Ladders, Black Cats And How Marketers Fall Prey To Superstitions & Assumptions

Ladders, Black Cats And How Marketers Fall Prey To Superstitions & Assumptions
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B&T’s favourite Millennial marketers are back with a brand new piece. Today, Brian Mitchell PhD and Evan Mitchell, co-founders of Gen Y brand strategy specialists HOW&Y (howandy.net), take a look at how spooked marketers are letting superstitions hold them back…

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 NZ the SPCA has taught dogs to drive a car. The evidence is on YouTube – it’s a hoot.

This Kiwi dog-driving achievement is an example of operant conditioning, a form of learning that’s been recognised 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 behaviours 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 behaviour – 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 behaviours.

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

We’ve all witnessed superstitious behaviour, in ourselves or in others. 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 behaviour can affect commercial decision-making. The behavioural 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 behaviour – 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). Is it possible that superstitious behaviour occurs in commercial decision-making?

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 for B&T 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 behaviour’?”

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.

Gen Y are not like Gen X and Boomers – and for the most part never will be.

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