How Can Behavioral Science Help Advertisers?

by Sam McNerney Behavioral Strategist Publicis New York

Sam McNerney
Behavioral Strategist
Publicis New York

Zaleucus, prince of the Locrians, an ancient tribe that inhabited Central Greece, could be counted as an early champion of behavioral science. According to the French essayist Michele de Montaigne, Zaleucus reduced excessive spending by letting people wear gold and jewelry only if they were publicly registered pimps and prostitutes. He also ordered that maids could only attend women who were drunk. It worked: Overnight, gold jewelry and large entourages virtually disappeared.

This possibly apocryphal story is political sleight-of-hand at its finest, not because Zaleucus got what he wanted, but because he got what he wanted without making anyone feel like they had been forced to do anything.

Zaleucus knew that when it comes to behavior change, small changes in perception could have big effects. In an era obsessed with collecting data to understand the details of customer habits, changing behavior is still fundamentally about modifying how people perceive reality, not changing objective reality itself. No economic incentive would have persuaded the Greeks to stop wearing gold.

Consider the timetables in the New York City Subway. Until recently, I used this example to talk about how people generally don’t mind waiting, say, seven minutes as long as they know the train will arrive in seven minutes. Waiting four minutes but not knowing when the train will arrive is, by contrast, a worse psychological experience.

Last week, when I witnessed a minor altercation at one station without timetables, I realized that knowing when the train will arrive actually solves more than one problem. I’m willing to bet that stations without timetables experience a slightly higher rate of aggressive behavior and instances of violence. When people don’t know when the train will arrive, they grow impatient faster, and as the station fills up, they’re more likely to do something stupid. Also, you might suspect another correlation—namely, the relationship between stations without the timetables and safety. Why would anyone lean over the tracks if they knew when the train was coming?

Like Zaleucus, the MTA didn’t try to change behavior directly. They took an oblique approach, knowing that train speed was not the only metric customers cared about. In advertising, the trick is figuring out what the underlying problem is and what behavior needs to be changed. Without answering these questions first, the MTA would have spent millions to speed up the trains—a more expensive and less effective solution. Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner put it well when he said that, “The world is complicated, but not every problem requires a complicated solution.”

The MTA example captures the value of behavioral science from a theoretical point of view, but it also highlights two concrete ways behavioral science can help advertising.

So how can behavioral science help advertisers?

The first way is through nudging, the sexy side of behavioral science. Defaults are a good example. Making a desired behavior the default choice has been shown to increase everything from organ donation rates to tipping. One of my favorite nudges is so inconspicuous that you’ve probably never identified it as a nudge: Restaurants sell more wine when they place wine glasses on every table to begin with.

Five Guys is one of the fastest growing chains in the country because it serves delicious burgers, but it is also taking advantage of some shrewd consumer psychology. When a customer orders fries, the server places a cup of fries into a bag and then dumps some extra fries into the same bag, right in front of the customer. No one is receiving bonus fries, yet we perceive them as extra because the anchor for the expected amount is the size of the cup. Start low, end high—it’s a brilliant use of Prospect Theory, a key theory in behavioral science. (For more examples, read Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Suntein.)

The second way is by helping strategists ask the right questions. I remember hearing about a campaign that tried to improve driving habits in one metropolitan area by motivating drivers with rather innocuous messages to “drive safer.” If you know anything about overconfidence bias, you might suspect that the nearly 80 percent of drivers who believe they are above average will take one look at the message and say, “Thank You! All those crap drivers need to read this!”

A better approach should start with the assumption that very few people believe they drive poorly, even if they actually do. With this behavioral insight in mind, we’d probably draft more effective messaging. How about, “Every year tens of thousands of 16-year-olds get their licenses; please drive carefully?” This approach confirms drivers’ fatuous assumptions while outsourcing the blame to teenagers with underdeveloped frontal lobes.

Zaleucus’ clever scheme shows that good strategy is fundamental to good advertising, and that behavioral science merely provides a supplementary way of understanding human perception. So while nudges might represent an exciting new genre of creative output in an agency such as Publicis, it’s important to remember that people in advertising have been nudging from the beginning, just with a different vocabulary.

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