It is a truism that we receive more messages and face more potential choices than ever before. Advertisers fret that overloaded consumers respond by ignoring all but a tiny number.
This raises a deeper concern that advertising is inherently combative – that it does something "to" consumers that they might not wish to have done to them. Yet there is good reason to believe that this view is subtly, but significantly, wrong.
People are not ignorers but, as the behavioural economist Max Bazerman suggests, "noticers". We are highly skilled at noticing what we need and filtering down options to make good decisions. What is more, in line with this view, advertising, far from being combative, can be part of a mutually beneficial process of decision-making.
Here is why we should believe this: when people make decisions, what they truly want is to make confident ones. This is usually a good decision and, if not perfect, nearly always good enough.
We definitely want to avoid a bad decision and its consequences. Regret, and the anticipation of regret, shadows our decisions and undercuts confidence.
We do this because validity of choice ("Is this really the best car I could buy?") is hard to judge. In contrast, our confidence in it is something we feel instinctively and directly.
Confident choices are simple, clear and decisive. We call them "no-brainers". They are the decisions we really don’t have to think about.
We achieve this by being experts in noticing the things that build our confidence – and even better at noticing things that can cause us regret.
As a result, consumer journeys are as much about eliminating insecurities as they are about building positives.
Research shows that all consumer journeys start with anxiety and confidence in tension, with anxiety having the upper hand. When anxiety is eliminated, a choice is made. When it remains, the journey is extended. The longer it gets, the less likely a decision becomes.
Brands are excellent tools for the noticer. They filter our choices. They help us make instant decisions about whether a choice is worth considering. Brands package promises of performance and reliability, expertise and experience – all of which we can judge in the blink of an eye.
We do this because we also notice when and where we encounter brands. We learn something about seeing Wickes on thesun.co.uk or Chanel in the Financial Times’ How To Spend It. In essence, consumers outsource some of the filtering task to the media brand they are consuming.
In TV, they sense stature and scale: only serious brands can afford to advertise. Online, they sense immediacy to act and buy. News brands offer a sense of curation and recommendation. In combination, they are even more powerful – a message from several sources is more powerful than repetition in one.
People also use advertising to filter their future choices. Smartphone users know their contract will not renew for months, yet they note new features and prices so they will be ready to choose.
This constant filtering means people welcome serendipity. However easy the internet has made it to seek out information, it will always be easier if information finds us.
This experience is most powerful in news brands where people find things for people like them, written by people like them. Which is why you are reading this in Campaign, not elsewhere.
Nick Southgate is the chief consultant at Nick Southgate Planning & Research and a former planning partner at Grey London