Ladders, Black Cats And Marketing Assumptions


Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Director, Love & Wine and Co-founder, Gen Y Brand Specialists HOW&Y

What’s black and tan and looks good on a lawyer? A Doberman.

Don’t you just love dog jokes? (Actually, let’s be honest, that was a lawyer joke – and there’s deservedly more where that came from.) But here’s a funny dog story that isn’t a joke. In New Zealand the SPCA has taught dogs to drive a car. The evidence is on YouTube – it’s a hoot.

This dog-driving achievement is an example of operant conditioning, a form of learning that’s been recognized for more than a hundred years. Researched into prominence mid last century by the psychologist B F Skinner, it involves the techniques of reinforcement and punishment – each of which can be positive (adding a stimulus to a situation) or negative (removing a stimulus). When combined with other principles, such as schedules of reinforcement, these four tools control much of our behaviour.

One of the interesting consequences of operant conditioning, is that random behaviors can become associated with positive or negative outcomes, in a way that seems causal. Such believable but imaginary connections between an action and an outcome can lead to superstitious behavior – where a particular action will be avoided or another carried out, in the hope of escaping something negative or securing something positive. The cognitive label for these events is magical thinking. Many examples have passed into folklore – not walking under a ladder, avoiding black cats, crossing fingers, blowing out all the candles… But circumstances can result in the creation of our own superstitious behaviors.

That’s a slimmed down account of the phenomenon, but it will serve our purposes.

And up to a point it’s harmless fun – that point being where it veers towards the slippery slope of delusion. Our interest lies in if and how superstitious behavior can affect commercial decision-making. The behavioral mechanisms are in place, but is it possible or likely that decisions would actually be made superstitiously, given the obvious downside?

Take the field of marketing, where costly decisions occur regularly and judgments are often laden with subjectivity. There are numerous variables at play in a marketing campaign and most of those decisions will be significantly influenced by the knowledge-based expectations of the decision-maker/s. That’s as we’d expect.

But how significant is that influence? Here, psychological research takes us in an unexpected direction. It turns out that the influence of knowledge-based expectations over the decision-making process can extend to blocking out relevant information where this contradicts the expectation.

Consciously or unconsciously, expectations based on prior experience assume a dominance based on their familiarity alone, even in the face of contrary evidence. Just another form of superstitious behavior – automatic belief in a course of action, on the assumption it’s right. We love to find patterns in our world that we can believe in. Which plays to this kind of illusion. And ominously, the culprit here is something we’ve been taught to respect – experience.

When there are multiple variables in play, as in our campaign example – choosing the brand, target market/s, the idea, the theme, the media, and so on – what are the odds on one or more of these mutually dependent decisions being based on biased and erroneous assumptions arising from past experience? And with what impact on the outcome?

So, back to our question (now a no-brainer).

More than possible, it’s certain and inevitable. And undoubtedly, given our human failings, it’s also widespread. We can’t eliminate subjectivity from marketing decisions, nor should we want to. But we can and should question marketing assumptions based on faith.

In a previous article on Millennial consumers, we had this to say “What if the successes marketers enjoy with this demographic are a matter of chance, of hitting Gen Y values they weren’t even targeting? What if the subsequent repeat of their ‘successful’ approaches is akin to what psychologists would deem ‘superstitious behavior’?”

This probability will remain as long as marketers ignore this generation’s distinctive differences, and attempt to engage Millennials via techniques and messages that worked with other generations.

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]EVAN MITCHELLEVAN MITCHELL graduated from the University of Sydney with an Honors degree in English Literature and Psychology. He worked as a sommelier and sales performance consultant to the hospitality industry before joining Mitchell Performance Systems (MPS). Evan spent a number of years developing sales performance strategies for leading US consumer products companies. He has co-authored three books with Brian Mitchell, on commercial psychological themes – including the Praeger 2009 publication The Psychology of Wine – and given joint papers at major conferences and festivals. Evan leads the brand creation activities within the MPS company Love & Wine. He also heads up research efforts for the broader Millennial market. He is a director of Love & Wine, and co-founder of How & Y a business specializing in connecting brands with the Gen Y consumer market. Contact: [email protected][/message]

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Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchellhttp://www.howandy.net
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell write extensively on psychological themes, with scores of published articles on three continents. Brian has a clinical Ph.D. and a significant period as a therapist. Evan has Honors degrees in Psychology and English Literature, and also extensive practical experience. They have two published books. The well-reviewed hardcover The Psychology of Wine: truth and beauty by the glass (www.psychologyofwine.com ) – Praeger US (and now in eBook edition) explored the aesthetics of wine and art and their psychological possibilities. This led to the storyline and structure of their upcoming literary thriller The Last Cave, an action narrative of suspense and surprise in the mode of Terry Hayes’ I am Pilgrim. Prior to writing full-time, the pair conducted a successful US consulting operation specializing in negotiation effectiveness. Subsequently extended to generational studies on decision making tendencies by Gens Y and Z in the consumer world and politics.They can be reached through [email protected]