Brands behaving badly

The author Philip Graves explains the three psychological causes of poor ads.

Brands behaving badly

In theory, all marketing by large companies should be good. After all, the majority are equipped with a market research unit that is tasked with two key functions: monitoring what customers currently think and evaluating what customers think of anything new that the company’s about to do – such as air a new advertising campaign. And yet we still get lots of bad advertising.

When it comes to effectiveness, or the lack of it, we haven’t moved too far beyond the famous point of not knowing which half of advertising is wasted (although new techniques offer promise). However, those of us untainted by involvement in the development process are probably quite adept at spotting the truly woeful ads. So how is it that they slip through the net of common sense?

Allow me to suggest some possible causes and, who knows, perhaps save you from having your next ad become a source of public derision.

A better approach?

There is an understandable desire to be creative in advertising, but the flawed research techniques that frequently inform advertising development and evaluate its impact often lead organisations astray. Add to the mix a lack of understanding about how people’s brains work and it’s easy to see how bad advertising ends up blighting our screens.

Ikea’s current ad, "living together", creatively links functional storage furniture with the idea that life is better when stuff isn’t cluttering up your home. At an implicit level, the ad is beautiful and stylish, allowing us to build associations between the brand and its design credentials. Overlay an emotive quality and a degree of intrigue and you have an ad that builds and reinforces the brand proposition at the level that matters most.

There are better ways of gauging consumer reaction to ads than the techniques traditionally deployed by major companies. The essence of what distinguishes the good from the bad is the extent to which an approach trusts people to be able to express what they think and will do in response: good techniques presume that respondents are not equipped to do this (because they aren’t).

However, even the best techniques don’t provide the ability to see into the future. Here, the requirement for a marginally increased chance of success is that an organisation has a clear understanding of its brand and a vision of the future it would like to create: marketers shouldn’t ask their customers to take on that responsibility unless they’re prepared to pay them their salary to do it.

Ultimately, clients would do well to understand the nature of human decision-making and, in particular, the role of the unconscious mind. An appreciation of this would result in an entirely different approach to advertising development and approval. Ironically, perhaps, this would lend itself to greater creativity, bound by an evaluation process that embraces the power of the client’s intuitive judgment and the limitations of consumers to consciously evaluate advertising that isn’t, in most cases, concerned about speaking to their conscious mind.

Philip Graves is the author of Consumer.ology (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and an associate of Frontier Economics

1. Not understanding our own decision-making frailty: Richmond Ham ‘as nature intended’

A friend of mine was given one objective by his boss when he was a creative director of a major UK ad agency: win awards.

I would speculate that it is hard to win an award for an ad campaign that explains why consumers might want to buy pork products that don’t contain inorganic phosphate salts.

However, rather than admit defeat, Quiet Storm decided to take "natural" to a rational extreme in its Richmond Ham commercial. In the process, it provided a great example of not understanding the way that implicit associations shape our reactions to what we encounter.

In the ad, a naked man wanders around the countryside among other naked people, eating a ham sandwich and singing about how it is like tasting ham for the first time. It’s funny in the same way your tax return is, but it’s the juxtaposition of food and nudity that is the real problem.

The fast-thinking part of our brain (to use Daniel Kahneman’s phrase) reacts instantaneously to what it encounters. Walking around naked is natural: they’re called naturists, after all. Conscious analysis could easily conclude that such nakedness is the ultimate in what’s natural. Crucially, however, at an implicit level, there is nothing natural for most people about walking around outside with your kit off; it is totally unnatural.

So the client should have had the same response to the ad as you or me: mild disgust and a sense of unease. The answer to why he or she didn’t might lie in the psychology of priming and confirmation bias.

A commercial is, of course, the result of a long development process. Spurious research may well have shaped the product development and proposition. Faced with initial information, the innate tendency is to unconsciously filter subsequent information to fit that initial perspective, rather than revise it in light of fresh evidence that it’s wrong.

The problem is compounded by the way scripts are typically presented to clients. Rather than just hearing the ad or the script, it will be prefaced by information that influences the reaction: clients should tell ad agencies to post scripts without covering letters.

While I’m not suggesting this was the case with the Richmond Ham ad, I have first-hand experience of ad agencies leveraging other psychological influencing strategies to get their scripts approved by clients. Rather than allow the client the potentially bothersome opportunity to reject a script they don’t like, they ensure that they work right up to the deadline for script approval before presenting ideas. The client’s loss aversion is triggered: faced with all the concerns of not having an ad to air, the script gets approved despite his reservations.

I’ve also seen framing used. The agency presents two ideas that it knows are poor because the third will look good in comparison. Much as people like to tell themselves that they judge things in absolute terms, all of the evidence from social psychology shows that they don’t do this at all: instead, they unconsciously reference the surrounding information, even if it has nothing to do with the focus of our attention.

So it is that the height of a ceiling, presence of background music or smells too faint to detect consciously can all change someone’s behaviour.

2. Failing to appreciate the way consumers’ brains work: Pepsi

It’s much more exciting to create something new in marketing than rehash your predecessor’s work. Unfortunately, this means that, all too often, a successful advertising campaign is unceremoniously ditched and replaced with a new proposition.

Pepsi, perhaps more than any brand, seems blighted by this issue. According to one source, it has had 12 advertising slogans in the US since 2008 and I certainly couldn’t say with any confidence what its brand proposition is in the UK.

Real consumers don’t sit and watch TV ads. Commercials exist in the background of life. However, the unconscious mind has such astonishing processing power that ads still reach the brain and leave their mark.

But while a creative marketing person might become a bit bored with a proposition, the consumer’s unconscious mind thrives on consistent associations: new expressions of the brand proposition are useful because the unconscious tries to learn something new, but ends up reinforcing existing associations. New propositions, on the other hand, build new associations and dilute the unconscious response when the brand is encountered.

Pepsi seems to me, based on the advertising shifts and tagline changes over the past 20 years, to have never really had confidence in its brand proposition. In contrast, Red Bull has proved the benefits of being a master of consistency. Studies show that if you expose someone to the brand subliminally, they exhibit adrenaline-boosted characteristics, even without consuming the sugar and caffeine of the drink.

As far as I know, no-one has ever thought it worth exposing the Pepsi brand to people in psychological research, presumably because there wouldn’t be a hypothesis anyone could agree on to test.

3. Listening to consumers: Andrex 'scrunch or fold'

Kimberly-Clark has a significant market research function. So how is it that an ad (created by JWT London) that asks a host of people how they wipe their arse and invites the viewer to join an online debate was able to see the light of day? There are two possibilities.

Either the marketing team do not have sufficient faith in their insight team to help them distinguish good ideas from bad, or they tested it and the consumers they asked told them it was an ad worth airing. I suspect the latter is more often the cause of the problem.

When it comes to evaluating anything new, asking people in market research works about as well as all other future forecasting pseudoscience, which is to say not very well at all. Organisations that solicit consumers’ opinions of their intended activity and allow the resulting consensus view to inform their actions are spending money in deluded hope, rather than because such market research works.

Customers don’t know how they will react in a real-world context to a proposition. What’s more, there is abundant evidence in psychology to prove that the process of asking people what they think creates a different context that exerts its own influences on what people say they think.

It’s quite possible that this ad could have passed qualitative or quantitative ad testing. If one respondent reacts to seeing the ad in a focus group by saying something upbeat, the rest of the group – unwilling to cause social divisions with strangers and liberated from the cognitive demands of interrogating their own reaction – will respond in kind. Or perhaps the quantitative testing recorded great comprehension and brand recognition scores: such metrics can be immensely reassuring, even when they’re devoid of an empirical correlation with commercial success.

Even if the ad itself wasn’t tested, spurious customer insights will almost certainly have shaped its inception. Whether it’s the ad tracker, brand tracker or focus groups, marketers are regularly plied with  a diet of misleading research that,  in most cases, is telling them nothing more than how people respond to questions.

We like the idea that we know our own thoughts; psychology offers surprisingly little evidence to support this notion. Understand that and you can start to appreciate why your informed gut reaction to an ad can be much more useful than what 1,000 people say when their views are solicited in research.