Putting ‘nudges’ in perspective

It's time marketers put subconscious psychological effects into perspective, write marketing scientists Byron Sharp and Amy Wilson in this extract from Eat Your Greens.

Today there is much interest in subconscious decision making – as there should be, because buying rarely involves a great deal of conscious deliberation. Unfortunately, along with this sensible interest in ‘fast buying’ and ‘low attention’, comes a belief in the power of subconscious psychological effects. History seems to be repeating itself.

Years ago, there was much hype around subliminal advertising. However, Vicary’s research was a hoax. The joke would (again) be on marketers if we fell for a new version of the subliminal advertising story.

The evidence

Yes, consumers use heuristics to make ‘good enough’ decisions. This has been well documented by researchers for many years. We use heuristics because they work rather well, not because we have been coerced by wickedly clever marketers who use sneaky tactics to convince us to do something that we would otherwise not do.

It is through experience with brands and a need for efficient decision making that people rely on heuristics, because they make lives easier. It is important to understand these heuristics, and to know how marketers can account for them. It is also important to consider how the environment and our natural instincts may alter the heuristics used.

Yes, consumers can be nudged by presenting things in different ways (framing effects), and they may have more affinity for brands that they buy (the ‘mere exposure effect’); however, this is not the biggest story in marketing.

As marketers, we must remember that advertising is a weak force. People live in a cluttered, chaotic world where advertising and brands fall very far down the priority list (if they are even on the list at all).

We screen out advertising by leaving the room, switching stations and walking head down looking at our phones, thereby missing much of the advertising that is attempting to reach us.

As marketers, capturing people’s attention is the primary challenge. The main focus, then, should be on reminding people your brand exists, and refreshing memory structures that give your brand more of a chance of being chosen in choice situations.

In summary, psychological manipulations, such as framing effects, can create more demand under some conditions, but these conditions aren’t well known, and in many cases, the effects will be less than what is advocated. The view that demand for your brand depends on psychological manipulation of consumers is a massive exaggeration, and a distraction for marketers.

So, a word to the wise – do tests to see if specific nudges can do what you hope they will do. Meanwhile, don’t lose sight of the main game; if sales are not where you would like them to be, consider that it’s probably due to insufficient physical and mental availability.

Byron Sharp is professor of marketing science at the University of South Australia and director or the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. Amy Wilson is a senior marketing scientist at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.

This is an excerpt from their chapter in Eat Your Greens: Fact Based Thinking To Improve Your Brand’s Health.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.