It is easy to be swept up by the crowd and believe that there is a new way to gather information; to inform and create new messages to your audience. With the "experts" out there talking about listening to the consumer and crowdsourcing ideas from the consumer, is it really a surprise that the advertising industry has recently seen lackluster performances on the creative side? It shouldn't be a surprise, for some reason many communications professionals have forgotten who they are...professionals. There is no replacement for the skilled communicator, or the artist. That's why giving the consumer the entire conversation is ultimately a failing effort. Reasons why is this may be a little difficult to wrap our heads around. But by looking at two tenets of behavioral economics, hopefully we can start to understand that though listening to the concerns of the consumer is important, there may get to a point that their motivation to engage may be more detrimental than rewarding.
Dan Ariely is an MIT professor who intently studies behavioral economics. He is the author of the book Predictably Irrational, where he talks about the actions and decision-making of humans in certain situations. One thing that he talks about is the first theory that we are going to cover today, the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The law states that as reward increases, performance — whether mental or physical — performance also increases, but up to a certain point. If the reward gets too high, performance begins to decrease. So if you need an illustration, think of an inversed U-curve. Now how can this be applied to advertising? Easily, actually. The reward for the consumer is for their opinion to be noticed and for them to have a say in the way a brand delivers their good or service to the market. Consumers are being given power over messaging, and the way the brand represents itself to the people it wants to attract. The more the consumer interacts, the more say they have. According to Yerkes-Dodson, the consumer can only be rewarded so much, before their performance ( good feedback) begins to decrease (inconsistent, or misinformed feedback). Where is the line? It is hard to say, since with both sociological studies, it is difficult to predict where the breaking point will be until it actually happens. The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a close example to the law of Diminishing Returns. The consumer base can only give the brand so much information, before the cost of interacting or gathering is equal to or greater than the marginal gain of getting the information.
The next thing that shows that advertising and communications people should think twice about leveraging all the power of the consumer is cognitive illusions. The concept demonstrates that as consumers, we may not know our preferences very well, or in fact we could be tricked by the choices offered to us, showing that we don't have as strong of a stance on an issue as we thought we did. Let's go through two examples to really understand this concept. Ariely did an experiment with an actual offering from The Economist. The options were:
An online subscription to The Economist for $59
A print subscription to The Economist for $125
A subscription to both for print and online editions for $125
Now at first glance, the second option looks like a terrible deal. In truth, with the second option being there, it makes the third option seem like a great deal. In Ariely's experiment, that held true; the majority picked option three. Then, Ariely took the second option away, and his next group only saw:
The result was reversed; the majority of the group picked only the online subscription. In Ariely's study, he showed that the consumer may not actually know what they want.
An online subscription to The Economist for $59
A subscription to both Economist editions for $125
Here's another example. Scientists Jonathan Schooler and Timothy Wilson* ran a study about the consumers' taste for jam. Out of 44 varieties, the taste experts picked their best and told their group to taste and rank them from superior to inferior. The result was that the students faired pretty close to the experts. Then the scientists asked a group to not only taste the jams, but also write down your reasons why you liked them. The results were terrible, the students ranked the jams completely differently.
The underlining point behind this tirade about behavioral economics is that consumers think they know exactly what they want and how they want it, and their choices and preferences may not be accurate. It is important to hear the consumer, but the skilled communicator and Adperson will double-check and test the intuitions before running a bound-to-fail campaign based on a "conversation."
*The Schooler-Wilson study can be found in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.