The Death of Reason: Is The Growing Focus on Emotion in Advertising Misguided?

In this guest post, Alex Vishney, managing partner at marketing research consultancy, Blaze, explains why it’s a mistake to rely too heavily on emotional marketing as the driver to Alex Vishney from Blazeconsumer decision making.

You may have heard the analogy of the elephant and the rider. It is meant to represent the relative power of the unconscious, instinctive, irrational, emotional mind (called “System 1”) over the rational, slower, more calculating conscious mind (System 2).

In the analogy, the elephant represents System 1, the rider System 2, and the point is that, although the rider has the perception of control, the real decision of which way to go resides with the much more powerful elephant.

In other words, the theory suggests that our decisions, thoughts and behaviour are supposedly driven by irrationality, emotion, instinct and stereotype much more so than by reason or logic.

There is established empirical literature to support the existence of the two systems and the fact that emotion, instinct and irrationality are important drivers of our behaviour. Few would deny this.

What is concerning, however, is the growing abandonment of reason and rationality as a driver of our actions and the implication this is having on marketing to consumers.

Over the past decade in particular, marketers have begun to question the role of rationality in consumer decision making, especially when it comes to shopper behaviour, the impact of ads, and how consumers make brand choices. A few key studies have provided the trust for this trend, most notably:

  • The ground-breaking study in 2008 by the IPA in the UK*, which reviewed IPA Effectiveness Award-winning ad campaigns throughout its 30 year history. It found that ads classified as “emotional” performed better on effectiveness measures than ads classified as rational.
  • The mainstream popularisation of cognitive psychology (particularly with reference to cognitive biases, heuristics, and stereotypes), a major branch of which is behavioural economics. Academics such as Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely have demonstrated that many of our decisions aren’t mathematically rational. This body of work is often used to counter traditional economic views of consumers as rational, decision making units.
  • Advances in neuroscience (particularly in neuro-imaging studies, which ‘light up’ areas of the brain while doing certain physical or mental tasks) increasingly demonstrate the involvement of emotional centres in the brain in a variety of tasks, even those that have traditionally been considered to be very logical or rational in nature.

All of this has resulted in recent years in an almost cult-like focus on developing emotional campaigns. What is concerning is that the emotional, non-rational mind is quickly being elevated to the position of absolute ruler over consumer behaviour, with some claiming that emotion is all that matters when it comes to decision making (in fact, the IPA study claimed that purely emotional campaigns were more effective than campaigns which were a combination of emotional and rational).

The demotion of rationality as a driver of consumer behaviour (and as a means through which consumers can be influenced) is a dangerous path for marketers – at best it is based on only a partial understanding of the science, at worst, it is based on a false premise and can damage marketing efforts.

Here are a few things to consider before you throw out that ‘head’ layer of your next campaign:

  1. There are times when ‘rational’ communications are more effective than emotional.

The IPA study mentioned above is often cited as key evidence of the dominant role of emotion in advertising effectiveness; however, less often mentioned is the fact that the very same study found numerous situations where ‘rational’ campaigns were more effective than emotional. For example, in “low growth, stagnant or declining” economic conditions, “complex campaigns” which combine emotional and rational elements/messages are more effective than purely emotional.

Complex campaigns were also most effective in either new growth categories or declining categories (but not “mature/stable” categories). Predominately rational approaches worked best for direct response or short term campaigns (e.g. seasonal promotions), and also for value/mid-market brands (but not premium brands).

Most interestingly, ‘purely rational’ campaigns worked better than emotional campaigns within the services sectors, and also for any brands considered to be ‘leader’ brands (with challenger brands, emotional campaigns seemed more effective). In other words, according to the research, if your client is in one or more of the above categories (i.e. lots of clients!), then using a purely emotional campaign would be a sub-optimal way of driving sales.

  1. The way we marketers divide ‘emotional’ and ‘rational’ isn’t supported by the science.

We tend to talk about specific elements of communications as ‘rational’ and others as ’emotional’. For example, price is often considered a rational element whereas storyline, music and character development is emotional.

However, our brains don’t tend to compartmentalise in this way; they are associative machines which connect external stimuli with a range of both rational concepts and emotions. Price, for example, is simply a concept that itself is connected to a range of rational concepts (e.g. memories of similar products and their prices) and emotions (e.g. dread at giving away money, excitement at getting a good deal etc.). The point is that all elements of communications, regardless of the message, can have strong emotional associations. Even things we often think of as rational, such as price and product features. It would be a mistake to ignore these elements and their potential to be important levers within communications.

  1. The way we measure and use emotions within product categories may be off the mark.

A growing trend amongst marketers is to attempt to measure the emotions most associated with a particular category, then try to evoke the emotions in their advertising.

The problem with this approach is that emotions associated with ownership of a product may be very different to the emotions that result in its purchase. An example is insurance – pride may well be associated with owning a policy but fear may be the driver of purchase (and may therefore be a more effective emotion to tap into in communications).

Given that emotions (or feelings) are essentially reactions to a stimulus, it’s hard to know whether they are the driver of a product choice or the result of it.

For this reason, we see value in measuring the drives associated with a category not just the emotions. Drives are ‘end goals’ that motivate our behaviour, such as wanting to raise a family, satisfying natural curiosities, connecting with a culture or improving one’s social status.

Mapping drives within a category helps us understand the fundamental reasons why people purchase a product, which we can leverage in our marketing efforts.

  1. Evidence of the influence of rationality is all around us

The reality is that 99.9% of the time, the elephant goes where the rider desires. If we were dominated by our unconscious emotions, biases and stereotypes, we’d live in a much more chaotic world – we wouldn’t see the need to work, we wouldn’t plan ahead, we wouldn’t be loyal to our partners, we wouldn’t (try to) be careful with money, and we wouldn’t foresee the consequences of our actions.

We don’t make a rational, carefully thought through decision every time we buy a product in the supermarket, as we know that most purchases of consumer goods are done habitually – but we do give some conscious thought to our choices on certain occasions (e.g. this may be the first time we choose a product within a new category, or when our habitual behaviour is disrupted with a sales promotion). These ‘rational moments’ happen rarely, but they are influential when they do happen.

No one would deny the crucial role of emotion in driving our behaviours but to misquote a former prime minister, emotions don’t explain everything, nor do they explain nothing. The reality is somewhere in between.

Our suggested approach is to measure the impact of a range of potential drivers of purchase within a category, including what we have traditionally called “emotional and rational”, but also motivational factors, market factors (e.g. distribution and availability), shopper environments (digital and physical), form factor and others.

These are then integrated into a single model that helps us understand the most effective levers to pull within communications in order to get more consumers to buy our products.

Alex Vishney is managing partner at Blaze, a marketing research consultancy.


*Marketing in the Era of Accountability, L. Binet & P. Field, 2007



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