There are no universal rules for influencing people

11 Dec 2018  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
There are no universal rules for influencing people

Applying the learnings of behavioural science to advertising means understanding the culture, audience and context within which they operate, writes William Hanmer-Lloyd

The learnings of behavioural science do not always work. Recently a Dutch supermarket tried to increase the consumption of healthy brown wholemeal bread by placing it in a more accessible location within store, taking learnings from a nudge experiment where fruit was chosen more often than sweeter, unhealthier options for dessert, when it was easier to access.

But the experiment failed. The location of the healthier bread did not make a clear impact on consumer purchase behaviour, although other factors like ‘days of the week’ did. What applied to fruit and desserts in American cafeterias did not apply to white and brown bread in Dutch supermarkets.

This is because although the growing list of findings and biases within behavioural science are useful indicators of human behaviour (and how to influence human behaviour), they are not universal rules that can easily be applied across every similar situation.

Social norms are exceptionally well recognised and utilised areas of behavioural science. The general principle is that humans instinctively follow what they perceive to be expected behaviour within a group. This has been well documented by researchers like Robert Cialdini and Dan Ariely and has been used in numerous advertising and behaviour change campaigns to impact people's decisions and actions by providing normative feedback.

But the influence of social norms is not fixed. It can vary depending upon the culture of the group (cultures that have historically had to deal with greater levels of perceived threat, for example, generally respond more to normative messaging and follow social norms) or the specifics of a person.

For example, the behavioural insights team in the UK’s government - known as the Nudge Unit - famously increased the rate at which people paid their tax on time by 15% by including a message saying “most people pay their tax on time”. Despite this success, the normative messaging actually decreased collections amongst those with the largest tax bills – potentially because those with sizeable tax bills, and thus those who had the highest incomes or ran the biggest businesses, saw themselves as those who operate outside the norms of most people.

When the Nudge Unit changed the messaging for the group with the highest tax bills, they found that they responded best to a message about how the public and vital public services lost out when people don’t pay their taxes on time.

The application of biases and behavioural science learnings can also change based on context. For instance, there has been an issue with the paradox of choice - which consumers are less likely to make a decision or buy a product when there is too much choice - not replicating across studies. This is because there are understandably times when consumers or audiences within a specific market will actively want more choice (maximisers vs satisficers – terms which I will explore in more detail later in this series).

There are two main rules for using behavioural science within advertising.

Firstly, we should use it to develop ideas that we can test, and have an approach that includes testing, clear KPIs and measurement.

Secondly to apply the learnings of behavioural science we need to understand the culture, audience and context within which they operate. Otherwise, all too often we will not apply them correctly.

We need to defend against the danger of absolutist thinking and off the shelf solutions. There are very few certainties when it comes to influencing people.

Behavioural science has been brilliant at challenging the absolutist thinking that has tended to dominate academic economic conversations, boardroom decisions and often marketing campaigns. It has highlighted a broad range of biases that shows humans do not act in the reliably rational way that economics would suggest. However, in order to use those biases, we need to ensure that we do not fall into absolutist or oversimplified thinking ourselves.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning. He contributes monthly to Mediatel News, examining the ways behavioural science radically challenges some of the historic approaches of the ad industry.

Part one: Why is behavioural science important to advertising?

Part two: Self-reported data

Part three: Audience decision making

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19 Jul 2019 

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