Buy Now, Rationalize Later

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

Buy now, rationalize later.

Advertisers are growing ever more sophisticated at understanding how emotions lead to sales. Some politicians have picked up on the lessons.

Toronto marketing expert Jeff Swystun gets philosophical when he talks about the advertising game.

“Plato wrote (that) ‘human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge’,” he says.

“Marketing works when it makes us feel something. From a psychological perspective, when we feel strongly about something, we are pushed to action,” explains the president of Swystun Communications, who has worked more than 20 years in branding and advertising at several agencies.

Of course emotion has been used in advertising for decades, from Heinz ketchup’s classic “Anticipation” commercial and Mikey liking Life Cereal to Coca-Cola teaching the world to sing with hippies on a hill.

And today companies are even more sophisticated in their approaches to emotional advertising, informed by a deeper understanding of decision making and techniques to ingrain brands into our psyches.

Perhaps the biggest brand these days — Donald Trump — has shown the importance of appealing to customers’ emotions and self-image.

In his business career, Trump was a master of marketing, and these lessons served him well in his campaign to become U.S. president. Even amid the Russia scandals, White House staff turmoil and a stream of official lies and obfuscations, he’s maintained his fervent base of support.

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Consumer Misbehaviour

An episode of the U.S. version of the television comedy, The Office, involves a Halloween costume contest at the paper supplier Dunder Mifflin. The top prize is a discount book offering coupons from local businesses. The retail cost of the book is $40.00 that offers $15,000 in savings if all coupons are redeemed. One character on the show, Oscar Martinez, is an accountant who takes exception to the irrational exuberance of his colleagues towards this prize.

The employees throw themselves into the contest. They produce topical and highly detailed costumes to best each other. The competition dominates the workday. Oscar’s frustration grows to the point where he challenges their thinking, “Everyone realizes this coupon book is not actually worth $15,000 right? You would have to spend $200,000 on crap you don’t need to get $15,000 of benefits. I am not the only one who sees this, right?”

Apparently, he is.

The employees escalate the competition by upgrading their costumes and strategizing how best to present them. Oscar tries one last time to educate his colleagues on the economics and their behavior. They aggressively rebut or outright disregard his argument.

To them, the coupon book represents $15,000 in real value. Oscar chooses to confront this irrationality head on. He switches from a colorful disco themed dance outfit to a very staid and generic ensemble worn by an everyman. Oscar explains to his colleagues using air quotes that he is now a “rational consumer”.

The contest commences with the participants showing off extremely elaborate creations including a samurai, Lady Gaga, a mummy, film director Michael Moore and a sexy nurse. Each employee casts a vote for the winning costume and to everyone’s surprise Oscar wins but the victory is greeted with little enthusiasm. The show cleverly reveals that the reasons why people voted for Oscar were as irrational as their view of the prize.

Given our confusing behaviors, it should come as no surprise that the earliest writers in marketing were psychologists. Understanding why people do what they do is at the heart of marketing. Yet, marketers constantly struggle to better their performance.

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