Beliefs and burgers

It’s easier to get people to eat a burger than it is to convince them that eating burgers is a good idea.

Almost everyone, no matter how health conscious, will do or eat something that they know probably isn’t good for them. When we do this, we get a little uncomfortable. We have just done something that conflicts with how we view ourselves and, like Jiminy Cricket, up pops cognitive dissonance to make us feel bad.

In order to help us feel better we need to bring our action in line with our internal values, we can’t undo what’s done so we rationalise it to ourselves. “It was a one off, I hardly ever do it”, “I was hungry and didn’t have much time”. Suddenly we feel OK about it again. The interesting thing though is that, the next time we sin, the rationalisation is already available to us, so we don’t feel so bad. Now we can sin, whilst still holding on to our internal beliefs.

This effect doesn’t just apply to dietary transgressions. It’s an inbuilt mechanism to cope with situations in which we act out of step with our beliefs.

Many times in marketing we set off trying to change people’s attitudes and/or beliefs, which is a big ask. Maybe we should encourage our potential customers to try doing what we need them to, and our good friend cognitive dissonance will take care of the rest.

What can Chairman Mao teach us about optimising customer journeys?

In 1949 Chairman Mao faced a major behavioural problem in China. Around 4.4% of the population or 20 million people were addicted to opium. His solution was brutal, those who sold opium were executed. Addicts were offered a choice: abstain or be sent to labour camps. Millions were sent to camps from which many did not return. By 1951 opium addiction had been eradicated from China. But why were so many people, under the threat of death, unable to change their behaviour?

Behaviour change is hard at the best of times. We are programmed by evolution to keep doing what we’re doing once we find something that works for us. When addiction is involved that change becomes far more challenging. This is why addiction therapy is a great place to look when considering behaviour change models.

Models in addiction have evolved from simply locking addicts away, through the religion-based 12 step programmes from the early / mid 20th century, into powerful behaviour change tools like the Stages of Change model first described by Prochaska and Diclementi in 1983.

This model has been enhanced and further developed over the decades, taking in work from other sources. Because of that it is also known as the Trans-theoretical Model (TTM). It is now being effectively deployed across many types of behaviour change, often in health-related interventions.

TTM looks not only at the stage at which the subject is currently, it also considers the barriers to progress and what needs to be done to address them. This is vital to the creation of well-designed customer journeys that reflect the behaviour change that we are trying to effect.

Why wouldn’t we use a rigorous model that has stood the test of decades of use in the most challenging types of behaviour change?

This powerful tool can be harnessed to really enhance the power of your customer journey planning.

Contact us to arrange a discussion on how using the TTM model of behaviour change could really help your business.


What can this joke tell us about developing communication ideas?

A duck walks into a bar and asks the barman for a portion of fish and chips.

The barman responds that they don’t serve fish and chips and the duck leaves.

The following day the duck returns and makes the same request, again the barman states that they don’t serve fish and chips.

Each day after, the duck returns and the same scenario plays out.

Finally, in exasperation the barman tells the duck that if he asks for fish and chips one more time he’ll nail his beak to the bar.

The next day the duck walks into the bar and the barman says “what do you want?”.

The duck responds “have you got any nails?” to which the barman replies “no”.

“A portion of fish and chips please” says the duck.

Why is it funny?

I was at an event the other day watching Iain McGilchrist, (psychiatrist, philosopher and one of the world’s foremost authors on neuroscience and what makes us human) talking about his new book “The Matter with Things”. At one point John Cleese, another speaker, tells the above joke and gets a huge laugh, but why?

No part of the joke makes any sense alone, it blends the absurd and the surreal into the traditional “X walks into a pub” trope. And yet, holistically, it works. It’s also very memorable. Most of the audience would have been able to repeat that joke with all its main elements remembered. There’s the familiar “x walks into a bar… and the barman…” framework, and the absurd elements, the duck, the fish and chips and the nails.

This joke almost certainly existed this way since its creation.

At no point did anyone check if it would be funnier with a swan or a grebe, what if we switched screws for nails, should we modernise the setting – maybe a coffee shop, could it be a barista instead of a barman. What if some people don’t get it, how do we make it accessible for them?

The joke was conceived and told to an audience. Most of them laughed and this was the acid test – did the audience respond in the desired way?

Thanks to digital advertising options we are perfectly placed to do the same thing. We can conceive communication ideas (check them for gross errors/regulatory compliance) and expose audiences to them. We can then effectively gauge their reaction – did they do what we expected as a result?

If the answer is yes, then we have an effective idea. If we wish, we can optimise from there. If the answer is no then no amount of optimisation will make it effective. This is even more the case when we try to optimise an idea, often using iterative approaches, before audiences have even been exposed to the idea in a natural environment. How do we know if our starting point is any good?

Want to find out more?

If you are interested in rapid development and live testing of ideas, from overall brand concepts to interesting tactical executions, get in touch.



Interrupting people is way harder than it sounds.
Just ask a Boston cop.

Here’s a little story about how hard it is to get the attention of people who are thinking about something else.

In 1995, 29 year old Kenneth M. Conley, a cop in Boston, was in hot foot pursuit of a suspect. As he chased the man, he ran past a group of his colleagues who were savagely beating another suspect. It turned out that the suspect taking a beating was an undercover cop – who was so displeased with his colleagues that he pressed criminal charges against them.

Conley was called as a witness at their trial. Under oath, he stated that he hadn’t seen anything. Unfortunately, the jury didn’t believe him. He was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, sentenced to nearly 3 years in jail and fined $6000.

But is it possible that Kenneth Conley was telling the truth? There is growing evidence that he may well have been.

Human beings (and other animals) seem to bring two types of attention to the world:

  • the first is a narrow-focused attention to things that we already know to be important. When in this mode we can abstract the object of our attention and ignore everything else.
  • the second is a much broader focus which is alert to the unexpected, the new or the incongruous.

The real kicker though, is that we appear to only be able to bring one type of attention to anything at once.

Why? It may be an energy-saving mechanism. Brains are expensive to run in terms of energy. They may only represent 2% of our body weight, but they take up around 20% of the energy we consume. Saving energy here would be an evolutionary advantage!

This effect has been demonstrated numerous times by authors like Chris Chabris (the invisible gorilla guy) who carried out an experiment based on Kenneth’s experience and discovered that around half of people didn’t see the fight.

Happily for Kenneth, he was exonerated in 2005 and awarded $647,000 in back pay – without ever going to prison.

So, if we are trying to interrupt people who are doing other things, we need to try pretty hard. Predictable, familiar approaches are simply not going to cut it if we want people to see something new.