Monday, November 26, 2012

Consumers Are Getting Smarter?

I've heard it said a lot that consumers are getting smarter and that traditional advertising doesn't work any more. It needs to be more sophisticated to match its audience. I call bullshit on this. In some ways advertising absolutely has gotten more sophisticated, but only in the ways it manipulates consumers, not in any real way that respects their intelligence.

A lot of research has been done over the last 50 years or so on human psychology in general, and advertising in particular. A lot more is known today about how our brains work, and what their shortcomings and blindspots are. Advertisers have learned how to tap into this to some degree, and use our weaknesses against us.

Since this same information is available to us, the consumers (books like Buying In and the book/TV show The Gruen Transfer are a good place to start), the logic is that there is some kind of Red Queen Effect occurring that makes advertisers have to keep one step ahead of the consumers so that their tricks will keep working.

The problem with this, though, is that it assumes that if consumers are aware of a psychological trick, they will be immune to it. Unfortunately, this is not at all true. Sometimes it works, but quite often we are fooled by a trick even when we're aware of it because it works on a subconscious level in our brains, so unless we engage our conscious brain to recognize the trick, it will slip past our defenses.

Daniel Kahneman talks about this in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he separates thinking into two levels, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a fast, pattern recognizing, snap judgement level of thinking, and is generally in control when we're not paying conscious attention to things, or when we're getting an initial impression of something. System 2 is deeper, conscious thought, which takes time and effort, and so we tend to only engage it if we think we need to (and often not even then!).

Just because you know an optical illusion is an illusion, it does not mean you can see through it, and just because you know that a picture of a juicy hamburger on a billboard is trying to manipulate your base urges, it does not mean that it won't make you hungry.

I look at the television ad for the iPad Mini. What does this ad actually show us? Someone playing a tune on a virtual piano on a regular iPad, and then switching to an iPad Mini. That's it. The information content of the ad is basically, "you can now play a virtual piano in a slightly smaller format!". It's really just showing a cool gadget and suggesting, "Hey! Isn't this gadget AWESOME?!", and linking that to a familiar tune. That's the information content of this ad. Does that really seem like an ad that is responding to consumers getting smarter?

Or take the latest iPod ads (yes, I know I'm picking on Apple here, but it's a brand where the people who buy it tend to think they're smarter and more sophisticated than 'the masses', so I think it's the perfect brand to examine). Once again, a catchy tune, and this time just iPod Shuffles and Nanos bouncing around on the screen (it's slightly more complex than that, but that's the essence of it). No information content other than, "Hey, don't these gadgets look cool?".

Yet these ads work. Damn, do they work. Apple's sales of iPads and iPods are testimony to that. But this isn't a response to consumers getting smarter. This isn't in any way respecting the intelligence of the people buying the products. If anything it's downright condescending, the advertising equivalent of dangling car keys in front of a baby and cooing, "Oooh! Look at the shiny!"

So why do we keep hearing that consumers are getting smarter? I think that there are two main reasons for this, and they're both due to the fact that the advertising space is getting more crowded, and advertising has to work harder to be effective as people are bombarded with more ads and they have less impact as a result:
  1. Some companies/advertising firms have decided to make a niche in the space where they treat their customers as smart and savvy, and market to that. Whether they actually treat their customers that way or just say they do to manipulate those customers is a separate matter, and I'd say that both occur in practice, depending on the case in question.
  2. Advertising companies promote the idea of the smart consumer to their customers, the companies that buy their services, as a way to justify their costs. If a company thinks that the consumer is getting smarter, then they're going to feel more justified in spending large amounts commissioning advertising and marketing companies to create sophisticated ads for them. It's hard to justify massive consulting fees to create an advertising campaign if you think the target audience is dumb!
So there you have it. I could be totally wrong about all of this, of course. But next time you see an ad that appears to be treating you as a sophisticated, discerning consumer, try to remember to stop and ask yourself, "Do they really think I'm a smart consumer, or do they just think that I see myself that way, and so they're trying to tap into that conceit to lower my defenses?"


  1. Interesting, I don't completely disagree. The only thing I'm not sure about though, usually when you read 'the consumer is getting smarter', isn't it normally referring to customers and grocery shopping?

    1. Actually, I can't say I've heard it referencing grocery shopping specifically. I guess we've all heard it in different contexts.