Piers Newson-Smith: why behavioural science can lead to dangerous marketing as well as bad politics

If you want to find the cutest animal on the planet, you could do worse that the slow loris. It’s a little nocturnal primate that can melt your heart strings with bigger eyes than Puss in Boots from Shrek. YouTube clips of pet ones raising their arms adorably as they are tickled have been watched by millions.

But there’s something darker at play under the surface. They aren’t acting cute. They are terrified. So they are desperately trying to get to the venom glands on their arms, to prepare a toxic bite that can cause a deadly anaphylactic shock.

Something similar is stalking the world of advertising right now. As an industry, we’re captivated with the concept of using psychology to influence consumer behaviour. We’ve failed to notice its darker side.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, it’s a good thing for brands and consumers. Brands give customers a shortcut to make the right product choices, without having to waste energy thinking about it too deeply. The use of behavioural economics to nudge people into autopilot choices is really just another way to save us all from mental meltdown every time we want to choose a bottle of ketchup.

In fact, the case for behavioural economics in advertising goes further. As Richard Shotton argues in his brilliant book The Choice Factory, it improves quality too. If brands want sustainable success, they need to ‘nudge for the long term,’ by delivering good enough quality and value for customers to want to come back for more.

It’s no wonder that we’ve become so enamoured with nudging. It’s a brilliant response to the unspoken truth that people don’t care about our brands and categories nearly as much as we do.

Beneath the surface though, there’s a venomous issue that needs to be raised. This incredible power to influence is unregulated, and can be incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands.

The thought that the power of advertising sometimes needs to be curbed isn’t new. Vance Packard questioned the morality of creating consumer desire in “The Hidden Persuaders” back in 1957. More recently, cigarette brands were compelled to stop advertising, and eventually from any form of branding on packs. The perils of promoting smoking are considered too great to allow advertisers to use their full toolkit.

Which brings us to current times. The Brexit referendum arguably generated the most controversial advertising campaigns of this century so far. Both sides used nudges in place of fact to harden opinions. But neither side had the check and balance of needing to think about the long term. Political campaigns just need voters to do one thing, once.

Whichever side you take, it’s unarguable that the UK is at its most viciously argumentative right now. We’re split into two opposing tribes: Leavers and Remainers. Each vehemently believes that the other is wrong. There’s an almost McCarthyist distrust about people suspected of being from the “other side.”

This entrenchment doesn’t stack up with our stated understanding of the facts. In a January YouGov poll, 62 per cent of people, asked if they knew what the term “Chequers Plan” meant, said either that they didn’t know, had never heard of it or else had heard of it but didn’t know what it was. The same figure for “Backstop Plan” was 56 per cent. Likewise 47 per cent for “Customs Union” and 37 per cent and 41 per cent respectively for “Hard Brexit” and “Soft Brexit.”

Broadly half the population admits to a lack of knowledge of the fundamental concepts, yet we find ourselves under a poisonous tidal wave of factional anger. The blame must at least partly lie with campaigning that relied on instinct, not knowledge.

The referendum campaigns dug deep into advertising’s emotional, not rational toolkits. Facts and figures may have been slung about, but they were the canvas for two rival attempts to tap into something far more primal.

Remain used the bludgeon of loss aversion, manipulating the deeply programmed human instinct to resent loss twice as much as it enjoys gain. It relentlessly warned us in threatening overtones about the jobs, security and prosperity that would be lost by leaving. Pretty appropriate for a campaign that became known as ‘Project Fear’ during its own lifetime.

Leave tapped into another psychological trait. If someone believes that they are likely to lose something anyway, they’re likely to take the big risk of losing even more for a small chance of not losing anything. Daniel Kahnerman explained this as part the ‘Four Fold Pattern;’ it’s why convicted people often appeal verdicts even if they are more likely to add years to their prison sentences than be let free.

The Leave campaign spoke to audiences that were dissatisfied with the state of the country for a number of reasons, and simplistically conjured images of a return to a prosperous past from a time before the EU. They set up chances like ‘£350 million per week’ and ‘control’ as a possibility of a direct alternative to the other problems in the country today.

This is advertising at its most Machiavellian. Both sides are guilty. Both zeroed in on risk, and appealed to heart, not head. Instead of engaging people with the knowledge to make a reasoned decision, they used parlour tricks to tap into our subconscious minds. Both exploited heuristics – mental shortcuts – to bypass rational thought and tap straight into system 1 thinking.

The population admits to low knowledge of the facts. So whatever created the ugly divisions in society can’t have been rational. Yet the debate about such campaigns in the aftermath has focussed almost exclusively on honesty and spend, not on permissible technique.

It’s time to ask whether there should be limits to harnessing psychology in advertising. The more we understand it, the more powerful advertising will become. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it can be good for society and business alike. In the vast majority of cases, it helps people make decisions when they actively don’t want to process the facts, and it forces brands to maintain value and quality.

But that’s not to say that it’s universally good. In fact, there are occasions where it’s simply wrong to help people make decisions without engaging with the facts. A vote is a one-off decision with implications that can influence millions of people for years into the future. It should require voters to engage with the facts.

The debate about political advertising needs to expand beyond transparency and honesty. When campaigners are trying to influence voters on instinct, not fact, it’s time to call time on nudging the electorate.

That’s a difficult challenge, but it’s timely and urgent. Otherwise, democracy itself is at stake.

Piers Newson-Smith is head of brand strategy at Direct Line Group.

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