The advertising industry anxiously awaits the government’s white paper on childhood obesity, to see whether curbs will be placed on ads for foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).
The wider advertising industry has been fighting against this for years, arguing that legislation tends to be a blunt instrument with no room for nuance. Many fear that it will negatively affect traditional media, such as TV, where the placement of ads can be more actively policed than online media (which is far more opaque and often headquartered in the US).
That it has come to this is a failure of the advertising industry to take the lead in policing itself. There is a reason that people don’t want HFSS ads to be shown to the most vulnerable in society, and we as an industry – with the notable exception of outdoor media owners – have been slow to self-regulate and quick to complain.
We may have missed the boat for self-regulation on this occasion, but we can take the initiative in other areas to ensure that we speak to consumers clearly and honestly.
The principles of behavioural science are being used more and more by ad and media agencies. Information about consumers can be used by advertisers in a way that they may not even be aware of.
According to research by Creditcards.com, women are twice as likely to buy when they are feeling sad. Fully 28 per cent of women cite sadness as an underlying cause for an impulse purchase. The same research shows that younger consumers are more likely to buy when they are angry.
Drunk impulse purchases are quite common, but most would agree that exploiting that state is crossing a line. Betting companies undoubtedly recognise gambling triggers, but should not encourage them.
It would be easy for an unscrupulous brand to exploit this. At least in the short term, it would work. Its long-term effect, however, may be less positive.
Research has shown that targeting negative emotions doesn’t establish a strong connection with a brand, but just an initial need. Rather than thinking: “I want a Mars Bar”, someone will think: “I want a chocolate bar”.
This is not to say that such information is always used in malicious ways. In fact, if these insights target positive emotions or fix a problem, they can be used in ways which work very effectively for the brand and entertain the consumer.
KitKat and its media agency tapped into the fact that people are more likely to make spelling errors when they’re tired, so bought the Google AdWords for common misspelling of certain words. If you were to search “wetather” rather than “weather”, you’d be shown an ad for KitKat, with their famous tag line suggesting it may be time to take a break.
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After all, there is a difference between abusing a behaviour and aligning with it. At a time when brands must fight harder than ever for a consumer’s attention, a quick win is no match for real brand loyalty. If we don’t want to see any more regulation, we should behave better.