Read this or the kitten dies

Posted 21 September 2015.

By Paul Catmur, Managing Partner & Executive Creative Director, Barnes, Catmur & Friends

​Congratulations. You’re reading this business publication which most would anticipate sets you apart from the majority of the population on the basis of business success. You might also consider that this success is based on your rationality i.e. that given a set of options you’re really good at picking the one that is most economically beneficial. Only you’re not. In fact you are considerably less rational than almost all of the creatures with which we share this planet, with the possible exception of Australian voters and the lemming. This irrationality is exhibited through many facets of our life.

For example why don’t we all buy the same clothes made of the same, long lasting, easily washable material? It would save us heaps.

Why don’t we all buy Asian manufactured family cars with frugal petrol consumption, excellent safety ratings, cupholders for everyone, and which do 100kph with ease? They’re less than half the price of your current European model.

Why do we favour a particular beer even though it’s considerably more expensive than alternatives, all of which have the same effect and which we are incapable of telling apart in taste tests? And why not drink that beer out of cans which are cheaper to produce, lighter to transport and do a far better job of keeping the beer in good condition than bottles?

And why don’t we select our spouses through a checklist: Mutually attractive, similar background, same taste in music, lives locally, adventurous but not too kinky: Call the vicar! Why do so many of us chose those who have few or none of these attributes? What is this mysterious ‘chemistry’ which we struggle to define, yet which we allow to rule the most important decision of our lives? Couples who have arranged marriages are actually happier in the long term, so why don’t we all do that?

If there’s one thing that sets man apart from the rest of creation it’s this complete lack of rationality. Yet when we advertise we somehow forget ourselves and expect consumers to react rationally to our messages.

Too often we anticipate that if we let people know that our product is the best tasting that they will accept that as a fact and block the aisles at New World in their scramble to buy it. We think our new product will fly by showing a couple of the target market eating our product and grinning inanely with surprise and delight. We think that all we have to do is mention a ten percent discount to win back a market share lost over years of neglect, forgetting that a discount only works if people actually want the product in the first place.

Academic research tells us how irrational we are as consumers, yet as marketers so often we ignore it. Which is why we are surprised when our crystal clear, well-argued rational advertisement is ignored by consumers who opt for the product with the cute dog in the ad.

Rational messages work well for plankton, but as humans we are just too complex to do as the old economic models suggest we should. But please don’t take this as a criticism of our race. Irrationality is what sets us apart and, for better or worse, has driven us to the top of the evolutionary tree. As George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

So how do we get round this impenetrable wall of irrationality? Luckily the same god that made us too irrational for rational messages supplied us with an Achilles heel for marketers to work on: emotion. The simple fact of liking a brand or a person will cover up a multitude of shortcomings. Despite media attempts to demonise him, we laugh at John Key for pulling girls’ hair. If Judith Collins had done it we would have lynched her. Ferraris are unreliable, overpriced, uncomfortable, have appalling fuel consumption, and are useless for commuting yet we all want one.

The fact is, and there is much rational evidence (supplied on request) to prove it, that humans are more easily moved by emotional than rational appeals.

I could have titled this article ‘Important lessons in rationality that enable businessmen to better understand human behaviour’. But then nobody would have read it.