Is Marketing Really Just Common Sense?

People often say marketing is simple; it’s just common sense. After all, the thinking goes if we can understand a person’s attitude towards a topic (or product or service) then we can predict their behavior.  For instance, if we know that a person likes top 40 pop music, and female singers in particular, then we ought to be able to make some predictions as to the music he or she will likely purchase. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing. Humans all too often defy logic by doing unpredictable things.

Take the decades long anti-smoking campaign. When polled, people overwhelmingly respond that they think smoking is bad for one’s health. Knowing this you might logically predict that the rate of smoking would be in steep decline. Yet, the reality is that despite extensive public awareness of the health risks associated with smoking, a stubbornly high 20% of Americans still smoke. So in this case, understanding attitudes isn’t much help in predicting behavior.

Stranger still is how ineffective the various carrot and stick attempts to motivate people to stop smoking have been. After all, instilling guilt and fear haven’t worked as motivators to lower the numbers. Raising the sales tax on cigarettes hasn’t worked. Ostracizing smokers by barring them from smoking in buildings, restaurants and other public spaces hasn’t worked. Appealing to their rational self-interest by educating them on the health risks associated with their behavior hasn’t been effective either. So, if extrinsic motivators (i.e. carrots and sticks) don’t work, and if people know that smoking is bad for their health and they still choose to smoke, how can we motivate smokers to make better choices?

Here’s my two cents. Perhaps the rate of smoking will drop when people decide for themselves that they don’t want to smoke. In other words, when they’re intrinsically motivated to make a better choice.

Sound crazy? Consider this. As any person who has cared for a small child will tell you, they are inherently illogical. Employing reason to motivate a child is futile. That said, one of the most effective tools you can use to get a child to make a better choice is to convince them that “big kids” like them don’t engage in certain behaviors. By appealing to their idealized view of themselves you can often motivate them to make a better choice.

Couldn’t this same methodology be used on smokers? Believe it or not it’s been used on other public service campaigns with great success.

Here’s an example. A number of years ago the state of Texas launched a marketing effort to try to get people to stop littering. Previous campaigns had been unsuccessful so Texas decided it was time for a different approach. Realizing its worst offenders were largely pickup driving men, 18-35 years old, who like sports and country music and who view themselves as rough and tumble guys the state sensed that a carrot and stick approach probably wouldn’t work. After all, there were a) no obvious rewards for not littering and b) inflicting pain in the form of high fines for littering might actually backfire given this demographics’ inclination to buck authority. So, instead Texas decided to aim the campaign at convincing these guys that people like them don’t litter. To do that they adopted the slogan, “Don’t Mess with Texas” and hired famous Texans (i.e. professional athletes and country music stars) who projected the kind of cool, macho persona this group idealized to promote the campaign. The result was a huge success. Roadside litter dropped 29% in the first year and 72% in the first 5 years.

So what does all this mean? Well, perhaps as people say marketing is common sense, but if it is, then I would argue that sense, isn’t always so common.

This much I know.


Jeanine Hughes

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