Anxious Australia: how marketers can overcome consumer resistance

In a time of uncertainty, the distance between you and your competitors may be simply who is better at finding hidden opportunities, says Bryan Melmed.

Is our data powerful enough to measure anxiety in Australia?

We debated this, in the abstract, for more than a week. It had nothing to do with our data – we knew it was powerful. It wasn’t a question of measuring anxiety, either. We had first done so months ago, observing how nervous Americans became as the Zika virus slowly moves north.


It was Australia itself that was the problem. Because by and large Australia is a very easy-going country compared with other developed nations. It is a place that believes “she’ll be right”,  that things will work out somehow.

And yet, in the run-up to the July election, Australians did seem to have a moment of doubt. Political conflicts bring forth issues that people would rather forget. As the Liberals battled Labor, the mood of the country subtly changed.

It became hard to ignore that demand from China has slowed to a trickle – unless it is for real estate in Sydney and Melbourne. Or that although unemployment is low, a lot of people don’t bother looking for work. Or how technology and globalisation are further isolating the urban elite from those less fortunate. Maybe the future wasn’t a sure thing, after all.

We recorded anxiety during political unrest in Brazil, after terrorist attacks in France, and following the Brexit. But the Federal election? In comparison Australians had little to worry about. I didn’t think we’d find any evidence of anxiety here. And then we ran the data, and there it was.

Illustration of the crisis concept with a businessman in panic

No surprises, please

One of the first things people do when they feel anxious is put blinders on.

This may seem counterintuitive. Surely people become more attentive, anticipating a threat? But the nature of anxiety is that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and our instinctual defense is to conserve resources. Anxious people embrace routine and tune out any distractions – including most advertising.

In the weeks before the election, Australians were avoiding change. Our data showed they were 6% less likely to begin dieting and 7% less likely to start dating.

They were 11% less likely to quit smoking. We even found that Australians were 22% less likely to explore content on getting married, and 18% less likely to prepare for divorce.

To be clear, it wasn’t that these weren’t happening, but that their share of active attention dropped dramatically.

When Australians choose to ignore options that save them – becoming almost 10% less likely to consider a cheaper credit card or mobile phone plan – it is obviously not a great environment for an advertiser to work in.

Smart marketers learn to accommodate narrowed perception, rather than desperately try to override it with larger and more intrusive advertising. A precise alignment of content to specific customer profiles will help ensure that ads remain in view.

stressed woman. stressed worker. businesswoman in panic. a young girl sits at his Desk and holds her hands on her head. pop art vector illustration. Paper Work. Stressed person concept

Creative Control

Anxious people approach controllable aspects of an event, and simultaneously avoid issues they have no influence over. The nature of any crisis is that there is more to avoid than to control, but marketers are wise to respond however they can to offer consumers a greater sense of autonomy and independence.

Almost anything that offered a sense of control or reassurance saw a positive shift in the weeks leading up to the election.

While far less likely to consider buying insurance, Australians were 12% more likely to check their existing coverage. They were 9% more likely to buy cleaning products and 6% more likely to buy pest control. We saw increased traffic on blogs about personal finance, weatherproofing, traffic conditions, and even video game walkthroughs.

Marketers need to recognise that empowerment, not coddling, is what consumers demand in an anxious moment. Even simply offering detailed information as part of the advertising experience makes an enormous difference.

During the Asian financial crisis, 62% of consumers preferred informational advertisements and 59% had a negative reaction to image heavy, emotional pitches.[1] More recently, our user experience studies found that the ability to explore detailed content was the most appreciated feature of our interactive VDX ad units.

View of a passage in a subway

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Too often, when anxiety hits, budgets are cut and campaigns delayed. This short-term, impulsive reaction has long been proven wrong. Advertisers that maintain spending through a crisis emerge with stronger brands and greater market share.

This was the conclusion of a meta study by Gerard J. Tellis and Kethan Tellis at the University of Southern California, who after reviewing 10 primary empirical studies found “strong and consistent evidence that cutting back on advertising during a recession can hurt sales during and after the recession”[2].

In a time of uncertainty, the distance between you and your competitors may be simply who is better at finding hidden opportunities.

Bryan Melmed is the vice president of insights at Exponential


Exponential looked at the online behavior of over 786K Australians during the period from July 2015 to July 2016 inclusive. Evidence of anxiety was only present in the two week period before the election (the last two weeks in June) which we compared with two week periods in August 2015, November 2015, and March 2016. The trend had to be consistent against all three periods. Metrics used come from a comparison of November 2015 to June 2016, adjusted for seasonality and other variations in traffic on our network.

[1] Ang, S. H., Leong, S. M., & Kotler, P. (2000). The Asian Apocalypse: Crisis Marketing for Consumers and Business. Long Range Planning, 33, pp. 97-119

[2] Tellis G. J., and Tellis K., (2009). A Critical Review and Synthesis of Research on Advertising in a Recession. Journal of Advertising Research, 49 (3), pp. 304-327


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