'Limited time only' - BUY BUY BUYThe posts below in my blog are often a collection of behavioural observations or psychological science pieces that I find interesting and thought provoking. But what I struggle with is how they can usefully be applied to advertising.

It’s intriguing to know how bitter drinks make us more judgemental (especially if we’re conservative over liberal) or that heavy shopping bags make us make ‘weightier’ decisions. But are there ways we can usefully apply these conclusions to advertising?

Some of these unconscious markers have no doubt been put to use already. Supermarkets long found out that pumping the smell of baking bread throughout a store powerfully triggers the shoppers’ memory, salivary glands and impulse to buy, more so than a simple image of a loaf.

But perhaps we should be using this instinct for good – steering shoppers towards fresh tomatoes or ripe strawberries instead. We can usefully place charity boxes at the top of escalators to increase takings; we can also plaster billboards with tempting images of McDonalds burgers that are activated only during lunch breaks, when people are hungry and worse at making healthy food choices.

With advertising power should come great responsibility. Our ability to optimise choice architecture and the ethics of doing so is extensively covered in Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge so I won’t go into it here, but we should be wary of manipulating our own survival instincts and unconscious urges for the worse.

Some human behaviours are more general. My favourite thought to keep in mind when thinking of advertising is that humans are inherently lazy. We won’t go out of our way if we can help it – only very interesting campaigns (or the usual ‘Win an iPad’) break through consumer apathy. So remove as many of the barriers to entry for your idea as possible.

Sure, it’s altruistic and nice to sign up to the bone marrow register and save lives but it seems like a lot of hassle, and it doesn’t appear or affect our day to day life. We’ll get round to it some day, probably. That’s why ideas like this Cannes Lion award winner are so good – they make things easy for a person to join in, and they’re part of his or her everyday. Tiny changes, like moving the most helpful reviews to the top on Amazon, can increase revenues by millions of dollars. If you make things easier and more natural for the consumer, sales and engagement will automatically increase. No wonder UX or UCD (user centred design) is becoming more prominent and important in advertising agencies.

Back to the question of application, I don’t think the science of decision making or our understanding of ourselves is broad or deep enough yet to effectively and consistently use these conclusions. This is why behavioural economics has not entirely taken over the ad industry.

Yet we can see how far we have come from a rational model of consumer motivations, to research and focus groups, to selling on emotion and Steve Jobs’ statement that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” I thus have no doubts we’ll continue to, if not fully understand, at least explore and comment on our unconscious motivations to ‘do things’. Hopefully, we’ll learn to exploit our natural behaviours to make us healthier, happier and kinder. Or maybe we’ll just be unconsciously persuaded to buy more stuff we don’t need.


I recently wrote quite a long piece on Microcultures for the Warc/Admap planning essay competition and was chuffed to get Bronze, with my piece published in July’s Admap issue. It’s even more gratifying to see exactly the kind of thing I was talking about bursting into mainstream recently.

To quickly explain a ‘microculture’, I define it as any niche community that has its own rules, conventions, language and relationships.

So, here’s Nikkie for Volkswagon’s ‘Don’t do makeup and drive’ ad –

And here’s Lauren Luke on domestic abuse for Refuge –

Both of these ads are twisting the conventions of the Youtube makeup tutorial to produce a shock to the viewers and spread a public awareness message.

Importantly, they both have used popular beauty bloggers. No doubt the agencies wanted to use their pre-existing following to boost their views and ‘shareability’, but it’s also important as it means giving something to that community, rather than just taking from it. As adverts for a good cause, they don’t undermine the credibility of the Youtubers themselves.

It also shows how worthwhile it is to be interested and engaged in niche communities and cultures, whether as an enthusiast or as an advertiser. These women began by creating videos in their bedrooms, without any training or fanbase, and experimenting on themselves. They now have hundreds of millions of views, a loyal fanbase and influence how women buy makeup and create looks around the world. It’s amazing how creativity flourishes in the corners of the Internet.

These adverts are a great way to use a niche audience to promote a wider good cause, and nearly 2 million views between them show how well microcultures can do in the mainstream.

What’s next? Cam girls? Haul videos? Investigate the shadow side of Youtube and be inspired.