You don’t have to change minds to change behaviour

In this guest post, Paul Fishlock explains why behavioural science is not the enemy of creativity – it’s a springboard to it.

Science knows more about behaviour than marketing ever uses. In itself this is hardly surprising. It’s the chasm between them that’s cause for concern.

Much as we all love clever campaigns, we’re not in the entertainment business we’re in the influence business. We’re paid to get people to pick product X over product Y, use this service more or do this unhealthy behaviour less. Remember?

You’d think we’d be drawn to evidence-based ways to be better at it like TV producers to lunch – but we’re not. For most, the credible, proven fields of decision science barely get a hearing at the water cooler. In the foreword to a new book out this month, behavioural economics’ most eloquent apostle, Rory Sutherland, (vice chairman of Ogilvy UK) notes “The record of the marketing services community to what seems to be a Copernican revolution in the behavioural sciences has so far been notable by its absence”.

decoded coverThe book is ‘Decoded’ by Phil Barden and I was recently invited to review a manuscript of it. Barden is not an academic but a client-side marketer with 25 years at the likes of Unilever, Diageo and T-Mobile. In ‘Decoded’ he sets out to build the most comprehensive bridge yet between decision science and the day-to-day business of marketing.

The work of Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman is a recurring theme. Evolution has given our brains two systems for decision-making: a lightening fast, implicit, effortless ‘autopilot’ and a slow, explicit, effortful ‘pilot’. The autopilot makes as many decisions as possible as it’s both faster and uses less energy (which we may need later to escape a sabre tooth tiger).

The compelling argument that up to 90% of our behaviour is decided by our autopilot without conscious thought ever being aware of it is an unexploded bomb in the foundations of conventional marketing. Forget everything you know; you don’t have to change minds to change behaviour.

Scans of a brain reacting to a strong brand and a weak brand show one lighting up like a Christmas tree and the other causing hardly any activity at all. The epiphany is that it’s the strong brand that makes you think less, as it’s already understood so is valued more highly than the brand that demands energy to evaluate it.

Seasoned ad folk may feel they practice some of this already. They’re right. The byline for ‘Decoded’ could easily have been Great advertising instinct explained. We instinctively use things like social proof – Australia’s favourite shampoo – and scarcity value – hurry while stocks last. But understanding the behavioural principles that explain why some ideas just feel right can only make your instincts better.

Decision science also unlocks tiny interventions you can aim at the autopilot that cost little or nothing but yield spectacular results. An ad for a cake with the fork on the right is 20% more effective than the identical ad with the fork on the left. Why? Because most people are right-handed so most brains find it easier to process a fork on the right and value that cake more highly (it’s called ‘cortical relief’). How much extra budget would you otherwise have to spend to increase effectiveness by 20%?

Like most creative people, I didn’t get into advertising for the love of science but, by unpacking famous Cadbury, Lynx and T-Mobile campaigns, ‘Decoded’ shows understanding behaviour is not the enemy of creativity but a springboard to it. Creatives more than anyone need to embrace it – not make it planning or research’s responsibility or assume a new video on YouTube renders the hardwiring of our
brains irrelevant.

Advertising will never be a science but it’s more science than most working in it realise.

Paul Fishlock is principal of Sydney agency, Behaviour Change Partners


  1. Adam
    25 Jan 13
    2:00 pm

  2. Great piece! The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is another great read on the science of habit and features applied examples to advertising and marketing.

  3. Biting the hand
    25 Jan 13
    2:24 pm

  4. Good piece. It amazes me how little most “professionals” in advertising + media understand about how people make decisions and the various processes and theories behind decision making.

  5. simon lawson
    25 Jan 13
    2:25 pm

  6. Interesting article, Paul.

    I’ve had Daniel Kahneman’s book at home for a few months now; I think its time I read it.

  7. Peter Pynta
    25 Jan 13
    2:46 pm

  8. Thanks Paul…nicely summarised! The science of measuring great creative – great story-telling – is absolutely the springboard to effective advertising.

  9. Kate Richardson
    25 Jan 13
    3:04 pm

  10. Another friendly bedtime read is Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

  11. Jeanette_kc
    25 Jan 13
    3:10 pm

  12. I really enjoyed reading this article, Paul.
    I’ve always been interested in behavioural economics, but haven’t looked into the next layer of science that’s behind behaviour. Looks like one to add to the reading list!

  13. Anne Miles
    25 Jan 13
    3:13 pm

  14. Not until training in the positive aspects of human psychology and behaviour did I realise how much is overlooked by marketing communications in advertising. On the other hand there are amazing creatives that work intuitively to deliver the same results even though they don’t know they are, but these days we’re all after more certainty and for each job to be as effective as it possibly can.

    Must get Decoded – my kind of subject, thanks Paul!

    @Adam – thanks for the suggestion too.

  15. Roseanna Donovan
    25 Jan 13
    3:44 pm

  16. Hallelujah and Amen, Paul Fishlock. Understanding what makes people tick is, or should be, the most important step in developing effective creative concepts. So why is there so much ineffectual, illiterate, boring, baffling and just plain bullshit advertising around? The medium is not the message, dammit, the MESSAGE is the message and it’s not about you, Young Creative Wannabe; it’s about the person who receives it. Understand that and it’ll change your (creative) life.

  17. Honey
    25 Jan 13
    4:17 pm

  18. Bloody hell I loved that thing about the fork!

  19. Rory Sutherland
    26 Jan 13
    3:20 am

  20. Thanks for the hat-tip! Just to reiterate, Phil’s book is brilliant.

  21. John
    26 Jan 13
    3:29 am

  22. “Scans of a brain reacting to a strong brand and a weak brand show one lighting up like a Christmas tree and the other causing hardly any activity at all. The epiphany is that it’s the strong brand that makes you think less, as it’s already understood so is valued more highly than the brand that demands energy to evaluate it.”

    Trouble with that assertion is that no neuroscientist would begin to suggest that they understand what the scan indicates.

  23. Elmer Rich
    26 Jan 13
    5:59 am

  24. OK, let’s see what we can learn her and what needs to be debunked. Actually, since marketing is a sales-based and not evidence based professional – we are paid to entertain the decision makers and clients — customers are just a pretend audience.

    BTW, sales-based, as is all business means that if I can sell it — it “works” since the job is to get paid. Science on the other hand, like medical science MUST predict future events of they don’t get paid!

    Business will have to be more and more evidence based. But, “Progress happesn on funeral at a time.”

    DK and the behavioral marketing campaign is not evidence-based and just doesn’t work. You can be assured that the brain of all animals has far more ways to process experience and life than 2! It’s a cartoonish idea.

    There are a lot of misconceptions to address here but let’s just finish with the usefulness of colorful brain scans and fMRI in predicting or explaingin anything — they dont’.

    We spent last Friday at an all day neuroscientist conference with the best and brightest neuro grad students in Chicago. They no longer do much imaging. It’s passe. it isn’t very useful.

    There is a lot of new and useful brain science but behavioral econ and fMRI – serious pros shouldn’t waste anytime on.

  25. Richard Moss
    27 Jan 13
    8:08 am

  26. Very nice piece, it’s always wise to wear belt and bracers but not essential.

    Always remember the quote from Al Capone: “You get more with a kind word and a gun, than you will ever get with a kind word alone”

  27. Andrew
    27 Jan 13
    3:23 pm

  28. Refreshing article, and a very overdue topic.

    However, psychology people make as many errors as creatives, and I say this as a devout ‘psycreative’ [new term? :-) ]

    Psych application in marketing requires non-stop and immediately up to date study.

    Countless theories and facts have changed, been proven false, or have been worked upon just this month or last month in journals. (some of the social cognition/behaviour research that’s going on now is absolutely incredible, unprecedented insights)

    Usually when creatives get it right, it’s because they’re sensitive to and perceptive in the ‘cultural awareness’ department, which includes some top-down neuro, perception (ala Rory et al), and some aspects of identity/developmental.

    My point? An up to date and intelligent creative can come up with better psych manipulation than an out of date or only partially informed purist stratty.

    To be able to see the complete picture and nail those long-term big ideas requires an exhaustive, ongoing cover-off on all 5 major areas of psychology, as that’s the only place from where the guaranteed really big insights emerge. Kind of like a specialised generalist person, or team.

    As an example, there’s currently a Medibank Private TVC showing the Medibank logo dancing around on the court as the tennis balls come thick and fast, seemingly from the consumer’s ‘first person’ perspective.

    For this ad, a traditionalist, and even a “partial psychologicreative” marketer sees the message of “You the consumer are always winning, you hit a winner everytime with Medibank Private” or thereabouts.

    But the fact is the ad communicates “When the ball is in our court, we actively dodge our responsibility.” which is of course not the ideal subconscious implantation for the consumer.

    Consumer perspective-taking has changed since the turn of the century.

    They used to think “This how I see things” in a more child-like or ‘egocentric’ way, but now they think “Ok so this is how this brand sees things”, taking their perspective and forming underlying opinions in relation to the brand’s viewpoint.

    Consumers are now adult-like, consumer self-esteem is at an all-time high, and they do not conform to or conduct themselves in line with psychological research from the 1960s, just as they don’t buy in reaction to creative from the 80s.

    There are any number of ways things can be put across in the wrong way, even though everything seems all fine and good. Complete psych and creative cover-off is the only way to go.

    Effective and predictive communication is as much about risk management as it is about the little creative embelishments, so the absolute minimum recommendation is to get some comprehensive behavioural consult on creative before going to production.

  29. Brain Molecule Marketing
    28 Jan 13
    5:15 am

  30. By definition, creatives and marketers are great story tellers – to the people who pay for the ads – that’s all. Without data from double-blind experiments — there is no way to know if those stories generate buying behavior.

    Most businesses can’t afford to pay for story-telling anymore.

  31. Dear Elmer
    28 Jan 13
    9:10 am

  32. Dear Elmer,
    What neuroscience conference are you referring to?

  33. William
    29 Jan 13
    12:55 am

  34. ‘OK let’s see what we can learn her (sic) and what needs to be debunked’ – some of these comments to start with!!
    Let’s look at the facts; no-one here has read this book (Google it – it’s not even published yet), with the exception of the author of this review and Rory Sutherland who, we are told, has written the foreword. Both of them seem to rate this book highly so the book itself may or may not appeal to us as a purchase depending on the credibility we perceive Rory and Paul to have.
    So, whilst it’s valid to comment on Paul’s review, no serious pro would extrapolate further. It’s nonsensical. I, for one, will suspend judgement until I read the book.

  35. Researcher
    29 Jan 13
    3:33 am

  36. Applying scientific methods to our understanding of behaviour and ‘behavioural science’ aren’t necessarily the same thing. I have seen neuroscience applied to explain behaviour, in many cases poorly. I have seen semiometrie used. They all have their place, there are still more answers and holes than you would expect.

    Most great creative executions wouldn’t make it past the pre-testing applied by these behavioural scientists. Once again we are playing into the hands of the frightened domineering client who require everything to be pushed through the homogenising hoops of fire, leaving us with lowest common denominator creative that ticks the right boxes and nothing else.

    I shouldn’t complain too much as a media researcher it is too some extent our bread and butter.

  37. Adam Ferrier
    30 Jan 13
    8:25 am

  38. Agree. It’s easier to change attitude through actions than actions through attitude.

  39. Anne Miles
    30 Jan 13
    10:14 am

  40. Nicely said @AdamFerrier. My trainer would have expressed it like this ‘Our physiology creates our psychology’.

  41. Elmer
    30 Jan 13
    4:48 pm

  42. Elmer Rich? More like Elmer Fudd. To generalise about the efficacy of brain scan imaging and fMRI is pointless, if not misleading.