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Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland argues that marketers should appeal less to logic and more to the instinctive part of the brain. (Dave West for The Globe and Mail/Dave West for The Globe and Mail)
Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland argues that marketers should appeal less to logic and more to the instinctive part of the brain. (Dave West for The Globe and Mail/Dave West for The Globe and Mail)

Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland makes a rational case for brain science Add to ...

Rory Sutherland was fooling himself.

The vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group sat in a sun-dappled hotel lobby in Collingwood, Ont., puffing ruminatively on a plastic tube whose tip lit up red at every pull of the smoke-like mist it produced.

His rational brain knew this was not a cigarette.

And yet, Mr. Sutherland was irrationally satisfied.

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“It’s easier to give up smoking with nicotine-free electronic cigarettes, research has found, than with patches that replicate the nicotine but not the action. Because our brains connect the habit,” he said.

It’s exactly the type of insight he had just imparted to a gathering of Canadian advertising industry executives, at the Institute of Communication Agencies’ oppressively smoke-free FutureFlash conference. Mr. Sutherland champions the notion that marketers need to better understand the science of the brain to do their jobs effectively – and that means paying less attention to rational thinking, and more to the instinctive part of the brain.

Having studied classics at Cambridge, originally with an eye to becoming a teacher, it is perhaps no surprise Mr. Sutherland has made a name for himself by lecturing others. He has emerged as something of a philosopher of advertising, giving talks at TED conferences and elsewhere that weave in stories about Frederick the Great, peacocks’ tails, and heuristics theory to understand how people are influenced and how they make decisions.

“We’re only just beginning with the brain science. I think it’s as important as the Internet, to marketing,” Mr. Sutherland said as we sat down after his presentation to discuss Darwinian psychology, mayonnaise, and what he missed by coming to Canada.

Explain what you mean when you talk about the brain in terms of System 1 and System 2.

[Daniel]Kahneman, I think, is the first to use it. Lots and lots of people have created a multiple model idea of the brain – Descartes, Plato … and you have a Freudian model of id, ego and superego. I like the Jonathan Haidt elephant reference [an idea attributed to Buddha, comparing the mind with a wild elephant and its rider, one part asserting control and the other acting out of instinct]because it’s highly poetic and very useful. But what is valuable about Kahneman using System 1 and System 2 to explain our two modes of thinking and deciding, is that it doesn’t contain implied value judgments. If you say something like unconscious or instinct, you’re implying that decisions made by that part of the brain are somehow inferior or less rigorous or rigid than the decisions made by System 2 [the logical part of the brain] … The danger is [in]fetishizing rationality, and believing that rationality is always the same as intelligence.

You gave a wonderful example of Red Bull energy drink, which convinced consumers of something very irrational: to pay more than they would for a can of pop, by giving them less. That smaller can repositioned the product. Your argument is that marketers are focusing much more on the conscious, logical System 2 brain than they should.

Both research and persuasion are too heavily directed towards the [elephant’s] rider, or rational argument. … Simply winning the argument with the rider is all well and good, but in terms of actual behavioural change, it may get you absolutely nowhere. … The classic case was, of course, Volkswagen [advertising]by DDB. The American car industry had gotten into bigger, chromier, replacement cycles every year. And here’s a car that was small, modest, economical. You could call it, in Darwinian terms, reverse signalling. … It’s risky because going against the category convention – changing the frame of reference – is creatively a much more interesting thing to do, but it is, in business terms, sometimes a dangerous thing to do. But it gave Volkswagen enormous sales on what was actually a pretty atrocious car. The Beetle has become an icon, so everybody venerates it. But if you’re being detached about it, it was pretty godawful, even in 1960.

What makes brain science so important for marketing?

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