Can #advertising be ‘not evil’? #behaviourchange #neuroscience and cats with thumbs

I think the blog I’ve amplified below is significant because it’s from someone at a big agency and starts to respond to the “Think of me as Evil” report. I’ve posted my comments on the blog page (linked below and shown below. So I don’t need to add more comment here. Oh, and there’s a cute cat picture.

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neuroscience vs cats with thumbs

There seems to be a lot of talk in the trade press recently about ‘neuromarketing’. And there was an interesting piece ‘advertising is a poison’ in The Guardian last week. George Monbiot makes some good points in the article. At W+K we don’t tend to think of our work as a ‘battering ram’  of ‘pervasiveness and repetition’; the people behind the likes of Go Compare may well have a different point of view.

But is advertising the cause of a society that celebrates image, power and status, or is it a symptom of this society? People have aspired to these values since they were jealous of the neanderthal with a better cave. The societies where the state has tried to enforce the suppression of these aspirations – hello, Stalin’s Russia, North Korea – have in the main been pretty miserable places. It isn’t just advertising that makes humans want a bigger house and a new car.

Since the publication of Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s, academics have been suggesting that advertising has the power to manipulate the subconscious. But it’s pretty rare that an agency team will have a conversation with clients about neurobiology, or how our message will be processed by the prefrontal cortex of our audience, or how we can conceal some sort of secret mind-control message in an ad. It’s just not that scientific or simple. We wouldn’t deny that advertising has the power to manipulate the unconscious mind. But pundits overestimate our ability to control or predict how we’re doing it.

Meanwhile, it’s ironic that Monbiot suggests advertising is to blame for low savings rates by UK families when at the bottom of the article there is an ad for… Barclays Investments.

In Marketing magazine this week, Dr AK Pradeep ‘one of the world’s leading neuromarketing experts’ says, “One of my clients trying to sell milk experimented with various imagery – farms, grass, hay, barns farmers…The one that always wins out is cows. Somehow the source of a product is more evocative in the deep subconscious than anything else. This is something we’ve learned through neuromarketing.”

So, what about cats with thumbs, as featured in our highly successful campaign for Cravendale milk then?


Our view: the difficulty with showing cows or talking about the other familiar benefits  listed above by Dr Pradeep is that it gives the audience immediate permission to ignore you because they assume you’re telling them what they already know. But something dissonant and unexpected like a polydactyl cat slaps you across the face (not literally, we don’t yet have the technology to make that possible) and makes you pay attention in a way you wouldn’t have done otherwise for such a functional product. An 8% sales increase suggests that this approach has merits.

Of course, perhaps if we had done a campaign featuring cows with thumbs, we would have sold even more milk.


Yes, but … you don’t really think (do you?) that the fact that humans had differential status before advertising wipes clean the ad industry’s responsibility for encouraging the type of consumption that is trashing ecosystem services, increasing inequalities, reducing social cohesion, increasing mental illness, etc, etc. Hope not.

By the way, my understanding is that our ancestors out-socialed neanderthals, though I guess they may have been jealous of the blighters’ caves as well. Status envy probably dates to about 10,000 years ago with settled agriculture. Some people had bigger crops, and they didn’t share it all.

Maybe a cool question to ask yourself as an ad industry person, on the back of this debate is: given that we know how to use behavioural insights to drive behaviours, how can we use this to make people feel good about doing low-impact stuff? A future blog maybe?


Irish President’s Inaugral speech: wisdom on prosperity, materialism and dignity we hope to hear one day from UK leaders

Nothing to add, save that it’d be good to hear this narrative from British leaders BEFORE a financial crash or similar.

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In full: the inaugural address of President Michael D Higgins

However, in more recent years, we saw the rise of a different kind of individualism – closer to an egotism based on purely material considerations – that tended to value the worth of a person in terms of the accumulation of wealth rather then their fundamental dignity. That was our loss, the source in part, of our present difficulties. Now it is time to turn to an older wisdom that, while respecting material comfort and security as a basic right of all, also recognises that many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured.


New analysis suggests we’re cutting resource use but let’s not over-interpret #decoupling #degrowth

I’ve copied a few paras below, but you really should go to the Guardian website and read the whole article.

This is important because it allows us – very briefly, and possibly illusory – a glimpse of decoupling. Could it be that it is possible after all to reduce material throughput while economic activity increases?

Like I say, it’s just a glimpse. Even if Goodall’s tentative conclusions turn out to be true (and there are important caveats), the degree of decoupling would be nowhere near that required to reduce our resource use enough to sustain our civilisation in the long-term. But – hey – when you thought you’d never see even a glimpse, be pleased.

Two quick points:

One of several important caveats about the metrics is that the story on carbon looks different. ‘Offshoring’ our emissions to China not only gets them off our books; it also multiplies them massively, according to recent (not yet peer reviewed) data I’ve seen.

My main reflection on this article is that this is exactly the sort of discussion that needs to be at the heart of our political and policy debate. This is just the sort of finding that we look at the implications of if we are trying, as Tim Jackson has challenged us, to create the new macro-economics.

We can’t pretend that it is in the mainstream. Yet. But we need to use the influence we have to make it so.

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Why is our consumption falling?

From food to paper and water, Britain has gradually been guzzling less over the past decade. Why?

Peak stuff: the data

With so many significant events to look back on, one thing that few people will remember 2001 for is its entry in the UK’s Material Flow Accounts, a set of dry and largely ignored data published annually by the Office for National Statistics.

But, according to environment writer Chris Goodall, those stats tell an important story. “What the figures suggest,” Goodall says enthusiastically, “is that 2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK’s consumption of ‘stuff’ – the total weight of everything we use, from food and fuel to flat-pack furniture – reached its peak and began to decline.”

Goodall discovered the Material Flow Accounts while writing a research paper examining the UK’s consumption of resources. The pattern he stumbled upon caught him by surprise: time and time again, Brits seemed to be consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. What really surprised him was that consumption appears to have started dropping in the first years of the new millennium, when the economy was still rapidly growing.

In 2001, Goodall says, the UK’s consumption of paper and cardboard finally started to decline. This was followed, in 2002, by a fall in our use of primary energy: the raw heat and power generated by all fossil fuels and other energy sources. The following year, 2003, saw the start of a decline in the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated by each person in the country – a downward trend that before long could also be observed in the commercial and construction waste sectors.