17 . 04 . 18

Richard Shotton on why you just can’t help yourself

Words by: Print Power
We asked the behavioural economics expert and author of The Choice Factory for his insights into the brain’s unconscious biases. How do they affect planners’ perceptions of print advertising? In this Q&A – which includes extracts from his new book – he reveals his mind-expanding findings

The power of print at a glance

  • Marketers need to remember, just because they do it doesn’t mean everyone else does.
  • The existence of the bias means misconceptions about media are hard to shake, regardless of the volume of information that challenges them.
  • There’s no evidence that print has lost its impact on a per-impression basis.

PP: When it comes to choosing print as an advertising channel, do media planners suffer a form of cognitive bias? How does this manifest?

RS: Cognitive biases affect professionals as well as consumers. One of the most relevant biases that sometimes afflicts media planners is the false consensus effect.

This idea, discovered by the Stanford psychologist Lee Ross, describes the tendency to assume our feelings and behaviours are shared by others. In Ross’s words: “The person who feeds squirrels, votes Republican or drinks Drambuie for breakfast will see such behaviour as relatively common.”

While Ross proved that this bias affects the public, Zenith insight manager Claire Linford and I ran an experiment showing it affects media planners too. A few years ago, we asked a group of media planners to estimate the percentage of the population that owned an iPhone. We then cut the data according to the type of phone the respondent owned.

The result? Those with an iPhone thought half the population owned one, whereas people who didn’t estimated that only a third of people had one. The respondents projected their ownership onto the population as a whole.

The assumption among planners that their behaviour is representative is problematic, as their media habits are out of kilter with the population. In our media agency survey, we found that more people read The Guardian than The Sun, more shopped at Waitrose than ASDA and more drank Peroni than Carling.

PP: How much are planners’ media recommendations informed by evidence, emotion or other aspects outside of their control?

RS: There are a few biases that can potentially affect planners and other professional decision-makers.

The first is confirmation bias. This is the idea that we interpret evidence through a lens of our existing feelings.

My colleague Jenny Riddell and I demonstrated how powerful this bias is during the 2015 general election. We surveyed 1,004 nationally representative voters about their views on raising VAT by a penny to fund 10,000 extra nurses. The results were then split by political affiliation. The twist was that half the respondents were told it was a Conservative policy and half Labour.

When Labour supporters thought the policy came from Labour, there was strong support: 14 percent completely agreed. However, support plummeted to three percent when it was described as a Conservative policy. Similarly, among Tories, the policy was four times more popular when it was seen to come from their party.

These results show that voters interpret policies through a lens of their feelings for the party. If they dislike a party they'll interpret any policy through a negative filter. As can be seen from the scale of the effect, this is not an insignificant factor: policy is far less influential than existing party affiliation.

Confirmation bias occurs among professionals as well as consumers. The existence of the bias means there’s a danger that misconceptions about media are hard to shake, regardless of the volume of information that challenges them.

The second problem is the sheer volume of information we’re faced with. Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978, described the problems associated with a wealth of information:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it…”

When we have a wealth of information we don’t have the necessary time to analyse each piece of information fully. That can mean that myths and misinformation remain prevalent for a long time. Sometimes robust studies don’t get enough attention and sometimes dubious statistics get too much credibility. 

PP: How influential is context – and where consumers engage with brands – in driving decision-making? Does print have a defined role?

RS: The context a message is received in is crucial. Consumers pick up on body language as much as the actual content.

As WPP non-executive director Jeremy Bullmore puts it: “A small ad reading ‘Ex-governess seeks occasional evening work’ would go largely unremarked in the chaste personal columns of The Lady. Exactly the same words in the window of a King’s Cross newsagent would prompt different expectations.”

It sounds bleeding obvious when it is put that well by Jeremy Bullmore, but sometimes we forget this point in our professional lives.

One of the most important facets of media context is the perceived expense.

John Kay, an economist at the University of Oxford, suggests that advertising works not because of the explicit messages, but because it’s a costly signal. Advertising known to be expensive signals the volume of the resources available to the advertiser.

As Kay says in his landmark 1991 paper “Is Advertising Rational?”: “The advertiser has either persuaded lots of people to buy his product already – a good sign – or has persuaded someone to lend him lots of money to finance the campaign.”

Advertising works – not despite its perception of costliness, but because of it.

Kay further states that since advertising tends to recoup its costs in the long term, only a company with substantial commitment to its brand would invest significant sums of money in advertising. A poor-quality brand can advertise to generate trial, but no amount of spend can deliver repeat purchase to disgruntled customers.

In his words, advertising, therefore, acts as a screening mechanism that “convincingly signals the quality of a product by displaying the producer's sincere faith in his own output, reflected by the money spent promoting it”.

That’s one of the advantages of print. Consumers realise that a full-page ad in Vogue or The Guardian is expensive, and therefore advertisers who use those formats will benefit from costly signalling.

Richard Shotton Choice Factory.jpg

PP: You conclude that people in a rush are distracted – and that advertisers should “avoid communicating when people are rushing”. In a behavioural science context, is print an antidote to attention poverty?

RS: There’s a strong relationship between the amount of time people spend looking at ads and how much they remember.

This is one of print’s strengths. Lumen has done some brilliant eye-tracking research that showed that national press ads are viewed for about two to three seconds on average, whereas only four per cent of digital display ads are viewed for more than two seconds.

PP: In a Campaign article exploring confirmation bias, you suggest that brands should target “detractors” when they are most distracted. Does this mean that, ironically, print might not be the best medium to win over print’s detractors?

RS: A medium like radio, that’s consumed while the listener is doing something else, has an advantage over cinema or print, media which tend to be the viewer’s sole focus of attention.

In 1964, psychologists Leon Festinger and Nathan Maccoby, academics at Stanford University, recruited members of college fraternities for an experiment. They played those students an audio argument about why fraternities were morally wrong. The recording was played in two different scenarios: students either heard it on its own or they watched a silent film at the same time.

After the students had heard the recording, the Stanford psychologists questioned them as to how far their views had shifted. Those who had heard the argument at the same time as the silent film were more likely to have changed their opinion.

The psychologists’ hypothesis was that the brain is adept at generating counter-arguments that maintain its existing opinions, but when the brain is distracted that ability is hampered. We’re more easily persuaded when focusing on more than one thing at a time.

That’s the wonderful thing about media planning: there are hundreds of different tasks we need to achieve, and you must match the medium to that task. 

PP: Your book explains how headlines in respected magazines are more believable than those in less-respected titles. In today’s media landscape – and specifically in the print magazine space – how is respect best earned? Is print as a medium inherently more “believable”?

RS: If brands want respect then they need to choose an environment that bolsters their message

An experiment by Michael Deppe and his colleagues from the University of Münster, quantified the importance of the media context. In 2005, the neurologists showed 21 consumers 30 news headlines. The respondents rated the believability of the headlines on a seven-point scale, with one being the most credible and seven the least.

The headlines appeared to come from one of four news magazines. Each headline was randomly rotated between the magazines, so that each viewer saw the headlines in the context of every magazine. This allowed the researchers to assess the effect of the context on the credibility of the headlines.

The scores were significantly influenced by the magazine. Headlines in the most respected magazine scored on average 1.9, compared to 5.5 in the least regarded magazine.

Information is not processed neutrally. We are swayed by contextual cues.

PP: Is print dead?

RS: The advertising trade press runs these ridiculous articles like “Is print dead?” or “Is TV dead?”.

It’s amazing that people have been saying this stuff for ten to 15 years. And yet it has never been proved right and it hasn't killed that genre of article. The stories are fuelled by our industry’s fascination with novelty.

Too often, we overreact to the latest data and pretend there is going to be a seismic overnight change in media. 

PP: Behavioural scientist Fred Bronner’s data revealed that when people are relaxed they notice 56 percent of ads – compared to 36 percent when they’re stressed. Is this an argument for printed advertising, if many publications are consumed in people’s downtime?

Bronner’s data provides a strong rationale for targeting people when they’re relaxed and happy.

Laura Maclean and I wanted to complement Bronner’s study and understand what impact mood had on the influence of the ad.

We showed 2,035 consumers an ad and then asked them to rate its likeability.

Later on in the survey, we asked them to rate their mood, from miserable to very happy. When we cut the ratings of the ad according to the mood of the participants there was a clear pattern. Happy participants rated the ad 62 percent higher than the grumpy ones.

The reason for the better ad ratings isn’t clear from the research. However, our speculation is that when we’re feeling happy we’re more optimistic about the potential of an advertised brand and we focus on the positives – whether that’s the fun we’ll have with the brand or the improvements it’ll make to our lives.

So, if you can pick particular titles that reach people in a good mood or when they’re relaxed, then that’s definitely a big opportunity. 

PP: Is there a disconnect between what consumers really want and expect from brands and their communications – and how advertisers choose to apportion their marketing budgets? And if so, why?

RS: I think the greatest disconnect is the imbalance between the long- and short-term thinking. Les Binet and Peter Field have done a significant amount of work in this area.

They have shown that advertisers need to have a balanced approach, investing in both long- and short-term activity.

Unfortunately, advertisers are making the mistake of prioritising activity that drives an immediate return. Over time, that leads to a loss of effectiveness.

PP: Has print as a medium lost its impact?

RS: There’s no evidence that print has lost its impact on a per-impression basis. However, that’s not to say print deserves the same volume of investment as it has historically received.

Over the long term, many circulations have declined. For example, the Daily Mirror’s circulation has gone down from five million in the 60s to 500,000-600,000 today. It’d be strange if budgets hadn’t shifted to reflect that.

The Choice Factory (February 2018) is published by Harriman House.

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