From literal to lateral: applying behavioural science to advertising

A conversation with Richard Shotton

On November 8 (2018) Richard Shotton spoke at B.R.A.I.N.Creatives HQ in Amsterdam. The event was sold out, with guests coming from all over the Netherlands and even traveling from abroad. Shotton’s remarkable popularity has as much to do with his bestselling book The Choice Factory as with his brilliant Twitter feed. In fact, the two came together when Twitter users voted The Choice Factory the best advertising book of all time in BBH’s World Cup of Advertising Books.

Twitter is also where Richard and I first became acquainted. After exchanging many DM’s and RT’s, it was nice to meet in person for BB’s (beers and biases). And even better to hear Richard speak on Kitty Genovese, The Pratfall Effect and anchoring as applied to anything from budget hotels to diamond wedding rings. But of course, his talk also left the audience hungry for more. Lucky for you and us, Richard agreed to do a follow-up interview to elaborate on some points touched on in his presentation. Enjoy!

Tim: Richard, there’s one point you made I’d like to learn more about. I heard you say that there are two ways to apply psychological insights to advertising. A literal-minded, ‘accounts’-type way, and a creative one. Can you explain the difference, and why you think this is important?

Richard: Yes, the greatest opportunity for behavioural science is to apply it in lateral as well as literal ways.

Tim: What do you mean by that distinction?

Richard: Well, the difference can be seen if we consider a specific bias. Let’s focus on social proof. Social proof is one of the most regularly applied biases, it’s the idea that when deciding on how to behave we look at others. We tend to copy the popular course of behaviour. 

Tim: Yes, many of my readers will know this from reading Cialdini, right?

Richard: Indeed. Robert Cialdini conducted the most famous experiment that demonstrates this bias, when he tried to encourage towel reuse in hotels. He experimented with various messages in the rooms and showed that telling guests that most people reused their towels led to 25% more compliance than stressing the environmental benefits of towel reuse. Since then experiments by a wide variety of psychologists have supported his core finding.

“The combination of creativity plus behavioural science is what I’m most excited about.” – Richard Shotton

Tim: So how can marketers apply this insight?

Richard: In one of two ways. The first, the literal way, is the most common. This involves a straightforward claim about the desired behaviour. “Nine out of ten people pay their tax on time. One billion hamburgers served. Amazon bestseller …” These can be effective at steering behaviour. The first example, the tax one, was tested by HMRC and boosted tax repayment rates by 15% compared to the control.

Tim: I see how this approach can work. As a creative I do find it gets a bit predictable though. Brands are in danger of becoming less distinctive, when they apply the same insights in similar ways.

Richard: Exactly. I think the literal approach is effective, but hardly the ideal use. There are more impressive lateral examples of applying behavioural science. In the case of social proof this means creating the perception of popularity, long before that’s the reality. My favourite example is that of iPod. When iPod launched In 2001, it was far from being the market leader. Many other MP3s outsold it. However, no one knew which other brands were popular. The competitors all had bland black headphones and since the MP3 was hidden in user’s pockets the successful brands were invisible.

Tim: ‘Monkey see, monkey do’ won’t happen if there’s nothing to see …

Richard: And that’s why Apple avoided that fate. They had distinctive white earbuds and emphasized that fact in their advertising. Whenever you spotted white earbuds you knew the listener had an iPod. They looked like the market leader long before they were. According to the theory of social proof this set in train a virtuous circle – they looked popular, and that made them even more popular. That’s what I’d define as a lateral use of behavioural science. It used the bias as the springboard for a creative leap which then led to far greater returns than a literal application.

Tim: That’s brilliant. We started B.R.A.I.N. Creatives to explore how science could be an inspiration to creative work, rather than a limitation. I can totally see how this example may have kicked of a creative process. “Find a way to make something that’s in your pocket visible” is a great brief.

Richard: Yes, and it’s this combination of creativity plus behavioural science that I’m most excited about. It’s also plays to agency’s strengths. The science is available to everyone but only a few people can make the creative leaps.

Tim: A wonderful conclusion, thanks for taking the time for this conversation!