October 22, 2014

Four Principles Of Quantum Advertising

This is the second part of a 3-part series about the duality of consumer behavior and its importance to the people who create ads. It is also, perhaps, the most pretentious title for a post in the history of blogging.

One of the aspects of advertising that make it fascinating is that we never seem to make much progress in understanding it. The arguments raging today about the nature of good advertising are the same ones that raged 50 years ago.

While we have much deeper analytical tools for making media choices, we still have no reliably accurate method for predicting the success of the material the media is carrying -- the ads.

Just when we think we know what will successfully motivate a consumer, we launch an Apple "Genius" TV campaign or a Pepsi "Refresh" social media campaign, and everything we thought we knew turns out to be wrong.

In the first part of this series we decided that neither the rational nor the emotional model of consumer behavior seems to be adequate in describing the contradictions that advertisers and marketers are constantly confronted with.

We likened this problem to the enigma physicists are faced with in the study of sub-atomic particles. Sometime these things behave like particles and sometimes like waves. These behaviors are contradictory -- yet together they form a remarkably good description of what's going on. This duality is confusing and counter-intuitive, but it has proven to be accurate.

If you were to suggest some kind of similarity between quantum physics and consumer behavior, most people (including me) would roll their eyes and think you were nuts. And yet, the analogy seems to work -- sometimes consumers behave like one thing, and sometimes like another.

Without putting too fine a point on it (and getting way off into psycho-babble voodoo-land) if consumers really do exhibit a dual nature, maybe we can derive some principles about this that resemble the "quantum" principles of physics. Otherwise the whole thing is just another bullshit marketing contrivance.

Though perhaps a little far-fetched, I thought I would see if I could develop some language which would make this theory resemble the quantum theory of physics.

So here we go: Four "quantum" principles of consumer behavior:

1. All purchasing behavior can be described as either emotional or rational.
Consumers are not logic machines, nor are they puppy dogs. The processing that goes into a buying decision is complex and imprecise. It can be described as either logic or emotion. Just as E=mc2 told us there is an equivalency between matter and energy, consumer behavior contains an equivalency (somewhere) between logic and emotion that we don't quite understand.
2. When developing advertising or marketing strategies, the closest we can get to predicting consumer behavior is to quantify probabilities and likelihoods.
There are no absolutes about consumer behavior.
3. By its nature, consumer research must always contain a substantial degree of uncertainty.
Studying a consumer's "rational" response to advertising will affect her "emotional" response. Studying her "emotional" response will affect her "rational" response. You may be able to understand either response, but you cannot know both simultaneously.
4. We can quantify the emotional or rational basis for a purchasing decision, but we can't quantify the relationship between the two.
We can know the factors, but we can never know the formula -- how much logic compared to how much emotion.
These are new ideas to me and I need to let them marinate a little before I can be sure I like them (or even understand them.) I don't have an ounce of data to support any of this, but I do find these ideas interesting, and they do seem to describe and explain a lot of the mysteries and puzzles I have encountered in my hundreds of years in the ad business.

The big question is this: if these ideas have any real value and are not just a bunch of ponderous bullshit, they ought to have practical applications to the creation of advertising.

Next time I'll take a stab at it. I'll describe what the implications of all this windy carrying-on might actually mean to the most important people in our business  - those who create the ads.


Mark said...

I like the rabbit hole you are going down. These all seem like good points to ponder and make sense after the first read. Let the marinating begin.

LeShann said...

Just one pedantic remark, when you say "sometimes consumers behave like one thing, and sometimes like another.", if directly comparing with quantum physics it's not sometimes and sometimes, it's is both at all times but we are only able to measure/study one way at a time (which is somewhat articulated in point #3).

On point 4, it is true now but I disagree on the pessimism. First of all it's always reductive to claim something could never be known, it might just be a matter of not having the right measuring tools, or theory, yet. But also, we could separate individual and group explanation. Taking a whole consumer segment, a probabilistic model (as suggested in #2) might actually be able to provide a fairly accurate formula that predicts really well the group, and simply offers a wider range of possibilities at an individual level. This is me being hopeful here.

bob hoffman said...

Good points

Jon said...

Speaking as a quantum physicist turned copywriter, I like where you're going with this.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

I use the gut index. If my gut tells me it's a good idea, I test it with people I believe to be in the target audience. Anecdotally, this has proven successful quite often. I realize that "you just know" is a piss-poor algorithm for success, but you go with what works.

I've often found that the strategies I'm given go to an infinitesimal degree of specificity without actually adding anything useful to the creative process, which I would call a failure of strategy. And since we're advertising to people, well heck, I happen to *be* a person. Maybe we know more about it intuitively than we think. And maybe, even if we're jaded by the business itself, we can use that intuition to actually connect with people in a meaningful way?

I know you're trying to quantify it all, Bob, and if anyone can, it's you. After all, what do I know? I'm a worn-out old hack.

Sean Peake said...

Keeping with your quantum theme, I've always believed in the Observer Effect when it comes to focus groups

Jason Hartley said...

The probabilistic model is the solution to this problem, I believe. We just want to improve our odds of creating a successful campaign. We'll get it wrong plenty at the individual level, but on the whole we'll be more right. The big issue is when people (clients) expect certainty, which to a degree the digital-advertising industry has encouraged. It's very hard for me to say, "we used to be right 55% of the time, but now we're right 60% of the time, though we can't tell you beforehand what particular individuals will make up the improvement." Clients don't want to hear that, but it is often the truth. Another issue is that with so much data flying around, there are going to be more times where we feel certain about some relationship, but it will just be a fluke.

DEadwardTree said...

OK, I think this article has inspired a Eureka moment for me. It's Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle of Marketing: When an SEO expert collides with a content marketer, the bullshit is sure to fly, but you can't simultaneously know both the mass and the velocity of the bullshit.

Rosario Di Dio said...

As the French writer Pennac puts it in "Messieurs les enfants":
That is the kind of bullshit one could found things like a new religion or a political movement on...
As an affectionate reader I can only say this is the most interesting and scientific expression of common sense applied to advertising I have ever seen and one that could lead to very good things.
After all when you launch any marketing campaign you are only having your best possible "educated guess" (having tried to do your homework honestly and diligently).

Matt Burgess said...

I think your Bank of the West headline perfectly nailed the duality you are writing about. Forgive me if I botch it, but "We have free checking. They have free checking. We have great service. They have free checking." It sells the logical side of things, and uses charm to close the deal. It really is the perfect ad. IMHO.

It's what I do said...

Are you going to factor in the existence of the conscious observer and how it changes the activity of matter? In parallel, I love the notion that if you look at consumer behavior, they will do pretty much one thing or another, and we have endless ways to measure that.

But the instant you look away, all bets are off.

timorr said...

It is received wisdom in direct marketing that 40% of the effectiveness of an ad comes from the list (media considerations or "place" (?)), 40% from the offer ("product" and "price") and 20% from "everything else" (concept, creative, etc., or "promotion"). Get the right message about the right product in front of the right people.

I am not always the audience. So what appeals to me, whether rational or emotional, is not always relevant. For a B2B prospect the emotion might be fear that making the wrong decision with his company's money might cost him his job! Might not matter whether he likes the product, the salesperson or the ad. Or, we might have a complex buying decision, with multiple decision makers, each with a different motivation, each of whom requires a different appeal.

Nevertheless, what I think is revolutionary is your suggestion that BOTH logic and emotion are involved simultaneously. Sometimes, we say emotion makes the decision but logic provides its justification.

Jeffrey Summers said...

Sure you can...the speed is calculated by how fast the bs gets posted/rt'd/shared on all platforms. The mass is calculated by how many more sm gururs adopt it, change it to add their voice and repurpose it for their own ends.

Harrovian said...

If I'm understanding correctly both your thesis and its parallel with quantum theory, then surely your first Principle should go: All purchasing behavior can be described as both (rather than 'either') emotional and (rather than 'or') rational?

Mark Pilipczuk said...

An excellent series, Bob, and worth thinking about. As a young direct response marketer for a publishing company, I was often frustrated when my research indicated "more facts!", yet the emotional appeal won handily. Likewise, when the opposite occurred. I ended up with thinking like a quantum physicist as a result and saying "it depends" a lot to my team. I didn't have your wonderful term "behavior-plasticity" to use! Keep up the good work.

Leslie B said...

The author believes lowering prices, offering discounts, and utilizing other types of promotional activities encourage logical thinking in the consumer?