some Britains that Britain is an over-regulated country while on the continent everyone is free to do as they please).
6. Sunk cost theory
The more we have invested in something in the past, the more we value it, no matter what. Thus if we buy a piece of equipment that is poor in quality we don't throw it out, we try to get it working again, even if this costs us more and more money and all logic says, throw it away. We do the same in our personal lives - we stay with a bad relationship in the hope it will get better, we keep reading a bad book, and if we have bought a TV that is not up to much we stay with it. In other words we don't want to admit any sort of error.
All of which can make it difficult to get people to change their minds when they have invested heavily in one system or one approach. Although, as this site shows, using "grabby images" next to text can greatly reduce sales in direct mail, many advertisers are reluctant to try the experiment because of sunk cost theory. To admit now that grabby image does not work challenges everything they have done in the past, and emotionally they can't find a way to do that.
If you do want people to set aside old investments you really do have to focus on the validity of the new, perhaps allowing that in the past what the person chose to do was indeed the right response, but that now, in this new era a new approach is right. In this way the individual can feel good about the past, and although this does not fully overcome sunk cost it does help the reader make one step forwards.
Source: Hal Arkes Catherine Blumer Ohio State University
7. Go for gain not loss
We like options that involve gains not loss - so we advertise health snacks as 90% fat free rather than containing 10% fat. Such factors influence the choices we make and are irrationally determined by the way the alternatives are presented.
Thus a car which reduces its emissions by 30% may still be helping to cause global warming, and it may still be perfectly possible to manufacture hydrogen gas powered cars, but 30% lower emissions sounds a lot better than "800% worse than a hydrogen powered car".
Thus in every product or service there must be an improvement or a gain for you to advertise - something that you do better than everyone else. If you can't offer a gain you are going to find it much harder to sell your product than you would like.
Source: Benedetto de Martino and Ray Dolan University College Science vol 313 p 660
8. Use peer pressure
Peer pressure is huge, even for the most well adjusted among us, and the authoritative volumes that make up the libraries of psychologists have numerous examples of how groups of like minded people can talk themselves into extreme or simply silly positions.
A classic study Robert Caldini looked at ways to promote a concern of the environment. He worked with the normal type of cards that we see in most hotel rooms encouraging guests to re-use their towels. One group of cards asked for re-use out of respect for the environment, another asked for re-use for the sake of future generations. The final batch asked for re-use because the majority of guests did so.
The final option using peer pressure was 30% more effective than the other motivators.
The problem with this approach is that it can seem very crude and simplistic, as when everything is described as "award winning" and "leading", or when companies claim to have been doing whatever they do for "20 years". This attempt to justify through what others have said only uses peer pressure at a distance. Where possible we need to get closer.
Thus it is better to report that x number of people in the same social group as the reader have done or bought y or z rather than appeal to the judgement of an unknown group of people who hand out awards. Thus as a seller of direct mail services I might appeal to the fact that while most traditional forms of advertising have declined in volume in the last four years, direct mail has continued to show a rise. Why is this (I might rhetorically ask). The reason of course is that many people in businesses like yours have found that it works for them.
Source: New Scientist 14 April 2007, Robert Caldini of Arizona State university in Tempe
9. Restrict the number of choices
Give people too many choices and they choose nothing. Sheena Iyengar from Columbia Unmi NY studied the paradox of choice with people given several ways of investing their retirement income - they chose none. Greater choice comes at a price.
The paradox of choice takes different people in different ways - and in this research we can particularly note the "maximisers" who seek the best deal by examining every possible option before making any choice. They consult Which?, the reviews in the papers, the internet... everything, and they take forever to make a decision. Despite any successes that they may get along the way by having a higher paid job or getting a better deal maximisers are always less satisfied with their lot than "satisfiers" who make their choices much more quickly. "By every psychological outcome we could measure they felt worse - they were more depressed, frustrated and anxious, " says Barry Schwartz Swarthmore College,. Pennsylvania
There really isn't too much to be done with maximisers - they are a miserable unfulfilled bunch of people who in essence have a dysfunctional personality. If you try and sell them something by giving help and support, by being charming in the salesroom, or giving all your time on the phone, they will then go and find the product at 50p off elsewhere and think they are clever by buying it there.
The best thing to do is to put all your energy into working with the satisfiers - not only will you get more sales, you will be dealing with a much nicer group of people.
10. Let people feel good about choosing to buy your product
When people feel they have made a choice and that the result is good, they feel good about their choice and give themselves credit for their choice. Even when they didn't make much of a choice in the first place.
Generally speaking we don't like choices with no information because in these circumstances we can't give ourselves credit for making our decisions.
When we have to make a choice from two bad options, we always feel bad. Choosing the lesser of two evils is always a distasteful event and we never take credit for it. Indeed when the choice is trivial or distasteful we sometimes let others choose in order to avoid getting involved.
So if there is a choice to be made, make sure that you offer a simple choice of two or three good things, and then go out of your way to congratulate people on having made such a good choice.
Source: Simon Botti Cornell University Ann McGill Uni of Chicago Journal of Consumer Research vol 33 p211
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This article is written by Tony Attwood, Chairman of Hamilton House Mailings Ltd. If you would like to discuss the writing or design of your mailing campaign, or indeed a single mailshot, with Tony, without cost or obligation, just call 01536 399 000, or email Creative@hamilton-house.com You can also send Tony a copy of your latest advert and he will call you back with his thoughts on how your response rate could be raised - again without cost or obligation.