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.
“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?
It’s not purely in terms of what it enables us to do but in the vocabulary it gives us, as well. So that you can have a boardroom conversation about human behaviour that doesn’t make you sound like a whack job. At Ogilvy, there’s a guy called Nick Ford who’s the head of finance for Europe. He, as a finance guy, was interested in behavioural economics, and I thought, ‘This is important.’ Because this is a way of getting [finance]people who naturally don’t pay much attention to marketing, to see that understanding this better is a real source of advantage. If we start to understand heuristics as well, the advances you can make in terms of understanding how people make decisions … is just hugely important. … Quite a few of the very best advertising campaigns can be understood in behavioural economic terms.
“How else can a month’s salary last a lifetime?” from DeBeers is a brilliant example of framing. It sets an expectation of how much you should spend on an engagement ring – an anchor point, it might be called in behavioural economics. … There’s a case from Ogilvy Brazil. There’s been a very considerable effort to persuade people that Hellmann’s can be used as a recipe ingredient as well as just a conventional mayonnaise. One of the first rules that you learn from brain science is that we make decisions contextually. Our ideas of value and our appraisal of things varies, according to moment and context. So there’s a beautiful idea from Brazil, where if you bought Hellmann’s, let’s say you’ve also bought beef and onions, the software will take what you bought and it will print on your shopping receipt a recipe that involves beef, onions, and Hellmann’s. So it formulates a recipe from your shopping list. That’s the kind of moment-of-truth intervention which absolutely delights me.
You’ve spoken about some of Ogilvy’s work around the world – I’m talking to you the day after Ogilvy & Mather was awarded Network of the Year at the CLIO Awards.
The award was sensational. That’s the one we want, really. That’s the big one. Europe did well, London won, in quite a few things. I was absolutely overjoyed. In fact, I would have gone [to the awards ceremony]had I known! [The agency]still has an absolute bloodline from [founder and advertising guru]David [Ogilvy] … He would have been obsessed with behavioural economics were he still around. His interest in what makes people tick, but the twin interest in creativity and effectiveness, is a particular Ogilvy trait.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
RORY’S READING LIST
He may not be a grammar school teacher any more, but Rory Sutherland assigns reading with as much gusto as ever. Here are a few books he thinks Globe readers ought to pick up:
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: “We often design legislation in ways that are contrary to our instinctive nature. And it’s often an imposition of what seems rational on the [instinctual brain]that probably, actually, accounts for most of our happiness and well-being.”
- Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising by Robert Heath: “A very good book, which is precisely about this low-involvement processing effect. … We may decode, and process, and be affected by the advertisement far more on the unconscious level.”
- The Darwin Economy by Robert Frank: “A great book I’d recommend to all readers of The Globe and Mail. He’s a Cornell professor. A tremendous take on understanding Darwinism and consumption.”
- The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt: “I almost consider him the anti-Dawkins, in that Dawkins uses his very great ability and his great understanding of Darwinian evolution to launch an attack on religion. Haidt – who himself is a sort of lapsed Jewish atheist I think he described himself as – is nonetheless using his understanding of evolution to explain quite the opposite. Haidt’s book is utterly fantastic. It uses evolutionary science to explain how … what seemed previously just irrational about ideas like a Sabbath, or ideas like fasting, actually comes to make a lot more sense when you understand our evolutionary origins.”
DARWIN AND DOVE
Mr. Sutherland on using the System 1 brain to sell cosmetics:
"Some tremendous work done by Ogilvy in Canada on Dove – that’s interesting because there’s a Darwinian explanation for that.
"If you look at most women’s fashion advertising and photography, you look at the pages of Vogue, there are three things you can say about the women featured in the pages: They’re generally a bit younger than the target audience, they’re a bit thinner, and they’re never smiling. ... How does that work?
"The reason is, if you’re Geoffrey Miller, this brilliant Darwinian psychologist, you would say the job of the woman in the advertisement is to be a threat to the target audience. To represent the woman who is effectively threatening the status and possibly relationship of the woman who’s reading Vogue. That is using beauty as a rivalrous good, as a comparative good. The purpose of being beautiful is to be more beautiful than someone else. It's effectively combative and competitive.
"There are four things about Dove: The women aren’t particularly young, they’re not necessarily thinner than the target audience, they appear in groups frequently rather than on their own, and they’re smiling. What that is, is beauty as an intrinsic good. I enjoy being beautiful not so I can squash my female friends and drive them into submission by my superior thinness; it’s enjoying beauty for its own sake. That distinction is very interesting. … Sometimes the emotion is there already, and what you need to do is simply provide it with ammunition. … A great deal of that Dove advertisement is effectively providing us with a beautiful expression of something which is already there. I don’t think people who are on the other side of the debate – I don’t think a super-slender supermodel is going to say, ‘Actually you’re right all along and I’m going to start eating burgers.’ What it does undoubtedly, is it taps into a sense based on an insight that when women read conventional women’s magazines they leave the experience feeling worse about themselves than they did to begin with.
"So it has a framework of rationality, that’s absolutely true. But the reaction it arouses is not really a rational one. It plays to a deep-set belief that we’re being manipulated and tinkered with."