The Money Question


I’ve been reading Carl Jung’s The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, a collection of Jung’s major essays written from 1933 onward. In the eponymous opening essay, Jung focuses on the concept of the archetype—the wise old man, the shadow, and the anima are three examples—and concludes with a vivid paragraph worth reading a few times slowly.   

The archetype, like all numinous contents, are relatively autonomous, they cannot be integrated simply by rational means, but require a dialectical procedure, a real coming to terms with them, often conducted by the patient in dialog form, so that, without knowing it, he puts into effect the alchemical definition of the meditatio: “an inner colloquy with one’s good angel.” Usually the process runs a dramatic course, with many ups and downs. It expresses itself in, or is accompanied by, dream symbols that are related to the “representations collectives,” which in the form of mythological motifs have portrayed psychic processes of transformation since the earliest times.

Last week a client from the retail industry approached me with a question. They needed help researching how average Americans describe their financial situations. The idea was to ask a few hundred people to describe how they budget and make decisions about what to buy. It’s a difficult research topic. Most people generally avoid talking about money—even in an anonymous online survey.   

Although the client had a handful of questions they wanted to include in the survey, I recommended just one. “In terms of your financial situation, is there something you think about often but rarely talk about out loud?” I liked this question because, regardless of the income bracket each respondent fell into, it was relatable. We conducted the survey (n=500) and found a variety of responses, each of which helped the client understand their customers better.

I thought about Jung. People are motivated to finish surveys quickly and in a way that satisfies whoever is conducting the survey. However, a well-crafted survey question can side-step this problem. Answering our money question required respondents to have a short conversation with themselves. That dialectic—the “inner colloquy,” as Jung put it—created tension that people had to resolve. There’s a “coming to terms” involved that made the responses valuable to the client.

The influence of modern economics looms over market research like a colossus, and the result is researchers writing survey questions to extract information. Jung provides an alternative source of inspiration. Instead of extracting information, a good surveyor should create tension.

And let people resolve it.

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Ride the Wave


In The Mechanical Bride, the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan mentions the Edgar Allen Poe short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” The story involves a sailor recounting how he and his brothers got caught in a violent whirlpool at sea. As the sailor was being swallowed by the whirlpool, he looked around and noticed a few objects drifting to the surface. They were small and cylindrical—barrels and mast poles—so he fastened himself to a cask and jumped overboard. Sure enough, by riding the current of the whirlpool instead of resisting it, he slowly rose to the surface and survived.

The behavioral science community tends to think about the mind as a press secretary, as if to say that our first-person reports are unreliable justifications. But in market research, the goal is not to dismiss or circumvent what people say. Much like the sailor who escaped, it is to observe and exploit what people say.

Dumb Data vs. Smart Questions: The advantages of asking the right questions in an age of predictive analytics


In 2012, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg wrote a story about how Target used transaction data to create a pregnancy-prediction model. When the model predicted one customer was pregnant, Target promptly sent coupons for baby clothes and cribs. The only problem was that the customer was in high school. According to Duhigg, the dad stormed to the local Target to complain about the coupons but when he returned home, the daughter confessed. The model was correct.  

We’re living in an era in which brands use our data to anticipate what we need next with alarming precision. And yet, there’s one problem that our data can’t fully solve. Like a politician, a brand has a reputation to maintain. It has to design images and messages that charm and persuade. While it might seem like brands are using our data surreptitiously, one of their primary tactics—advertising—is plain to see. 

Last fall, a major retailer approached me with an interesting question. They were redefining a customer segment and needed help with some research. They knew how old, wealthy, and educated the segment was. Most consumer-facing brands have access to this kind of information. It’s not precise and it doesn’t need to be. The idea is to divide a customer base into a few big segments. 

However, if you’re a consumer-facing brand, you need something more. You need to observe something that your customers feel but have yet to consciously acknowledge. Then you need to broadcast that insight back to them. A great ad is not meant to move you off the couch and into the store. The goal is an involuntary head nod—the subtle “I get it” gesture.

The question my client asked me was: “What are our segment’s top ‘stress drivers’?”

When I sat down to draft a few survey questions, the first thing that came to mind was money. I knew from previous research that most people stress about not having enough—even people who have plenty. The client knew that. Like most retailers, their business was built around this central theme of consumer life.  

The next thing that came to mind was work, and then relationship problems. Writing survey questions is difficult. Some behavioral scientists compare the self-reporting mind to a press secretary and the brain to the oval office. A survey doesn’t have access to decisions that happen in the oval office. You can get a clue if you ask the press secretary the right questions. But you have to be clever.

I started with something I knew and argued outward. I imagined walking up and down the aisles of a store. For me, shopping comes with a dose of low-level stress and I wondered how many people were like me, so I jotted down a question: “When you’re shopping in the store, do you normally feel like you’re in a hurry?” Everyone had to pick: “Yes or No.”

Next, I noticed that my low-level stress doesn’t have an object. When I shop, I don’t really have a reason to be in a hurry. I jotted down another question. “When you’re shopping in the store, are you normally late for something? Yes or No?”

I shared these questions with the client who was initially hesitant. Most market research surveys are long and filled with questions that measure stated preference such as “What’s important to you when choosing a retailer?” and “How many hours a week do you spend shopping?” My survey was about 90 percent shorter than the surveys they normally conducted. It wasn’t obvious what it was measuring.  

Luckily, the client liked the idea and made a great suggestion. They pointed out that some people would say “yes” to the first question about feeling in a hurry and “no” to the second question about being late for something. For this group, they recommended the logical follow-up: “If you’re not typically late for something, why do you feel like you’re in a hurry?” It’s a great question because it catches the press secretary off guard.

When I analyzed the data, I found that about 30 percent of the respondents admitted that when they shop they feel like they’re in a hurry—even though they usually have nowhere else to be. When prompted to explain why they felt so rushed, this group responded with a variety of answers, each of which we categorized and then used to create a list of “stress drivers.” We found that some people shop during the day and can’t be late getting back to work, some rely on drivers who idle in the parking lot, and some have family members waiting at home. Some just don’t like shopping and some get anxious in crowds. Just about everybody dreads waiting in line. And then there’s the kids, which were universally described as ticking time bombs. For parents with small kids, a shopping experience is one tantrum away from an early exit.  

Customers in this group liked the retailer—they even preferred it over competitors, according to our research. The problem was that despite being filled with friendly employees, the store was getting in the way of something else going on in their lives. They didn’t expect the retailer to solve their problems. I imagine that they just wanted their problems acknowledged.

Duhigg’s juicy anecdote about Target’s pregnancy-prediction model is probably false. Many people on Target’s mailing list receive such offers—you just never hear about all the women who received the coupons who weren’t pregnant. In the digital era, Duhigg’s fabricated story offers a shift in perspective. Don’t ask, “How are brands using my data?” Ask, “Do brands know the right questions to ask about me?”

The media theorist Marshall McLuhan observed that agencies are trying to make “effective contact with a genuine feeling.” He urged us to see ads as more than a means of manipulation. Like a poem, book, or film, ads are simply participating in the “perennial flow of perception and impulse from the few to the many and from the many to the few.”   

The research we conducted will eventually make its way into this perennial flow in the form of more images and messages. I hope a few customers will see them and react with an involuntary head nod. 

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Is Rory Sutherland’s Wedding Invitation Analogy a Good One?

In an article published last summer in New Statesman, Ian Leslie, a writer and veteran of the ad industry, points out that a brand’s message can be far more powerful when it is visible to large groups of people at the same time—the Super Bowl or Times Square, for example. The creatives at ad agencies know how to take advantage of these shared moments to help brands. Whereas, as Leslie puts it, the engineers at Facebook and Google tend to conceive of ads “as a mere conduit for information about the product.”

According to Leslie, Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, compares viewing an online ad to receiving a wedding invitation by email. If ads really were just a “conduit for information” then it wouldn’t matter if a wedding invitation appeared in your inbox or your mail box.

But it does matter. Mailing is more expensive than emailing. And as every bride or groom knows, look and feel are powerful things. You get a pretty good sense of what kind of wedding it is going to be the second you glance at the envelope, well before you’re exposed to the actual information.  

Rory is right—the medium is the message. But his point might be too theoretical to provide ad agencies with a way to win back profits from tech giants including Facebook and Google, each of which now “has a market value exceeding the combined value of the six largest advertising and marketing holding companies,” says media commentator Ken Auletta in The New Yorker.   

Does receiving a wedding invitation via email really change how you feel about the wedding? Do you remember what the last invitation you received “felt” like? Is a Super Bowl ad worth it?

For decades the value of mass market ad campaigns has been assumed. But with the rise of data rich tech companies—and their unchallenged ability to show how we click and buy—the burden of proof has shifted. As one of my tech friends said to me when I was trying to convince him of Rory’s analogy: “I’ll believe you. Just show me the data.” 

I’ve heard Rory make his email analogy a few times—first in his entertaining presentations and then on an essay for, a website dedicated to contemporary intellectuals and scientists. When I encountered the email analogy in Leslie’s article, I figured that it would be a good idea to test it.  

So that’s what my team and I did. We recruited a few hundred participants online and randomly separated them into two groups. The first group saw an image of a wedding invitation and the second group saw the same image embedded on a mock Gmail account. We told the first group, “Imagine receiving this wedding invitation in your mail box.” We told the second group the same thing but changed “your mail box” to “your inbox.” We asked both groups a question inspired by Rory: “What are the odds this wedding will have a cash bar?”

We found that the average result from each group was nearly identical—just around 50 percent, suggesting that people took one look at the invitation and randomly guessed.  

We decided to conduct a follow up experiment. We recruited another group of participants and asked a different question: “How would you judge the overall quality of this wedding?” This time, we found that participants who received the invitation in their inbox judged the wedding to be of worse quality.

The effect was small. But that made it interesting. Based on the data we could better estimate what a bride and groom stand to lose if they send their invitation over email. When you think about all the moments before a wedding that contribute to your expectation of it, from the save-the-date card to the choice of registry, it’s easy to see how small impressions add up. They color an experience in a way we rarely notice.  

As Rory says, “10 percent of advertising is information. The rest is inference.”  

Leslie ends his article with a quote from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality.” Leslie’s point is that the tech nerds who design our smartphones and engineer our social media feeds are indifferent to the concept of a brand. To them, shopping is an engineering problem. The goal is to “identify the precise moment that a consumer needs something so that it can trigger a sale.”

In 2013, the feminine hygiene brand Always launched the “Like A Girl” campaign. The T.V. commercial featured people of all ages interpreting the phrase “like a girl,” as in “run like a girl”, “throw like a girl” and “fight like a girl.” In the first few frames, the camera shows girls entering puberty who flail their arms unathletically after being instructed to “run like a girl.” Then the camera shifts to younger girls who had not been alive long enough for the link between the phrase and running style to solidify. So, when one of the younger girls was asked by the director “What does it mean to you when I say ‘run like a girl’?” she responds, “It means run as fast as you can.” She proceeds to sprint around the studio enthusiastically, uninfluenced by a stereotype that instantly feels outdated.   

Brands work on us. When Listerine famously placed a label “halitosis” on “bad breath” they didn’t pressure people into believing that their breath smelled bad. They convinced everyone that their friends thought their breath smelled bad and weren’t speaking up—hence the gossipy taglines “If your friends were entirely frank with you” and “They say it behind your back,” which appeared in the 1920s.

But how does that process work? How does a brand become part of common knowledge? These are the questions ad agencies spend their time thinking about. They study how people use brands to broadcast signals without consciously acknowledging them. They learn how to interpret and then redesign those signals. They know that advertising works not by preying on our emotions but by “changing the landscape of cultural meanings, which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product,” says software engineer Kevin Simler in a blog post.

The digital revolution is strange. It designs interfaces that make it easier for us to get things we want. Good design in this view is targeted and invisible. In the “Like a Girl” campaign, the opposite is true. Your thinking is interrupted. Your beliefs are addressed. A social norm is challenged.  

Like a wedding invitation buried in a pile of mail, a great ad momentarily interrupts mindless routine to create an impression. It stands out. It draws you in. It’s not invisible.

I’ll never fully convince my friend of Rory’s analogy. I ran the study and I collected the data. But the world is too chaotic to determine if Rory is right with the kind of certainty my friend is looking for. He insisted that brands did not “work” on him like they worked on most people. Based on his outfit, I was inclined to believe him. And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a bottle of Listerine in his bathroom.