Beyond a joke

The brain holds many secrets that admen would love to learn - not least, how to change behaviour. Rory Sutherland explores how comedy rouses the grey matter.

Rory Sutherland
Rory Sutherland

Conventional economic thinking would suggest it is easy to outcompete Coca-Cola. You could produce a drink that tastes nicer; or make a drink that tastes just as nice but make it cheaper; or produce an equally nice-tasting drink but sell it in a bigger can.

No-one has ever managed to do this. Instead, the most successful attempt to compete with Coca-Cola in the past 100 years is Red Bull. This drink does none of the things economists recommend: it costs a fortune, comes in a very small can and tastes slightly disgusting (at least that was the universal verdict in all early research).

The reason for this glaring discrepancy is that the part of the brain used to write economic papers is not the part of the brain that chooses a drink. The part of my brain that causes me to chug a can of Red Bull on the way home from work has a logic all of its own.

It’s highly likely that we have a strong instinctive belief that drinks or foods that perform a pharmacological function should not taste conventionally nice (I have always been unconvinced of the efficacy of Nurofen Meltlets because they taste so delicious). Red Bull’s high price almost certainly maximises the placebo effect (analgesics are more effective when you tell people they are expensive). And the small can signals the drink’s potency: "They need the small can for my own safety since, if I were to drink a whole 330ml, I might go postal."

But no consumer will ever tell you this. "Yeah, it’s OK – but could you make the drink more expensive and a little bit more disgusting, please?" If we want to understand those black-box parts of the brain, conventional research alone won’t cut it. The black box operates through instinctive feelings rather than thoughts or words, and is largely "opaque to introspection". Moreover, because it is the product of evolution and not design, you must often start with observable behaviours and reverse-engineer the underlying mechanisms from there.

Over the past few years, I have become convinced that advertising or marketing is potentially a kind of Galápagos Islands for understanding evolutionary psychology. Just as the beaks of finches can reveal a great deal about physical evolution, so the patterns of human consumerism can help us reverse engineer a better understanding of what people really want, as distinct from what they say they want. Amos Tversky, the late research partner of Daniel Kahneman, remarked of his groundbreaking work that he "merely studied in a systematic way things about behaviour that were already known to advertisers and used-car salesmen".

Red Bull can tell you a lot about how people really choose a drink. In the same way Ray Kroc showed an extraordinary insight into the evolutionary psychology behind McDonald’s: "People don’t want the best burger in the world; they want a burger that’s just like the one they had last time." We have evolved to like eating food we have survived eating before.

And just as you can’t understand the success of Red Bull or McDonald’s without asking a few questions about evolutionary instincts, you cannot explain the importance of comedy in advertising without understanding the evolutionary origins of humour.

According to one theory, humour evolved as a kind of social behaviour change mechanism. A means for people to point out mistakes without getting punched in the face. (In King Lear, the fool is generally the only person who is talking any sense.) It is hence a mechanism for us to learn of our mistakes while deriving pleasure from the discovery. If the purpose of advertising is to change behaviour, the role humour can play in making this pleasurable rather than painful seems vital.

In Inside Jokes – Using Humour To Reverse-Engineer The Mind, the three authors, among them Daniel Dennett, propose that humour "evolved out of a computational problem that arose when our long-ago ancestors were furnished with open-ended thinking. Mother Nature – aka natural selection – cannot just order the brain to find and fix […] mis-leaps and near-misses. She has to bribe the brain with pleasure. So we find them funny."

If humour is a way of making it enjoyable to change our minds, it matters immensely. It matters because advertising is becoming progressively less and less funny. It also matters if we are to solve the most important behaviour change challenges of our time: say what you like about environmentalists, they aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Ironically, the one person who could sell the virtues of electric cars to 200 million people isn’t Al Gore – it’s Jeremy Clarkson.

Rory Sutherland is the vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group UK