Normally in consumer trials of new drinks, unenthusiastic respondents might phrase their dislike diffidently: ‘It’s not really my thing’; ‘It’s slightly cloying’; ‘It’s more a drink for kids’ – that kind of thing. In the case of Red Bull, the criticism was almost angry: ‘I wouldn’t drink this piss if you paid me to,’ was one refrain.
Machines don’t allow for magic, but complex systems do.
When you demand logic, you pay a hidden price: you destroy magic.
More important still, an ad agency is one of the few remaining safe spaces for weird or eccentric people in the worlds of business and government.
Similarly, offering people money when they do something you like makes perfect sense according to economic theory and is called an incentive, but this does not mean you should try to pay your spouse for sex.
Here’s a simple (if expensive) lifestyle hack. If you would like everything in your kitchen to be dishwasher-proof, simply treat everything in your kitchen as though it was; after a year or so, anything that isn’t dishwasher-proof will have been either destroyed or rendered unusable.
For instance, the victorious Brexit campaign in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States have both been routinely blamed on the clueless and emotional behaviour of undereducated voters, but you could make equally strong cases that the Remain campaign in Britain and Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the American presidency failed because of the clueless, hyper-rational behaviour of overeducated advisors, who threw away huge natural advantages.
in Britain were even warned that ‘a vote to leave the EU might result in rising labour costs’ – by a highly astute businessmanfn1 who was so enraptured with models of economic efficiency that he was clearly unaware most voters would understand a ‘rise in labour costs’ as meaning a ‘pay rise’.
It’s important to remember that big data all comes from the same place – the past.
Irrational people are much more powerful than rational people, because their threats are so much more convincing.
A rational leader suggests changing course to avoid a storm. An irrational one can change the weather.
Being slightly bonkers can be a good negotiating strategy: being rational means you are predictable, and being predictable makes you weak.
Behavioural economics is an odd term. As Warren Buffett’s business partner Charlie Munger once said, ‘If economics isn’t behavioural, I don’t know what the hell is.’
Given that cholera was a huge cause of death only a few generations ago, and given that it is thought by some to be making a comeback, perhaps the appendix should no longer be treated as disposable – it seems that, rather like the Spanish royal family, most of the time it’s pointless or annoying, but sometimes it’s invaluable.fn5 Be careful before calling something nonsense.
Like quite a few fellow Anglicans (but unlike my wife who is a priest and hospital chaplain) I am not quite sure of the existence of God, but I would be reluctant to disparage religion as nonsense, as some people do.
Business, creativity and the arts are full of successful non-sense. In fact the single greatest strength of free markets is their ability to generate innovative things whose popularity makes no sense.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, was one of the strangest and most anti-social people who ever lived.
In reality it seems the opposite happens: when sitting on a rising asset, people who would secretly prefer to move 50 or 200 miles away from London are reluctant to, for fear either that they will miss out on future price increases or that, once they leave, they will be unable to afford to move back again.
For instance, there are two equally potent, but completely contradictory, ways to sell a product: ‘Not many people own one of these, so it must be good’ and ‘Lots of people already own one of these, so it must be good.’
What had emerged was that there were two ways to sell this product: with a very long letter – which was reassuring because it was long, and with a very short letter – which was reassuring because it was very short.
for instance, the bargain department store TK Maxx has a customer base that perfectly matches the UK population.
For instance, ostensibly right-wing people will engage – at a local level – in behaviour that is effectively socialist. A Pall Mall club in London is typically full of rich, right-wing people, yet everyone pays equal membership fees, even though they use the club in wildly different ways.
And on Google Maps, once I click the ‘public transport’ button, it assumes I own no car (a very Californian assumption) and will confidently recommend that I travel to my nearby train station – an easy drive of no more than 15 minutes – by an elaborate combination of bus routes that will take an hour and a quarter.
‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.’
Years ago, in an interview on online book-buying for a client, a young man told me something surprisingly honest. ‘Look, to be frank, I don’t like reading novels all that much, but I find if you have read a few Ian McEwan [novels] you can pull a much better class of girl.’ Such candour about our deeper motives is rare.
Imagine a world where we had no capacity for deception, and where people on dates directly asked prospective partners about their earning power and career prospects, without even pretending to be interested in their personalities. Where would we be then?
Restaurants are only peripherally about food: their real value lies in social connection, and status.fn11
In many ways it is the very inefficiency of premium foods that gives them their emotional value. The sourdough bread beloved of hipsters is insanely slow and inefficient to produce.
Contrast it with the US cheese industry thirty years ago – which was fabulously efficient and centred on a small number of states. In the 1990s there seemed to be only two varieties of cheese, a yellow one and an orange one, and neither was much good.
Using this as a metaphor, I would like to see the improvement we have enjoyed in food over the last three decades applied to other fields. It is only when we abandon a narrow logic and embrace an appreciation of psycho-logical value, that we can truly improve things.
David Ogilvy’s words: ‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.’
Anyone who has waited at home for five hours for an engineer knows that it’s a form of mental torture, a little like being under house arrest; you can’t have a bath or pop out for a pint of milk, because you fear that the second you do, the engineer will turn up. So you spend half the day on tenterhooks,
BA 786 – Frankfurt – DELAYED or BA 786 – Frankfurt – DELAYED 70 minutes. The second message is a bit of a pain – but at least you are in control of the situation. You may need to make a few apologetic telephone calls, or go to a lounge and get your laptop out, but you can get on with re-planning your day. The first message, however, is a form of mental torture.
but it’s true: if, as an airline, you have a choice between delaying a flight by an hour or spending £5,000 to leave on time, your decision should be influenced by the quality of passenger information you can provide.
If you would like an easy life, never come up with a solution to a problem that is drawn from a field of expertise other than that from which it is assumed the solution will arise.
A few years ago, my colleagues produced an extraordinary intervention to reduce crime. They hypothesised that the presence of the metal shutters that shops in crime-ridden areas covered their windows with at night may in fact increase the incidence of crime, since they implicitly communicated that this was a lawless area.
The same problem is widespread in medicine. Surgeons felt challenged by keyhole surgery and other new, less invasive procedures that can be carried out with the support of radiographers, because they used skills different from those that they had spent a lifetime perfecting.
A few years ago, a High Court judge was driving home from his golf club after five or six double gin and tonics when he was pulled over by the police and breathalysed. When the machine barely registered an amber light, the police let him go – at which point, he drove back to the club and demanded that the head barman be fired for watering down the drinks.
The Uber map is a psychological moonshot, because it does not reduce the waiting time for a taxi but simply makes waiting 90 per cent less frustrating.
Most people would acknowledge that relatively trivial considerations, such as an ad campaign or the design of a label, may have an influence on what we drink in a bar, but if you suggest to people that similar unconscious motivations could be decisive in our use of healthcare or how we choose to save for retirement, people are scandalised.
Perhaps advertising agencies are largely valuable simply because they create a culture in which it is acceptable to ask daft questions and make foolish suggestions.
Llewelyn Thomas, the copywriter son of the poet Dylan, was having none of this. ‘I don’t think it works like that at all. You see an electric drill in a shop and decide you want it. Then you take it home and wander around your house looking for excuses to drill holes in things.’
If you want to solve the problem of unnecessary doctor’s visits or simply to set up a system to prioritise who gets seen by the doctor first, it is vital that you factor in unconscious
A recent trial proved that there were no dental-health benefits to the practice of flossing. I imagine that the manufacturers of dental floss were terrified by this finding, but they can relax – I confidently predict that this finding will have almost no effect on people’s propensity to floss their teeth; they weren’t really doing it for health reasons in the first place.fn2
As Nassim Nicholas Taleb remarks, ‘There is no such thing as a rational or irrational belief – there is only rational or irrational behaviour.’ And the best way for evolution to encourage or prevent a behaviour is to attach an emotion to it.
Similarly, Islam requires that the dead are buried as soon as possible after death, in order to ‘reduce the suffering of the deceased in the afterlife and to return them to Allah’. As a result, throughout the Gallipoli campaign in 1915,fn2 Muslims went to great lengths to bury their dead; by contrast, allied bodies often lay on the battlefield for days before they were collected.
Believe it or not, the phrase ‘Often a bridesmaid, never a bride’ has its origins in an advert for Listerine – here was a hygiene product being sold not on medical benefits but on the fear of social and sexual rejection.
Consumer behaviour, and advertisers’ attempts to manipulate it, can be viewed as an immense social experiment, with considerable power to reveal the truth about what people want and what drives them.
One of the great contributors to the profits of high-end restaurants is the fact that bottled water comes in two types, enabling waiters to ask ‘still or sparkling?’, making it rather difficult to say ‘just tap’.