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Why advertising can’t change consumer behavior (at least according to Dick Swaab).

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I don’t usually hang out in casinos, let alone, on Thursday evenings but the twentieth of January I was invited to come listen to a talk about the brain by Dr. Dick Swaab, accordingly one of the most prominent neurobiologists in the world. The call was by the Esprix[i] organization; the exemplary advertising prize in the Netherlands, presided by Peter Paul Blommers, Ogilvy Amsterdam’s vivid CEO. Professor Swaab wrote a cash hitting page-turner called ‘We are our brain, from womb to Alzheimer[ii]&[iii]. The chosen venue was, as I mentioned the Holland Casino[iv] near Leidseplein in Amsterdam. And what a venue it was. But before entering the catacombs of one of man’s most devastating addictions, let me write a bit on Professor Swaab’s explicit believe that advertising cannot change consumer behavior.

The book – selling some two hundred and twenty thousand copies to date – is about how the brain functions from the moment of conception until we die. A number of issues are elaborated: homosexuality, Alzheimer, schizophrenic behavior, Parkinson. According to the neurobiologist and MD all of these issues can be explained by brain research. At moments, Swaab addresses controversial or peccary certain issues e.g. if pregnant women would not smoke, thirty percent babies would not get born prematurely, saving Dutch society an odd twenty six million Euro’s of health care.

Back in nineteen ninety nine Swaab became a news hit by stating that the biological clock of homosexual men is twice as big as the heterosexual men’s clock. This provoked an outrageous protest. And way back in the sentries, Swaab once was death-threatened by feminist radicals when stating that the brains of women are different from those of men.

Now in ‘We are our brain’ Swaab talks about free will and external influence. So the industry wondered whether we could use some bio neurologic hocus-pocus to have our target audiences marionette us to unprecedented profits. But than we would have to clear the ideas about free will of the crowds. You know, whether this is true or not like in do we – or better our target audiences – have a free will? And if so, how do we get our audiences to do exactly what we tell them to do? Ergo, can we change the behavior of consumers?

In his talk to this crème-de-la-crème of the Dutch advertising industry, Swaab stoically refuted any audience-fetched and professionally embraced argument that advertisement in fact changes consumer behavior. Swaab’s title slide stated ‘Influence of heredity/early environmental impacts on the character and the (im-)possible changes in behavior’[v] already indicated his thoughts on the topic; Swaab states that behavior cannot be influenced. At least, from a neurological point of view.

Of course we can learn things. Approximately 20 % of what and how we are is what we learned, mainly in the earliest years of our being. The other 80% is what we have inherited from our ancestors. Chances that these percentages will change in due time are nil, according to Swaab, unless something really dramatic will occur. And Swaab means something really really dramatic; something that will have an impact on some of us people, meaning people who have been programmed differently from the majority. It is something that will keep that small group of different people alive while the majority will extinct due to the fact that they don’t have a bio-neural coping mechanism. Swaab may be right that such an occurrence is not likely to take place in the next centuries. And people have not experienced major differentiation in brains recently. Swaab thinks human beings are ready. We’re done. No more serious remakes for us. No more darwinistic evolutionary steps. And because we’re done, we will live our lives the way we have been programmed to do because that’s how we cope on this planet. And that is exactly why advertising will never be able to change the behavior of people, accepting that people are consumers.

Now, do we believe this vision of one of the world’s most renowned brain doctors alive? Well, I do! So, let’s cut the crap. Swaab says it won’t work so I could bet my bottom dollar he’s right. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to face the facts and rethink advertising. Advertising will not change human behavior. But then what will?

Well, the first question is if we really want to change human behavior. I am inclined to answer a prompt NO. Why change THEM (mark the emphasis)? Why not change US, the advertising experts, the marketers, salesmen? Ever since we have been dreaming up advertising strategies we have been trying to get a formidable return on investment but who was it again who said that half his advertising dollar was spent effectively but didn’t know which half[vi]? Can we really make people buy stuff? Could it be that we deliver consumers what they really want?

Now, to wrap up, back to the casino. Have you ever been there? For me it was a complete wow. But after having read Swaab’s new book, all the empty faces, mechanically filling slot machines. I recon the marketers at Holland Casino have listened very carefully to their audiences and came up with a Swaabian concept: addiction is in the genes. Nothing we can do about it so you better just give in to it. Or not?

Anyway. Ten years ago I was impressed by an article I read in Fastcompany.com about Procter & Gamble with the title ‘Don’t shout, Listen’[vii]. The mere idea that we, the marketers, would listen to what our audiences say, want, demand, whish, was a new concept. Let us not argue whether all is true what these P&G guys told us but it did make a difference at that time. And as far as I’m concerned, it still does. But if new insights like these can actually change the behavior of consumers, I really wouldn’t know.


[iii] Translation by me.

[v] Translation and picture by me. This means that the translation may be okay but the picture is lousy thanks to my iPhone’s silly camera.

[vi] Oh well, there are a lot of variations tot hat question at http://staff.washington.edu/gray/misc/which-half.html.

Written by Kees Winkel

February 1, 2011 at 18:06

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2 Responses

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  1. Hi Kees,

    I think you’re absolutely right about the fact we can’t change human behaviour. But we are capable of influencing it. As you mentioned in your article our minds are shaped in our early years. It’s almost impossible to change these mental anchors.

    Professor Gerald Zaltman developed the ZMET (Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique). A market research tool designed to elicit metaphors. Proper research to a small but well selected group of customers gives enough insight in to how people process and react to information or a stimulus.

    So if we’re able to “listen” to what our unconsciousness tells us and adept our marketing strategies to that, shouldn’t that be a(n unconscious) motivator?

    Edwin Noorlander

    February 1, 2011 at 19:37

    • Thanks for the tip on ZMET. Looking forward checking it out.
      Kees

      Kees Winkel

      February 1, 2011 at 19:56


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