At first it looks like bad news. The National Retail Federation projects that annual Valentine’s Day spending fell from $122 per sweetheart in 2008 to $102 this year, surely dismal economic signs. But dig deeper and stats show consumers are simply shifting spending to less-costly indulgences. Starbuck’s has launched instant coffee while flat-panel TV sales are bombing. Consumers cut V-day spending by nearly 20% but bought more chocolates instead of roses.
We still have needs but are looking for new sources of gratification.
Curious about where this trend might take us, ahem, we looked up the factors behind impulse buying and found that even in a down economy, impulses still rule. Psychologists break down shopping motives to external and internal factors. External motives include advertising (of course), distractions, and influence from others, all potentially declining as we now avoid the malls. But internal motives may be more prevalent — loneliness, sadness and anxiety.
The economy has fueled anxiety, which propels consumption in new ways. Researchers Rajagopal Raghunathan and Michel Tuan Pham once noted that sad people tend to chase high-risk/high-reward activities for “reward replacement” — the classic flush 40ish guy in a sad marriage springing for a new sports car — while in anxious times humans prefer low-risk/low-reward choices, something that satisfies without risk of harm. This is why condom sales are up. Admit it. You’re freaking out and want a hug.
Marketers in this economic maelstrom are well-advised to rethink how their products can communicate lower risk and simpler pleasures to potential buyers. The new mantra for advertising is less flash, more comfort.
Marketers pondering how to cram ads inside social media may be missing the point. The real value of new communication networks such as Facebook and Twitter may be listening to what consumers want.
Listen carefully and you could predict the future.
Professor Yuval Shavitt of Tel Aviv University is building models that do just that, in his case analyzing a half billion queries on Gnutella, a vast file-sharing network, to predict which small-time bands will soon hit it big. He sorts references to artists by the geographic location of the consumer (using IP addresses), watches the patterns of downloads, and can predict with unnerving accuracy when a given musician is about to “tip” into an escalating-then-diminishing bell curve of national popularity. Seed Magazine notes Shavitt’s work is based on the “sociological theories of Mark Granovetter, who first described in the 1970s how micro-level interactions between individuals affect macro-level phenomena.”
The combination of real-time data on consumer thoughts, geographic locations, and algorithms that predict scaling popularity have huge applications for marketing consumer goods, public relations, politics, and even public health policy. For a simple look yourself, head over to Summize.com and type in your brand name. You’ll see what 2 million people on Twitter are saying about you right now.
Dirk Singer points us to a brilliant psychological study on the effect of weather on consumer memory and judgments. Researchers put 73 subjects in a shop in Sydney and tested their ability to recall objects; half were tested on sunny days and half in rainy weather. As you’d expect, rainy-day subjects were in dour moods, but they had much better memories — recalling 3 times as many objects — and scrutinized objects carefully.
The British Psychological Society sums up: “The theory is that a bad mood triggers a more sceptical, careful mode of processing, in contrast to the less vigilant, conceptual thinking style that characterises a good mood.” If you hope to sell to consumers on a whim with vague, rosy product promises, we suggest you beef up the media schedule on bright, sunny days.
Television is still most likely to convince consumers to purchase your product. A recent study in the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Japan and the U.K. asked 8,824 respondents to rank the top media that sway their purchase decisions. In the U.S., 88% of consumers said TV had the most impact followed by 49% for magazines, 48% for online, 42% for newspaper and only 27% for radio.
Part of TV’s pull may be the sheer saturation levels: Television still captures the lion’s share of marketing budgets, or about 1 in 4 of all advertising dollars. More than $70 billion was spent on television advertising in 2008 vs. $23.6 billion online.
However, online has already eclipsed newspaper and radio in persuasion. Magazines, look out. Via Steve Hall.
The first song was probably Yo, Yo, Yo, that Plant is Poisonous.
McGill psych professor Daniel J. Levitin has a theory about why we endure the same holiday songs year after year. It seems that music helps human minds remember data because the words associated with it are tough to forget; so for millennia, long before Gutenberg and hieroglyphics, songs were employed to pass along data vital to our survival. Levitin notes that because holiday tunes must appeal to the broadest possible audience as they encode tradition, they also tend to be the most insipid — unnuanced oatmeal for the ear. Human minds wear out when they hear the same message.
Marketers should listen up, because the “please stop the madness” trend to not like repetitive music affects them as well. Levitin writes “We are living in a time of unprecedented nonsocial access to music. The average 14-year-old will hear more music in a year than his great grandfather would have in a lifetime.”
Same goes for marketing messages. The growing trend of profanity, nudity, sex, and manufactured scandal could be marketers’ way of trying to find new melodies that stick in a world saturated by old advertising tunes. Not that it’s right; but expect more noise to come.
Video: Klip Collective.
Garret Ohm has a nice post about how your poor brain may be tired of responding to logos. It seems that when volunteers in a recent “neuromarketing study” were scanned by MRI machines while they viewed images, the portions of their brains responsible for craving lit up more when given general photos vs. iconic logos. Smokers, for instance, experienced more craving when shown Western landscapes reminiscent of cowboys with cigarettes than when they saw the simple Marlboro logo.
The study was written up by Martin Lindstrom over at Ad Age, who concluded that logos may be irrelevant because consumers are over-saturated in a media-frenzied world. He wrote, the logo isn’t dead yet, but I would bet its days are numbered.
Wrong. Lindstrom makes a simple logical mistake in this analysis (and we say this with respect because we have no idea how to run an MRI machine). Showing a human a picture of a red racing car or other real-world image taps a very different mental response than asking the same human to decode an abstract pictogram, even if the symbol means “Ferrari.” Mammalian minds have evolved for millions of years to respond to the natural world of three-dimensional objects, while writing started in Egypt and Mesopotamia only about 200 generations ago. So if our gray matter lights up faster when given nature vs. numbers, maybe that’s cause nature is real. None of our ancestors had to flee for their lives running from a bad Olympics logo, but a striped tiger is another story.
Sure, it is plausible that logos have saturated the mental landscape. The classic book Positioning notes that consumers only have so many mental rungs in their heads for each product, so perhaps Marlboro has cornered the market on dry deserts with tumbleweeds. Some top marketers are now stretching the definition of logos to enable different customer experiences; Pepsi just redesigned its own mark with a flexible circle that can expand aggressively or contract girlishly based on the amount of caffeine in the bubbly product.
But we vote for logos. Don’t count icons out just because they tickle a different part of our brains. Understanding code is nuanced, and with only 200 generations of decoding under our belts, singular graphic identities can’t possibly be dead.
Illustration by Tod Kapke via Joy Engine.
“Religulous” is a film bound to offend almost everyone, in which Bill Maher pokes intellectual holes in human belief. If there is a God, Maher asks, and He or She speaks to us, then why do so many people interpret the message so differently? For that matter, why doesn’t God just step in and end bad things for everyone?
Seed Magazine notes this month that skeptism about religion is relatively new; about 70 years ago Sigmund Freud called religion a compulsive neurosis that we can outgrow, and it’s been downhill ever since. But scientists note that the tendency to believe — in God, or hope, or optimism — appears to be an innate human trait, perhaps one meant to help people survive. After all, if one is quick to despair when times are tough and thus leap off the nearest cliff, you have scant chance to pass your genes on to millions of ancestors. Darwinian selection ensures that those living today were the ones with the most optimistic great-grandparents.
The will to hope is important for communicators because hope is a motivating force. If 1,000 people believe strongly and give a cause 100% of their effort, the cause is more likely to succeed than the 1,000 people down the street reluctantly showing up for work. We saw a bit of this in the recent election, where grown men and women of independent or even conservative ilk somehow found motivation to canvass door to door for Barack Obama.
Religious truth is a tough question: Either it is or it isn’t, yet most of us believe with a touch of doubt somewhere in the middle. But hope, optimism and belief are perhaps the strongest responses in the human mind, because our evolutionary survival depended on it. Studies have shown that the most successful CEOs and leaders are those who instill optimism among their troops. Makes sense; human resources are most valuable when they work hard, and belief builds momentum. Next time you communicate, give hope a chance.
In our 30s we became infatuated with men’s watches — not really understanding the brand hierarchy, but feeling the pull of Patek Philippe on the high end, sometimes admiring Rolex (but knowing they were for old men), shelling out a few hundred for a Swiss Army with complications every few years, and finally settling on Breitling as an aspiration. A bit James Bond-ish, but more complex than the official Bond Omega.
It all culminated on a vacation trip at age 39, when we stumbled upon a jewelry store and began an hourlong flirtation with the young woman behind the counter (sweetie was shopping elsewhere). Italian, the woman was, and the way she presented watches led us to believe a key was being laid on the counter to a new, secret, exciting world of manhood. Every piece of titanium and crystal posed a question: Are you man enough to divine these movements?
But we walked out. Something tipped, more than the idea that a grand for a watch is way too much. We began to realize that watches may become a relic.
What happened? Cell phones, then smart phones, and now iPhones have moved us beyond watching time to connecting with photos and video and blogs and mobile text. The function of “what time is it?” has turned into a periphery, a tiny numeric display at the top right of your cell phone. We now expect our portable tools to do far more. If a watch is a knife — even a beautiful blade — we now need the Swiss Army model, complete with corkscrew and social media.
We’re certain demand for wrist watches will continue, at least for a few decades aided by ads in the Wall Street Journal. But you can feel the shift. Market changes take time, but as SUVs are replaced by hydrogen cars, and newspapers disappear in favor of small internet screens, you have to wonder: How will the long shift of demand affect the products that you sell?
Our last few posts have featured unclothed women and erogenous fuzzy peaches, so in the spirit of fair play we now show you a young Elvis in tight leather.
Here’s the point: Watch this crowd in the first instant that Joseph Hall walks on stage. They don’t know if this Elvis impersonator is good, if he can dance, if he sings or screeches. But in that split second, you can feel the crowd make a flash judgment — and tip toward a response.
Advertising is just like this. Most ad messages are developed laboriously by research, focus groups, past campaign analysis, creatives, math types with offers, and media planning. But it all must work in that first heartbeat. There is a miniscule flashpoint in which consumers decide yea or nay, move past this or digest it, turn the page or consider a response.
You have to catch the consumer in that instant. The message has to be simple and focused. The impression has to tip.
Sort of like a guy in black leather.
So young Miley Cyrus rises to fame on Hannah Montana, gets her pop country singer Billy Ray a job on the set, becomes a cash cow for Disney, poses almost topless on a Vanity Fair cover, and now this week at age 15 gets castigated on blogs for looking a little too provocative with a milk mustache. (Ad blogger Steve Hall deconstructs America’s can-you-believe-it-but-let’s-look-closer obsession here.)
Sex works in advertising because it is an irrepressible part of our response mechanisms, and one that may be the most easy visual. (By comparison, it’s really hard to communicate the scent of fresh-roasted meat in magazine or TV creative.) Societal mores aside, the human physiology is ready to reproduce around age 13, and young teenagers respond to any whiff of hormones. The very fact that there is a lower limit to what society approves of in sex, officially, means the people who want to get a response are going to step slightly across that line.
Marketers behind such Miley “scandals” may stage these events because they know there is a difference between what people say they don’t like and what they respond to. The same parents and teens upset that a glowing Disney star would look so provocative are chasing her all over the internet and buying all her DVDs and MP3s.
In a way, the Miley scandals are a bit like a gruesome highway accident, that thing on the side of the road that reminds you of your own physical rawness, forcing you to slow down and look even if you really don’t approve of the bodily concept. Sex and fear, anger and shock heighten impressions and extend recall. We’re not suggesting that snapping photos of a 15-year-old girl in a sheet is right. We’re just saying that major entertainment companies who pose teenage girls in tight tank tops with milk drizzling from their lips know exactly what they’re doing.