Pub background chatter can teach us an important lesson about ads

The Choice Factory author Richard Shotton explains how the cocktail party effect can have a profound effect on how we think about advertising.

It’s Friday afternoon, you work in advertising, so you’re enjoying a lukewarm pint in your crowded local pub. Oblivious to the background chatter, you listen to your colleague’s latest preposterous anecdote.

Then your ears perk up: faintly from across the room, you’re sure you heard your name. Sound familiar? It’s an example of what psychologists call the ‘cocktail party effect’, and it has important marketing implications.

The term was coined by Colin Cherry, a cognitive scientist at Imperial College London, who recognized that social situations provide important insights. He realized that while our conscious minds only register a small proportion of the information around us, we subconsciously process far more.

Why are ads like background pub noise?

We are exposed to so many ads clamoring for our attention, that, like other peoples’ pub conversations, we screen most of them out. This process can be demonstrated by a simple experiment – try to recollect the ads you saw yesterday.

One, three, ten? Even the higher number is a meager proportion of the 1,000 or so you were exposed to.

This widespread screening out means that a brand’s biggest task is to be noticed. Luckily, the cocktail party effect demonstrates how.

Make ads relevant.

Localising: a simple route to relevance

There are many ways to boost relevance but perhaps the simplest, and most effective, is localising the message. Jenny Riddell and I quantified the impact of localised ads by surveying 500 nationally representative consumers about a fictitious, new energy tariff.

Half the participants were told the tariff offered a £100 saving to the average UK household; the other half were told the same saving applied to households in their city.

When the message was regionally tailored, more than 10% of participants thought the tariff was great value, compared to only 4% for the national message. The tailored ad was more than twice as impactful as the control message – one of the largest boosts to effectiveness we’ve seen for a minor copy tweak.

The advertising implications

It’s true that some advertisers, like Google, have run high-profile localized, campaigns to great effect. However, these campaigns are rare. There’s an opportunity for brands to boost their effectiveness, and distinctiveness, by cheaply localizing their digital copy.

And the benefit for marketers? Well, next time you’re having a pint, perhaps you can put it on expenses. After all, it’s purely for research purposes, isn’t it?

Richard Shotton is head of behavioural science at Manning Gottlieb OMD. This article is an extract from his book, The Choice Factory: 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy.


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