Advertising often relies on dirty tricks to push bad products. It doesn’t have to.

Using human quirks and blind spots to upsell insurance or make kids worry about their appearance is not what any of us in the industry want to do with our days, writes Warren Davies.

It’s no shock that much advertising is not only creative with the work but often with the truth as well. Booze doesn’t make you popular and attractive to the opposite sex (alas), The Big 4 banks don’t “live in our world” based on executive pay and record revenues. “Can” lives in Darling Point and Toorak. It’s true that it’s a fine line between persuasion and manipulation.

Hocking the wares fairly is well and good but we in the industry should be more circumspect around our methods and the products and services we leverage them for.

Two elements of the work our industry does that warrant deep reflection are the meta-communication taking place and application of behavioural economics in the service of dubious products and services.

Meta-communication is the underlying context of the ad or content: in communication by the industry we’ll show people engaged in sports betting as heroes at war, “recycled” sneaker ads will show pristine forests and meditation and opening a soft drink will open a slow motion party of your dreams (I briefed that one in years ago).

As creative professionals we’re not actually saying shoes will re-forest the planet and salve customer’s eco-anxiety, but yeah we are [update: those Stan Smiths will end up as plastic waste].

Behavioral economics has been leveraged often for selling stuff for some time now. In itself knowing our minds and biases better is a good thing. But using human quirks and blind spots to upsell insurance or make kids worry about their appearance is not what any of us in the industry want to do with our days I’m sure.

While humans consume the earth’s annual resources earlier each year and everything that could catch fire, be flooded or blow away has done in the past couple of years perhaps it’s time to pivot to using our persuasive powers for good rather than evil.

Let’s start with behavioral economics. There are a brace of biases, tendencies and heuristics that affect how non-rational man really proceeds. And advertising leans on them heavily. Herd Behaviour shows a target audience that everybody’s doing it, Anchoring that credit card finance is “priceless”, not worth 20% and Loss Aversion that you can drop almost anything on someone’s doorstep and they’ll buy it rather than lose it.

Around six million Australians volunteer every year – big herd – but you rarely hear too much about it. There’s always a need for more hands, perhaps the best way to recruit is for existing volunteers to stand up and be seen? Positioning electric cars as ‘free travel’ is just begging to be done as an anchoring exercise (save $1400 a year on average). And why hasn’t the Australian government subsidised a free PT session for every Australian adult at risk of lifestyle diseases? A bit of loss aversion at work here would be a huge gain. These are challenges worth the time and skill of creative professionals.

Using meta-communication to best effect is not difficult either: “No Way Norway” for GM in last year’s Superbowl hit all the right notes for electric vehicles (Yanks are goofball heroes who want to do good); PANGAIA are a sustainable clothing brand from the United States. While they can stray into overly earnest pieces, their PANGAIA Family film is dripping with sweet suggestions about what shopping with your values in mind can mean.

In the industry we know creativity is a multiplier for business success. With so much of the planetary maths not adding up today it’s imperative we all make better decisions on where our talents are applied. And the work that’s calling out to each of us in the industry is worth the attention.

Warren Davies is the managing director of All or Nothing.


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