The ethics of using behavioural science in marketing

As more and more marketers wake up to the power of nudging, behavioural science expert Richard Shotton offers his reply to Lazar Dzamic, former head of brand planning at Google ZOO, who believes the practice should be regulated.

In February of this year my book, The Choice Factory, about how behavioural science can be applied to advertising, was published. Since then I’ve been spending my evenings giving talks about the findings. At the end of most talks there’s normally a question about the ethics of these tactics. Since the questions comes up so frequently I thought I’d post a more detailed response.

Rather than attack a straw man, I’ll respond to this impassioned article by Lazar Dzamic, former head of brand planning at Google ZOO, which sums up many of the arguments.

Have a read…

The blog post makes two broad criticisms of behavioural economics. First, it’s so powerful that it’s unethical and, second, it’s ineffective. Surely, the initial response is to wonder how something can both be simultaneously effective and ineffective? This is advertising, not Schrödinger’s cat.

But putting aside that illogicality, let’s take each point in turn.

First, that nudging is too powerful, or in Dzamic’s words:

“If (behavioural economics) is as powerful as we claim – the thing that warrants all those departments, institutes and even whole agencies popping up all the time – then it should be regulated for commercial purposes… No gung-ho, free-market BE for selling financial services, cars or fast food, unless the deployers can prove they are beneficial, not detrimental, to consumers and the society at large.”

Is ‘powerful’ even the right term? It suggests that nudges hypnotise a foolish public and beguile them into a particular course of action. While many advertisers crave such power, it’s unrealistic. Biases never sway everyone, all the time. They just increase the probability that communications have the desired effect.

If we accept that nudges don’t bamboozle consumers then what really is the complaint? That the communications are successful? Surely, if ads for a product are permitted, you can’t then object to them being effective?

“If we think it’s appropriate and acceptable for such communications to occur,” says David Halpern, CEO of the Nudge Unit, “it seems sensible to expect those designing or writing them to make them effective and easy to understand”.

And if it’s powerful communications that Dzamic objects to, why single out behavioural economics? Why not object to the great creative that has nothing to do with behavioural science: the John Lewis ads, or the Cadbury gorilla.

But to be fair to him, it’s not just the power he worries about; rather it’s the unregulated power. But this is a misnomer, since behavioural ads are regulated.

They’re regulated like every other piece of commercial communication. The AANA in Australia, along with the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK, both insist all ads are: “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. They make no exceptions for behavioural ads.

Ah, but what about the lack of transparency?

Dzamic’s second objection is that behavioural economics lacks transparency: “The biases, collectively, contribute to the pervasive, default, irrational side of our nature so eloquently brought to light by Kahneman et al. It is exactly the side that we, the Mythocrats, try to exploit… If the cognitive biases are a sort of cognitive blindness, who wants to steal from the blind?”

If people are unaware that these biases are occurring, then is this malevolent manipulation?

Once again let’s unpick the exact argument. What does a lack of transparency mean? I think there are only two plausible complaints. First, consumers are fooled by only seeing a biased selection of information, rather than all of it. Second, consumers are being swayed by more than pure logic; that nudging appeals to our irrational side.

The first point, that many nudges show a limited selection of options, is true. But all communication is selective. Imagine if you were given every piece of information about a product; the complexity would have been bewildering. Once you start selecting information it can’t be neutral.

As Rory Sutherland says: “The process is inevitable. Criticising nudging is like criticising electromagnetism or gravity – the best we can do is be aware of the forces at work, to understand them and to make people widely aware of them.”

The second element of the transparency critique is that persuasive techniques other than cold logic are being deployed. That’s true, but, again, so what?

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote down advice for those seeking to persuade. The Art of Rhetoric outlines three broad requirements for effective persuasion: logos, ethos and pathos.

Logos, or the application of reason and logic, is important but ineffective alone. It needs to be complemented by ethos, an appeal based on the character of the speaker, and pathos, an appeal to emotions. Facts fall flat if delivered dryly.

That an audience is moved by emotional pleas doesn’t make them ‘blind’, it makes them human.

If nudging, like rhetoric, is merely a tool then what matters, is to what ends you harness it. Are you selling snake-oil? Or are you selling something of substance? If it’s the former then no defence of the techniques you’re using justifies it. But if it’s the latter the surely you want to sell the product as effectively as possible and that means harnessing behavioural science.

Richard Shotton is the author of Choice Factory, which is available for purchase on Amazon and other bookstores. A version of this article was first published on the APG here. 


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.