Over the summer I did a feature for shots on the relationship between psychology and advertising. It was a really interesting – and surprising – piece to do. I started out with the initial hypothesis (yes, get me with the science) that as advertising seems to deploy all manner of psychological tricks to persuade us all to BUY MORE STUFF that the industry must have a pretty tight grasp of neuroscience and psychology. However the more I nosed around the more I found that, while there are definitely growing pockets of interest here and there, most agencies don’t seem to go in for it even at a research or strategy level.
Back in the early and mid 20th century, psychological research was an important part of the process. It lent the growing industry validity and credibility. But it seems that the cult of creative has caused the pendulum to swing the other way over the past few decades. That’s not say that I think creativity and science should be seen as mutually exclusive – it’s just that often in the industry they are treated that way.
Understandable perhaps – I spoke to a fair few creatives who had had rubbish experiences at the hand of rubbish market researchers. And no one likes to have their work picked apart, taken out of context and subject to all manner of pedantry. But then that’s all a question of approach. I suspect that if psychologists or ‘neuromarketing’ people were involved earlier in the creative process it would result in tighter, smarter briefs that would serve as springboards for clever creative.
Many of the creatives I spoke to also mentioned their intuition and experience – the natural feel they had for what works and what doesn’t. However – as Rory Sutherland pointed out during our interview – the creative instinct is actually rather good and research seems to back this up. Indeed there is a fair body of research into the link between creativity and intuition, such as this study by Fleck and Kounios (2009) and also, ofcourse, research into the accuracy of ‘gut feelings’ and intuition. So rather than seeing creative and psychology/research as two opposing forces, perhaps it’s more useful to see them a complementary approaches.
But while the overall feeling from the ad industry seems to be one of uncertainty, there is definitely growing interest in psychology and neuroscience and it’s potential application. This has probably been ‘nudged’ along by the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and the trend for deploying Behavioural Economics in public policy making and similar fields. What’s more there are several of standard bearers leading the charge within the industry itself, such as Robin Wight whose Brain ‘lunch box’ is spoken of in hushed, reverential tones or Rory Sutherland, of Ogilvy and the IPA and an endlessly fascinating interviewee. Plus there’s the proliferation of consultancy firms like Behavioural Architects, who use theory like Behavioural Economics to help develop brands and strategies.
However the overall impression that I gleaned really surprised me. Having returned to university to do a psychology conversion degree (and now an MSc), I had come across plenty of textbooks that seemed to take it for granted that the advertisers were consciously deploying psychological strategies and were aware of the theoretical and empirical support for these strategies. I think this is an assumption held by many psychologists with no direct experience of working in the advertising industry – even consumer psychologists. In fact in many cases it seems that creatives may be using scientifically supported strategies, but have happened upon these strategies through experience and intuition – which says something about the theory that humans are all, on one level, folk psychologists. I wonder if it may be the case that not only do ad agencies and creatives need to learn a little more about psychology but that academics too need to do a little learning and research into the realities of the ‘creative industries’?
Anyway, if you want to read the actual feature, it’s on shots.net,.