Make a choice. Buy this book and explore your biases
Possibly bringing both conscious and unconscious biases to this week's column, Dominic Mills reviews and digests the Choice Factory - Richard Shotton's behavioural science bestseller
First, a plea for your tolerance. If this column lacks any immediate timeliness, it’s because it was written more than ten days ago. I am away. Unlike my fellow columnist Ray Snoddy, who has been known to produce columns from bars beside the Mekong - an ability I admire greatly - I am no good at combining holiday and work.
Ok, excuse over. This week I am looking at a book published earlier this month by Manning Gottlieb OMD’s Richard Shotton entitled The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioural Biases That Influence What We Buy.
It’s a great read, fast-paced and easily accessible. Better than that, it’s the kind of book you can open at random and find something that both changes your perspective and which can be practically applied to pretty much any brand communications problem.
The structure is simple. Across 25 chapters, Shotton covers 25 biases. The scientific evidence behind each is explained and interrogated, Shotton details his own experiments in those areas, and looks at the marketing or media application.
It won’t necessarily provide the right (or only) solution, but it may well act as a guide or catalyst to something else.
I have known Shotton, a media planner by origin, for a couple of years (yes, he’s also a fellow Mediatel columnist) and the thing that makes him such good company and such a good read is his boundless curiosity - a quality which all good planners (and journalists) should share - and a sometimes-leftfield take on things.
This curiosity has led him to focus on behavioural science, in particular unpicking the biases (mostly unconscious) that determine many of our actions and buying habits.
There is no doubt it is a rich and fertile area for advertising to mine, and judging by a) the 200-plus audience - standing room only - at launch, and b) the book hitting #1 in Amazon’s advertising category best-seller list within 24 hours of launch - there is clearly a big appetite in adland for Shotton’s way of thinking.
Rather than write a standard review of the book, let me offer a series of observations prompted by reading it and thinking about the wider issues it raises.
1. Shotton has been digging into behavioural biases for more than a decade but, Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland apart, the ad industry has been remarkably slow to pick up on the contribution it can make. After all, if the core purpose of advertising is to change behaviour in consumers, then why not have the best possible understanding of behavioural biases?
2. The other thing I find odd is that behavioural science can offer agencies a genuine competitive advantage or point of difference, yet even those that have got on board have failed to turn it into a public USP. I've read a lot of agency awards entries and I can count on the fingers of one hand when an agency has attributed the ‘Insight Moment’ to behavioural science.
3. One insight specialist told me that, in her experience, there was a significant cohort of behavioural experts working in media agencies, but they rarely put their heads above the parapet or had much influence. Shotton apart, the only media agency that has made behavioural science a key part of its offering (albeit from a slightly different start point), is Total Media.
4. One reason behavioural science may struggle to make its case is that, in an era when billions of action-specific data points are available to clients (i.e. visited that site, took that action) it may be perceived as too much on the qual side, and not enough on the quant. If they are taking risks, clients may prefer to mitigate them by following the quant trail. Yet as Shotton points out, there is a large and robust body of scientific work that validates the potential of behavioural science.
5. The application of behavioural science to marketing communications probably works best if it is joined up along creative treatments and media. But if the media agency is driving a behavioural science solution and a creative agency something else, then it is that much harder to do.
Of course media agencies will say they can do the creative too, but fundamentally they lack credibility and will always struggle in this area. Creative agencies, meanwhile, are not massively inclined to take direction from the media agency. But taking as an example a campaign for the NHS Give Blood, Shotton was able to persuade the creative agency - on the basis of research into a phenomenon called the ‘bystander effect’ (aka, more boringly, the Fundamental Attribution Error) - to change its approach. The result: a 10% improvement in cost per donation.
6. Since many of these bias issues are unconscious, my very own bias was that solving some of them through media planning alone would be next to impossible. Shotton has convinced me otherwise.
Some examples: one, where the industry mood is shifting in his direction anyway, is through the importance of context where biases come strongly into play (audience-first fanatics pay attention); two, in something he calls the Curse of Knowledge, where a much better understanding of how incontinence-afflicted males (sometimes the joy of working in certain categories defies description) led to a shift in media placement strategy (Chapter 16, if you really want to know).
7. There are others too. Confirmation bias is relevant to targeting, including when to target rejecters or those who are distracted; how mood affects targeting; and the charmingly named Cocktail Party effect on localisation.
I have no doubt brought some biases, conscious and unconscious, to this column. Here’s one I’m upfront about: buy this book. I’m confident you’ll find it both useful and illuminating, and even if you don’t you’ll find it entertaining and, quite possibly, challenging.