Context - The Devil is in the Detail | ...Gasp!


The Devil is in the Detail

The Blogfather continues his Behavioural Economics journey of discovery, with an exploration of the importance of context.

"the people with the power want to do big, expensive things, so the small, simple and effective solution is oft overlooked", Rory Sutherland

Amongst various childhood memories, one of my earliest is being read Aesop’s Fables, and in particular The North Wind and the Sun. You may know it, but in summary The Sun challenges the North Wind to a contest based on a show of strength, with the task being to remove the coat from a traveller passing through the mountains. The North Wind thinks this easy; all he has to do is blow it off him, but the harder he blows, the more the traveller grips harder to his coat. Then it comes to the Sun’s turn. He simply comes out from behind the clouds and shines; basking the traveller in warmth, who responds by removing the coat willingly.

It was the Sun’s superior knowledge of the setting and human behaviour that won out. Persuasion over force.

There is a parallel in advertising and marketing. A prevalent view in the industry is that to make an impact you have to spend big. The brute force, if you will. As my last blog covered, there is some merit in this for advertising, but as Rory Sutherland argues, the people with the power want to do big, expensive things, so the small, simple and effective solution is oft overlooked.

Behavioural economics show that there is a strong disproportionality between the amount of effort it is widely perceived is needed to affect human behavioural change, and what is actually needed in reality; it is not necessarily reliant on a lot of spend, nor force. If we can change the perceived, intangible value, then the actual value is hugely transformed.

One of the key component parts in achieving this, in the delicacy of persuasive communications, is undoubtedly context. With a genuine understanding of context, you are solving things psychologically, for we are dealing with humans and all their emotions and irrational thoughts. As a business, if you can understand, align and optimise to the context in which the public will encounter your advert, service, or basically anything that represents you and your brand, then you will live a lot longer in their memory.

Rory Sutherland gives this great example of a brand nailing this. Virgin Atlantic Upper Class used to have adorable aeroplane-shaped salt and pepper sets, so adorable that it would enter into most people’s heads to nick them. But if you turn them over, engraved on the bottom is ‘pinched from Virgin Atlantic’. The words, and the experience, will remain with you long after you get through arrivals, while these items appeared on eBay for years, helping spread the cheeky yet witty Virgin tone of voice further.

...engraved on the bottom is ‘pinched from Virgin Atlantic’

Richard Shotton makes the point that small contextual shifts can change the impact of advertising, and there are hundreds of ways this can be done, but because many of these contextual changes feel trivial, many advertisers ignore them; the assumption being that if it doesn’t cost much or take much effort, how can it have any real impact?

He gives the example of the psychology around funny adverts and group behaviour. Laughing is actually a very communal thing. (It must account in part for the popularity of stand up gigs.) There is evidence for adverts watched in groups being rated as funnier than those watched by individuals. People rarely laugh in a genuinely uncontrollable manner. People often laugh as if to communicate; ‘I’m in unison with him, and her. We are together in our appreciation of this’. It is thus that brands would do well to broadcast amusing ads in contexts where they will appear to groups; family time, or prior to a movie showing, for example.

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“Trifles make the sum of Life.” Charles Dickens.

This new advert from Eurostar registered with me the last week. Whilst containing an understated humour, it was not that it should be presented to a large group of people who were more inclined to laugh, but more to half a nation who feel aggrieved. I’m not sure if it was planned or just chance, but the social context in which it was aired, in a UK on the brink of Brexit being officially signed off, makes it all the more poignant and persuasive. Of course, it helps that it is nicely produced with stylistic flourishes reminiscent of the The Grand Budapest Hotel movie, but it gives us a very European perspective, celebrating all that is attractive about Europe, and is no doubt subtly playing on the rose tinted view of Europe across a post-Brexit landscape.

If you happened to click through to the Eurostar video on YouTube, there is a chance you were not served an advert first, as brands, as well as the major global marketing player Havas Media, started pulling their ads from the platform and Google as a whole this week. The problem is that some major brands’ ads have been placed alongside some exceptionally dodgy content, including YouTube videos of American white nationalists, a hate preacher banned in the UK and old episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Paul Frampton, Havas UK’s CEO, stated: “we have a duty of care to our clients in the UK marketplace to position their brands in the right context where we can be assured that that environment is safe, regulated to the degree necessary and additive to their brands’ objectives.”

This is arguably a more artless form of context, but it helps to make the point that if you completely dismiss the importance of context, it can come back to bite you.

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