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.

Amplify’d from

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?



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