I find that, by coincidence, three of my grandchildren are currently employed by marketing companies. I give them no advice beyond suggesting that common sense may prove a valuable commodity. But perhaps the time will come when they will have need of uncommon sense; it lies at the heart of marketing.
Uncommon sense is a dark art, founded on the quirks and weaknesses of human nature. I cannot in a column provide you with a full guide, but some examples may illustrate what I mean.
It is well established that the fear of loss is a stronger motivation than the opportunity of gain. As one proponent put it: “If you woke me up in the night to tell me how I might get £100, I would be annoyed. But if you did so to tell me how I might avoid losing £100 I would take action immediately.”
Fear of loss is a solid component of special offers. These will emphasise that speed is essential because stocks are low or the time limited. A pensions salesman once told me that he approached his clients in the days before their birthday. By pointing out that the rate was about to change, an immediate, favourable decision would be made. Special offers have another important element. By showing the normal price, we are invited to make a comparison, and comparisons are at the heart of our decisions. Rational judgment may tell us that the price that matters is the one we have to pay; irrational judgment tells us that we can secure an advantage which must not be missed.
Are we independent people? Most of us are strongly influenced by what others are doing: safety within the herd is the motto. Once a commodity is popular we all know that it is worth having. My pensions salesman would tell his customer that the level of savings he suggested was the one that his others customers in a similar position to his would choose. And, of course, they often did. Facebook, I understand, has a system whereby you can show your approval for some commercial item. Multiply your approval by a few thousand other approvals, and there’s a bestseller. Ask Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook – and he will smile, while his pocket clinks with dollars. If you read a highly favourable review of a book on the internet, ask yourself whether this is a disinterested opinion or the author in disguise.
Imagination is a powerful weapon. Twenty studies demonstrating a truth scientifically do not carry as much persuasive weight as a single instance of real life. Any salesman worth his salt will carry a fund of stories to illustrate real individuals who have benefited from his wares. The stories may be true, but the salesman will be skilled in the telling – so that you know they are true. A photograph of a celebrity on an advertisement, no matter how unconnected with the product, will increase returns (and the celebrity’s bank balance).
Here’s an interesting question: suppose that you are putting an advertisement into a magazine – would you choose the left-hand page or the right-hand page? Unless your magazine is aimed at left-handers, you should choose the right-hand page. Asked our preference, we routinely choose the item – whether product or person – on the side corresponding to our dominant hand. This propensity has been noticed from the age of five. Similarly, we find that the words with more letters on the right-hand side of a keyboard convey more positive emotions to us. It’s called the QWERTY effect. So, if you are taking part in a beauty competition, make sure that your nearest competitor appears, in the judge’s eyes, on your left. And, while you are about it, if you are female, check that your hip-waist ratio accords to the one we instinctively recognise as good for child bearing.
You might think that the people vulnerable to such ploys would be mainly the unaware or the simple-minded. Then you may like to consider that accountants and investment advisers can choose or reject a stock according to whether or not they have recently read a report of another successful risk investment. And emotions of fear, greed, optimism or pessimism will skew investment decisions by the most objective of experts.
But that’s not too different from the doctor whose diagnoses favour his own speciality or the experienced manager who refuses to accept that a face-to-face selection interview yields results that are no better than chance.
Here are contrasting examples. If you are buying a car privately, have a friend telephone the seller just before your appointment. He will make a really low offer; it will be refused. But your offer – only a little better – will then be welcomed. If you are selling a car privately, give a couple of prospective buyers the same appointment time. When the second and third buyers appear, ask them to wait while you are negotiating with your first caller. A satisfactory sale will be made instantly.
Many will argue that using such devices capitalise on the weaknesses of human nature. Through devious methods they ambush and deceive the human mind. Others would say that neither deceit nor dishonesty need be involved; there is no compulsion, and the buyer’s choices remain free. They might even point to my grandson who, at the age of four – having discovered that “I want” got him nowhere – switched to power language: “Granny, I need a Ghostbuster gun.” A little marketing executive in the making? Either way, the dark art of uncommon sense makes the world go round.