Cognitive resonance: harmonising emotional and rational advertising
What it means in marketing terms when "figures sing"
When E.F. Schumacher wrote, “My theory has always been that figures don’t mean anything if you can’t make them sing,” I believe he meant that numbers are nothing if they are not communicated effectively so that they are heard and understood by the public. This idea translates to marketing – if we can’t get people to pay attention to our ads and understand the key messages we are trying to convey, our work is meaningless. But there’s more behind how figures are heard and understood that we can begin to unwrap by exploring his choice of the word “sing.”
Schumacher, a “green” economist and conservationist1, may have found inspiration for the quote in the natural world. In the animal kingdom, we see song as a critical tool for birds and primates to ward off predators or find mates. We can also see this among humans.
At some point in ancient history, our ancestors’ voice boxes evolved to sing. It’s theorised that before language was developed, song was a communication tool to broadcast one’s emotional state2.
Music is a powerful communication tool because it can quickly arouse emotions. A melody can make us feel happy or sad, or it can alert us to a threat approaching. Who hasn’t felt the prickle on their skin from the musical number in Jaws?
Even in prehistoric times, communicating emotion was the quickest and surest route to ensuring your message was understood. Our premammalian, painor pleasure-driven brain was making survival decisions based on primitive emotions.
When E.F. Schumacher said we need to make figures sing, he meant that numbers are devoid of primal emotions that unite us as humans. Numbers carry no intrinsic meaning. They are just symbols. It is what we attach to them – the memories and emotions behind them – that create meaning. We need to add meaning to data and information through an emotional, human lens, so that data or information may be heard and understood.
The broader context of Schumacher’s life work backs up this interpretation. His philosophies differed from economists at the time, who believed that statistics was a science of absolute and invariable truths. He once made the bold statement that “statistics never prove anything” in Small is Beautiful3.
Schumacher was an idealist at heart who could appreciate the amorphous beauty of art and challenged the undisputed power of numbers or science alone. In Small is Beautiful, he also said, “The substance of man cannot be measured by Gross National Product”3.
In marketing, there are some who believe that data and numbers alone are enough to create effective advertising. The age-old debate of performance marketing or emotional brand building still rages on. Creative or data. Rational or emotional. Some treat marketing as pure science, others as pure creative art. We each stay on our sides like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story – one with a paintbrush in hand, the other with a calculator.
But if we listen to Schumacher, we would realise that it doesn’t have to be either/or. We need both.
In his book Thinking, Fast And Slow, Daniel Kahneman puts forward the idea that people make decisions according to both emotional “System 1” and rational “System 2” mental processes.4 Most consumer decisions are not rational to avoid cognitive overload. This suggests that advertising is most effective when we elicit an emotional response and bypass the slower and more effortful rational process5.
Research shows that ads that elicit a strong emotional response are more likely to be noticed and drive sales6. Creative that garners an emotional response drives twice as much ROI7. By evoking emotion, we can grab attention quickly, so audiences will hear the message, but we also need some rational information. What’s the point of getting audiences to pay attention if there is no persuasive argument or key message?
An ad could be funny, but without vital information to explain what the product is or why it’s better, the ad is meaningless. Further, if the message isn’t clear and consumers don’t understand, we have failed. On the other side of the coin, a car advertisement that dryly delivers mileage per gallon could be deemed ineffective because no one would pay attention long enough to encode the information into memory for when it’s time to purchase a new car.
Good creative that elicits a strong emotional response can help make advertising more engaging and meaningful to increase chances of our message being heard and understood. If an ad is not seen and absorbed, there is no chance that we will inspire action, the aim of most advertising.
It’s theorised that before language was developed, song was a communication tool to broadcast one’s emotional state
To be effective marketers, we must balance the rational with the emotional. Evidence continues to build since the groundbreaking seminal study by Les Binet and Peter Field in 2007 that emotional and rational advertising can, and should, work together6.
A prime example of Schumacher’s quote at play is anti-smoking advertising. Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to the the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, 34.2 million people in the United States continue to smoke, despite tremendous efforts by the government to inform people of the devastating effects of smoking8. The numbers alone aren’t cutting through.
At Wunderman Thompson, we used AI to identify emotions felt most acutely by smokers and served up different advertising to trigger these unique, motivating emotions, like hope or fear. When people were exposed to content zeroing in on their unique motivation, they were 16% more likely to say that they planned to quit9. Data, and creative that evoked strong emotions, were both instrumental. Without either one, the campaigns would not have been as effective.
Like an orchestra, emotional and rational advertising and creative and data must play together. Claims and statistics are meaningless if we can’t grab attention first through a creative wrapper that appeals to emotions. However, emotional creative is worthless if there is neither information nor substance behind it.
Today, the need to find the right balance between rational and emotional remains ever-present.
10 November 2020
More in The Atticus Journal
Generative AI: mitigating risk to unlock opportunity
H+K’s Allison Spray on managing the commercial and reputational risks that the proliferation of generative AI will present
Making sustainability profitable
Sustainability investments must deliver returns – both financial and reputational – to be ‘sustainable’ for business. Something needs to change, says Luc Speisser
Sustainability comms must get real
There’s a disconnect between the way corporations talk about climate change and how the public discusses the same issue. That’s the conclusion of research by Jamie Hamill, Alessia Calcabrini and Alex Kibblewhite.