Behavioural science and advertising: gold dust or hype?
Adopters, sceptics, brands and researchers debated the use of behavioural science in advertising at the Big Day of Data. Can it really herald a new era for marketing effectiveness?
Although it's been around for donkey's years, behavioural science is currently the talk of the town in adland and is the subject of a best-selling book, numerous press articles and fills conference agendas.
Rightly so too: the discipline offers fascinating insights into human behaviour by explaining the psychological shortcuts, biases and subconscious thinking that makes us tick. Little wonder then that marketers are interested as they try to hone their messages and deliver more effective advertising in a noisy and competitive world.
"Behavioural science is an uber theory about why advertising works,” says Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at MediaCom.
“It's absolutely fascinating...and it sits across pretty much all of life. It works in schools, it works in shops, it works in canteens, it works in media agencies, it works in ad agencies, and it works on clients and governments.”
Likewise, Mike Dando, the advertising boss for Epson, says behavioural science is “hugely important” for both his brand and the marketing discipline more generally.
“Behavioural science helps you target your content. And, in theory, what we can do with the amount of information and data that exists now is just phenomenal.”
Unerman and Dando
Fans and supporters also include some of the biggest names in media and advertising, from Rory Sutherland and Mark Ritson to Tess Alps and Dave Trott.
Yet not everyone is convinced by the hype. Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO, although claiming he is sceptical but not cynical, says behavioural science has not led to an overall change in the productivity of marketing.
"I don't feel as though we've achieved a kind of quantum shift because of this fantastic understanding of consumer behaviour where we can put a lot less in and get a lot more out," he says.
Mawdsley, who has led the advertising strategy for brands such as Sainsbury’s, The National Lottery, The Met Police and Cancer Research, says behavioural science is, therefore, either not applied very often or simply doesn't make a massive difference.
"I think the danger with it as a discipline is that it's tremendously productive of anecdotal stories at conferences," he says. "And it's often written about in a case study as something that has worked, but I'm still to be convinced that it's the reason why that thing worked. I think there are bigger forces at play."
Mawdsley worries that the industry is in a situation where its ability to collect data has run ahead of its ability to understand what it actually means. He likens this to lie detector tests, which were originally permitted as evidence in court because everyone believed they explicitly indicated whether someone was lying or not.
"That's not true," Mawdsley said. "We know now that they tell you when people are nervous. Which they sometimes are when they're lying - but they're also sometimes nervous when they're sitting talking to police and accused of a crime. I wonder whether or not some of the things we're collecting data on might end up on that sort of trajectory unless we really put the time into fully understanding it."
Mawdsley also argues that too much behavioural science is retrospectively applied to advertising campaigns.
Yet for others, this same observation shows that the greatest creative and strategy minds are able to intuitively apply the science. For mere mortals, however, a deeper understanding of how humans think and behave needs untangling from the start.
"I think there's stuff out there that's been out there for years, and people haven't called it behavioural science," says Dando. "They've just done it because it makes sense and it works."
In his hugely popular book The Choice Factory, Richard Shotton explains how behavioural science can be applied to advertising and how a few simple tricks can help marketers improve the effectiveness of campaigns and influence what consumers buy.
Not all advertising agencies have grasped this as an opportunity"
Shotton disputes the criticism that behavioural science is merely the preserve of the anecdote.
"All these biases are based on peer reviewed evidence," he says. "They're far more robust than what sometimes goes for rationale in advertising, where people default to the highest paid or most eloquent person in the room."
The real question is why we're not seeing more examples of it deployed, particularly in major awards shows such as Cannes Lions or the IPA Effectiveness Awards.
"Not all advertising agencies have grasped this as an opportunity," Shotton says, arguing that because it's a discipline dating back to the late 19th century, it looks old-fashioned in the digital age.
"But think about VW, Avis, black Levi's, Nespresso, the Amazon webpage. There are hundreds of brands that are applying biases - from anchoring to the pratfall effect. Some of the greatest advertisers have used these biases."
Mark Cross, a founding director of Texture AI and a marketing consultant, believes all the usual pressures in the ad agency environment hold things back. "We don't get time to think deeply enough, but all the evidence is out there if you want to know how to change a behaviour," he says.
Shotton says that behavioural science gives an accurate model of why people do the things they do and unlocks ideas and effective ways of changing people’s behaviour - whether that’s at the creative stage, the strategic stage, media stage or buying stage.
And given its robustness, with hundreds of biases to choose from, it can give advertisers an obvious competitive advantage.
But the idea that it doesn't work because it has not been proven is an unfair portrait, Shotton says. "It can't be dismissed because advertising itself hasn't seen a massive uplift in performance, because part of it is a zero sum game.
"People are only buying so many soft drinks, so if this insight is available to all of our competitors, then it's not just about applying behavioural science. It's about applying it at a greater speed and depth than your competitors."
Shotton says he fails to see why it wouldn't work. "This isn't some new recent thing, this is psychology. It's built off of experiments and case studies which outline how people make decisions. How can the study of human decision making not be beneficial to advertising?"
So this could really just be the beginning of a behavioural science renaissance if more advertising strategies were to incorporate it early on in the campaign process.
"We at the media agency have spent a huge amount of time putting ads in front of people with great offers, in the right place at the right time, and still the customer is refusing to do as they're told and buy the product," says Unerman.
"And then you start getting into why is that? And what other nudges could there be? We're still not really seeing specific ads for a brand for Guardian readers or for BuzzFeed readers, or Channel 4 versus ITV, or Love Island versus News at Ten.
"Because of that, I think there's a role for behavioural science in solving those problems."