Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Oh, behave

So, have you heard of this thing? This new thing? Behavioural Economics, they call it. Because up until now, economics wasn't really concerned with human behaviour.
Did you think that was a joke? I'm afraid it wasn't. I wasn't there, but I'm told that for the last - well, ever - economics has run on the principle of Rational Man, that is to say that any person will, without fail, use rational judgement to maximise gains and minimise costs. As in, nobody ever eats fast food because the temporary pleasure isn't worth the health costs.


So Behavioural Economics seeks to  redress such an imbalance by identifying the biases and subliminal forces that take us down paths without even realising it. Stuff like self-interest, rules of thumb, wanting to be like everyone else, are far more powerful than we'd like to admit.

Poster people for this are two clever people called Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, who penned a book called nudge. Buy a copy or better, grab one from the desk of the planner nearest you. A nice book about how to make people save for their retirement, become organ donors, not pee on the floor in public toilets, that sort of thing. 
Then ad-people picked it up, and what began as an innocent treatise on social policy is being waved about in the air like a boy who's found Daddy's hunting rifle.

So it was with trepidation that I found myself at the RSA for the IPA's inaugural Behavioural Economics event. It was pleasantly awesome - Rory gave his traditionally gigglesome verbal cabaret, but the best talk by far was an impassioned speech from Nick Southgate, Planning Director at Grey. I won't divulge his content but there were plenty of moments that had people whispering and pencilling furiously - and even laughing. At times, something of a nervous "I should've known that" laughter.

But then, the theme of the event - and the discipline of Behavioural Economics - is to make us wake to things we'd previous relegated to the 'common sense' drawer, a pseudonym for 'things we should know, or should know better'.

Other people have talked about B.E. better than I, but here's my take on the new questions the day raised.

-BE states that liminal communication is something of a blunt instrument. If your choice architecture is well-formed (such as in any good form), communication doesn't necessarily get that much of a look-in. And yet our profession is supposed to be as communicators. The scary fact is that the IPA meeting today was almost a panic response - a crash course in nudging. Because it's been around for a while, and has been invented not by us, but by sociologists, psychologists, and more adventurous policy formers. Not us. So in meeting and reading up, we are taking the view that we can basically co-opt this idea, and use it ourselves.

-But if we want to do so, we need to get clients to allow us to mess with the architecture of the 'building', not just paint it in the most appropriate colours and put up persuasive signage. Why should they let us? We'll need to do two things.
One: Gain a hell of a lot of expertise, and rediscover what we had in a B.E. context. We've done some of this before. How does it fit with the theory. And how might the theory create better behaviour change.
Two: Reposition ourselves. Doing this stuff means getting involved with NPD, logistics, service standards, company codes of practice...lots of shit that we're usually not allowed near. So we need to extend our remit. As communicators, the offering is "we'll work out what you need to say to make people like you, and then they might buy your product". We must become sales agencies. As salesmen, the offering is different: "we'll work out what you need to do to sell. If saying some stuff is necessary we'll work out what that is, but it's by no means guaranteed".

This is a huge task. But if an agency were to pull it off, marketing  might become a very big beast indeed.


  1. Good post. I thought the event was impressive as well - although a fair bit of rehashing lots of the stories that have been told elsewhere see

    Kate from Partners Alderidge was interesting in that she seem to have some experience in actually turning the theory in to real application in terms of communication strategy & outcomes.

    Overall Nudge & BE has a sense of the new fangled thing, that will influence advertising thinking, much like Tipping point did a couple of years ago.

  2. Cheers for your view. It describes the possibilities well - New Thing, New Name for Old Thing, or Nothing? I don't think it's an Emperor's New Clothes situation or anything... but it's interesting to draw the parallels with the way adland tried to catch up with Digital once it noticed it was 'a thing' - bringing in special consultants, having all sorts of big conferences on the thing... to reach the conclusion that the medium doesn't necessarily change people's fundamental needs.

    Overall, I'm optimistic though. It certainly makes sense, and I'm sure everyone can point to a time when they remember being (knowingly!) nudged. And Rory's outlook makes sense - if it doesn't find fame as A Discipline, if it doesn't Make Money, then even as a new way of thinking about existing creative work it'd have value.

    And yeah, Kate Waters is a v clever lady (and the person who showed me what planning is). It was good to hear someone on the panel make the point that we do, in fact, do some of this already.


Sound off on your big crazy opinions here please... and if you have a longer piece, send it in and we'll put it up all nice and in full :)