Laughter is Behavioral Medicine

The problem with using the generic ad narrative structure 'extreme consequences' with public service ads is that, usually, it shows you the truly horrible things that could actually happen, rather than the ridiculous results of either getting or not getting a specific product.

And this tends to turn me right off.

In fact, in order to protect myself from the possible reality that my behavior may be engendering in the future, I switch over when I see most smoking cessation advertising.

They scare me, make me feel uncomfortable, and so to avoid confronting that possible truth, I cognitively disengage and make a joke about doing so.

[I've since quit smoking. It's hard. Changing behavior is really hard. Habits are incredibly powerful. The trigger > behavior mechanism are powerful. Ask P&G - they love creating habits, if they can.

A friend who is a doctor told me, very directly, TO STOP. Normally doctors advise you - my mate just TOLD ME outright. Which I seemed to take seriously - although there were loads of contextual factors, like my impending birthday.

And, in fact, I think the reason I really did is because my brain loves that story of how it happened that I just told you. We love stories, especially myths we can create about ourselves.]

Humour is a very powerful human emotion and driver of behavioral change, according to my mate Adam, who's a psychologist as well as a brand thinker.

And this makes sense to me.

As I've discussed before, humor works primarily around the idea of
disrupted expectations: the deviation from the expectation is what causes our brains to find something funny, often by exploiting the ambiguities of language, and the expectancy violation makes us pay attention and disrupts our existing model of the world, which aids memory formation as the model re-writes itself, and in that moment, perhaps, allows a behavior to be modified.

Add into this fact that most public service ads use guilt and shock, ones that use humor add in another layer of disruption, like these Oxfam ads from a couple of years ago.

Which is why I like this World Blood Day ad from Australia my mate Swanno just sent me.

Like any joke, it all comes together in the punchline.

Planning A Novel

Planning a novel

Rob&Tom - [the Idea Brothers] have 'discovered' this except of an upcoming novel written by a seemingly obsessed planning strategist type person.

That’s why we were so excited to hear about the debut novel by Robin Poynglass, Director of Warm and Fuzzies at a leading London agency. ‘The Wedding Murder Code’ is so titled because according to research, books with ‘Wedding’, ‘Murder’ or ‘Code’ in the title are more likely to be bestsellers. Poynglass argues that all three words together should create a blockbuster. But can The Wedding Murder Code live up to the hype and avoid ‘plannery’ language? We think the answer is a resounding yes – but judge for yourself with our exclusive excerpt… Click the link below to read.

Click through for the whole 'excerpt'.

It's funny.

'Plannery' language aside, it does highlight the fact that personas are not very convincing as real people.

[The use of personas grew out of web development and user experience design then moved over into more traditional segmentation and targeting and that. I think.]

A long time ago I wrote a post called the paradox of planning, which basically just points out the more time you spend being a planner, the less like a real 'consumer' you become because you are cognitively engaged with brand communication all the time in a way that most people simply aren't, which makes it harder to some aspects of your job.

It may also make it harder to write novels. Although it may not. Perhaps 'plannery' language is only used because that's what we think the audience wants, that's the relevant grammar for the space.

Right, now I'm really going offline for a few days.

Advice for the Next Generation

Advice for a new generation
Over on Planning Lab, Leon is doing a series of 'advice for the next generation of planners'.

[Generations seems to turn over pretty fast now.

Well, no, technically I guess they don't, since you need to be born during a certain arbitrarily defined time period to be X or Y or whatever, but actually I think they do, if by generation we mean a bunch of people who are around the same age but have dramatically different habits and thoughts and behavior to people who are older or younger.

In Being Digital, Negroponte says that 'each generation will be more digital than the last'. This is worth remembering. immigrant or native: being native now isn't what will be native soon. And, if I'm right, I mean very very soon. You have to run to keep up with an accelerating culture.

Any technology that did not exist when you came of age [let's say 15] will forever be technology. Any technology that came before will simply be, well, stuff.

The Internets is in betweens for me - I came online just as the web did, I dialled up bulletin boards as I began to think who I was seriously - in that seriously self obsessed way that only teenagers can. Mobile phones came after.

But television is not technology to me - althought it was for my parents, who didn't have it when they were teenagers - it is stuff.

And the internets is not technology for anyone growing up now. It's stuff.

I digress.]

Lots of smart people like Russel and Aki and Merry Baskin have offered up useful actionable advice for young planners.

[I've always thought that Polonius really nailed the whole advice thing in Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true]

Leon very kindly asked me to contribute - I fear I wasn't very practical - but here it is anyway:

Be nice. All the time. To everyone. 

Try to meet other nice people who interested in the same things as you.

Don't get [too] cynical.

Stay interested in advertising and communication.

Stay interested in other things too.

Never be afraid to ask questions. 

Reading is for awesome people. 

Write a blog.

Take pictures. 

Develop your own theory about how brands work and what they are for. But don't fall in love with it.

Become a geek [or an expert on something].

Steal everything - every trick and idea - and make them your own.


PlannerTweets or Don't Create Just Aggregate


One of the things I've been talking about for while is 'Aggregation not Destination' - or 'Don't Create - Just Aggregate' [things that rhyme are more awesome] a strategy that obviously underlies the new Skittles site, as well as things like We Feel Fine and Twistori before it.

It reflects the nature of the web as a distributed, collectively generated, endlessly iterating cultural artifact - which is good.

Jeremy pinged me to let me know that there is an aggregator for tweets from the Plannersphere [we do love our nonsense neologisms] that kindly includes my phatic blasts [of neologistic nonsense].

There's also one for porn stars, if that's more your thing.

Change Blindess

The sequel to the Spot the Bear ad that caused a little furor a while back has dropped.

This is not an imitation, although it is stolen, and stolen well.

The idea behind it is called change blindness, a fascinating perceptual phenomenon that gives an indication as to how we actually process visual data.

The original experiment was done by two of the progenitors of behavioural economics - Levins and Simons, in the door experiment.

Someone stops a student on campus and asks for directions. Then, while directions are being given, workmen carry a door between subject and someone, obscuring the view of the lost person. At which point, the person is replaced with someone else as the door goes by.

Amazingly, the people giving directions almost never notice.

Actually, it's not amazing at all, because this is how perception works: making sense of visual data is an act of filtering out unimportant information. The amount of raw information firing into your visual cortex is incomprehensible. In this context, our brains decide what the person looks like is irrelevant - they key thing is the directions.

The reason we think it's amazing that people don't notice that it's a different person, which is also the reason that this spot works, is because of a metacognitive error that Levins and Simons call change blindness blindness.

We rarely notice significant massive changes in the visual field when our perception is disrupted by things like saccades or, the filmic equivalent, tracking shots, like in the spot above.

But we tend to think we will. Repeatedly. Even when we are shown that we don't.

This is because it deviates from what we believe about how we see. That is, we believe our eyes beam reality directly into our brains, because that's how we perceive perceiving.

But perception is not reality.

Control is Not Control (but it still feels good)


[Ripped from here]

The desire for control seems to be a universal motivator - we are endlessly fascinated by our ability to effect change outside of ourselves.

Our macro ability to modify our environment is one of the defining features of humanity, but at a personal level we love to control the world around us - it's a corollary of our desire for choice, despite the paradoxes that brings.

Babies demonstrate the appeal of control [in controlled experiments].

[Whilst experimenting on babies sounds a bit unpleasant, infant psychology is truly fascinating. Ask yourself, how do babies think, before they can speak?

While you are asking yourself, you are thinking in words - they can't do that.

It must be like accessing the world without the filter of language, before Lacan's Great Other, the language instinct, exerts its desire for control, slicing up the continuum of reality into chunks, things, words... but I digress. Kind of.]

In the Paradox of Choice, Schwartz mentions an experiment where one group of babies - those who had control [but not, paradoxically, the control group] - were put into cribs face up. If they turned their heads they activated some dancing animal lights above them.

They quickly learn that the dancing animals respond to them moving and so they keep doing it again and again and again.

[Babies love repetition - they control basically nothing in their lives, so when they see something "Again! Again!" it's something that isn't new, something therefore they feel control over.]

A second group also get to see the animals, when group one activates them, but has no control. They quickly lose interest.

It's not the light show that is interesting - it's the control:

I did this! Isn't it great. And I can do it again whenever I want.

This feeling of control is rewarding - in fact it may be crucial to remaining chipper. Some believe that one of the triggers of depression is learned helplessness - the feeling that nothing you do can really to alter your situation.

Prior [perhaps repeated] exposure to uncontrollable negative events makes you think that nothing you do makes any difference.

That's what I think Copeland was talking about in Generation X, when he said:

Control is not control.

The illusion of freedom, delivered through the illusion of [too much] consumer choice, ultimately resolves to an understanding that nothing you do [buy] makes any difference, which precipitates slacker ennui.


Anyway, the point being is that we want to have an impact on our environment - it makes us feel good, which perhaps lies at the heart of the appeal of interactive media - by definition it is content which you can influence.

The rise of games and gaming behaviours is undoubtedly a response to our desire to have greater control over content - and it's going to continue to spread into other content forms.

With things like this interactive video trailer for new crystal meth cookery drama Breaking Bad [found via Hyper] - it's ultimately a trailer that you can click on - but that makes it something different, blurring the boundaries between video and website and game.

And, although you know you can't really change the outcome [it really wants you to watch the trailer] - it still feels good to be controlling the experience.

So, if you want people to get involved in your communication, give them something to do.

Preferential Looking


Studying baby psychology is inherently tricky. Since they can't talk, you can't ask them questions.

Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke has been trying to understand how children develop knowledge and language and so had to find more ingenious ways to understand what's happening in their heads.

The experiments carried out at the Laboratory of Developmental Studies attempt to infer the cognitive abilities through the observation of "preferential looking":

the tendency of infants and children to peer longer at something that is new, surprising or different. [To steal from Scientific American]

This fact was discovered in the 50s by Robert Fantz, who demonstrated that children [and chimps] stare longer at things they perceive as unexpected.

Which suggests that spending more time looking at something new, original, unexpected is a hardwired reaction and perhaps helps to explain why original work is more effective - our brains force us to pay more attention to it.

Lubricants of Reason

[Image used without permission because I liked it - please go and buy a print here. Let me know if you want me to take it down.]

I've just finished reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb. Hailed by Fortune magazine as one of the 'smartest books of all time', it's an exploration of the huge role of randomness in life.

Taleb is a derivatives trader and his hobby is understanding the stochastic limits of epistemology. His core thesis is that we think we know how things work because our brains like cause and effect so we apply a deterministic model to observations, which in turn leads us to make mistakes and leaves us open to being 'blown up' [trader lingo for losing way beyond what you believed possible] by very rare events of huge magnitude [he argues that in a sufficiently large samples, extraordinary high magnitude events are inevitable - the 'black swan' theory].

The book is consciously iconoclastic but his attacks on the certainties of traders and economists ring true and have interesting implications for the arts and sciences of persuasion.

In passing, Taleb dismisses classical economics as completely pointless and I agree.

Classical economics is a normative science - it describes how things should be in an idealised model, ceteris paribus - which means that it is, basically, science fiction - it simply doesn't describe how things actually are.

The foundation of this fiction is the idea of Homo Economicus - rational man - that makes decisions via a cost benefit analysis of each option and always works towards the highest possible personal utility.

This is clearly rubbish. Unfortunately, we're intellectually wed to binary oppositions, so once we realised that emotions had a role in decision making, an opposition was established between rational and emotional persuasion in communication. Maybe we make some decisions emotionally and some rationally.

Thanks to people like Phineas Gage and others who have had accidents that  messed up their amygdalas, we know this simply isn't true.

When people lose access to their emotions, they are no longer capable of making decisions. This is because if you were literally to try to apply pure logic to every decision, you're brain would freeze up with the limitless amount of data you were trying to process.

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings and we are, to a certain extent, but without the heuristics of emotion to help us, we'd never be able to decide anything. We almost never have the perfect knowledge required to make truly rational decisions. Life just isn't like that. Hence we evolved emotions.

So it's not that there are emotional and rational side pulling us in different directions but that emotions are the "lubricants of reason" - we can't think without them.

This thinking is expressed nicely in a relatively recent theory of decision making known as the somatic marker hypothesis:

Real-life decision making usually involves assessment, by cognitive and emotional processes, of the incentive value of the various actions available in particular situations. However, often situations require decisions between many complex and conflicting alternatives, with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. In such situations, cognitive processes may become overloaded and be unable to provide an informed option.

In these cases (and others), somatic markers can aid the decision process. In the environment, reinforcing stimuli induce an associated physiological affective state. These types of associations are stored as somatic markers.

So decisions / stimuli that have made us feel good in the past become somatic markers that are then employed to covertly bias our own cognitive processes when we face similar decisions in the future. The covert part means people will always under report this fact in research.

This suggests that the role of communication could be simply establishing the somatic markers in association with brands, so that when consumers hit the painful decision of which jam to buy, the markers kick in and lubricate the decision, preventing paralysis and panic attack.

Brands take away the need to choose by covertly biasing cognition, and thus make our lives easier.

Would you like to work for Amnesty?

Planning to change the world? 

Amnesty are looking for a planner in London:

Bored of advertising? Want to flex your brainpower across amazing projects like TV programming, documentaries, exhibitions, social networking, and odd web 2.0 stuff? Fancy doing this for one of the world’s most trusted brands? How about for a brand where you make more of a difference than sell a few cans of baked beans? Amnesty International is looking to recruit a brand planner to do all of this and more. It’s a dream job, and if you fancy a whirl, more info here (

Be quick - deadline is 6th August.

People are Always in Beta


I think one of the reaons that Russell's Always in Beta resonates so strongly with people is because people are always in beta too.

People continue to make mistakes and learn from them and [hopefully] get better all the way along and I think we respond to brands that make mistakes, and apologise, better than those that deny they ever mess anything up, because they feel more like us. They're more real and nicer.

There are few things more annoying than people who claim to never make mistakes and never say sorry.

When brands are making mistakes and learning from them, it gives the impression that they are constantly working to make things better, rather than resting on their branded laurels.

Toyota calls it Kaizen, or continuous improvment.

I'm not sure if I learn from all my mistakes, but I'm still intending to make another.