Human Behavior blog

Applying human behavior to current trends in business, marketing, advertising, and public relations.

Another Success for Capital One

Capital One’s recent history is littered with memorable marketing practices.  For over a decade they’ve sponsored the Mascot Challenge, wherein college football fans can vote for their school’s mascot to advance in a playoff-style bracket (the winning mascot gets announced, naturally, during the Capital One Bowl game).  They’ve put Vikings and Visigoths, among other things, in their commercials.  And one of their latest ads, hawking the cash rewards credit card, trades on a few viciously effective psychological principles.

In the ad that television viewers have undoubtedly seen, Jimmy Fallon informs us about the (potential for) increased cash back that the card provides, then proceeds to try to convince an infant of said benefits.  The infant, in turn, responds by throwing Cheerios at Jimmy.  Thus, in the span of about 15 seconds, Capital One makes manipulative use of: a) celebrity endorsements, which prey on our affections for said person to tell us what to think; b) the ‘cute’ factor, which, much like overall physical attractiveness, promotes liking (witness the E-Trade baby); and c) humor, which appeals to people of all stripes and sizes and also facilitates persuasion. 

Kudos to them for packing as many of these affection- and persuasion-inducing techniques into one tiny little ad as they could.   

Under Armour’s Provocative Marketing Campaign

The impending conclusion of this college football season brings to mind one of the more clever marketing campaigns to exploit sports.  The actual athletic playing field that viewers see on TV is one of the few pieces of advertising real estate that remains relatively untapped.  Thus, Under Armour, the athletic apparel and accessories company, honed in on the area of players’ jerseys.  They partnered with the University of Maryland to have their football players wear Under Armour uniforms, a nice bit of mutually beneficial free advertising.  All the players had to do was take the field, and viewers’ eyes were locked in.

What they may not have anticipated, however, was the amount of talk the jerseys would stimulate.  The uniforms were, to most people, hideous.  Twitter blew up immediately after the start of the first Maryland game this year, with everyone from sportswriters to Lebron James chiming in with snarky one-liners about the ugliness.  This was a stiff test for the there’s-no-such-thing-as-bad-PR phenomenon.  Was this good for Under Armour?

It’s hard to say.  The company is successfully carving out a niche for itself separate from the Nike-dominated sporting goods industry, marketing to grittier, less flashier athletes.  That characteristic doesn’t particularly jibe with the garish unis.

Director of college sports marketing for Under Armour Walker Jones responded to the first game’s controversy by saying, “The public response to last night’s unveiling tells us that the game was an effective platform to show people what Maryland football stands for.”  That may be true, but all of that could have been true with more aesthetically pleasing jerseys too. 

My hunch is that Under Armour could have exploited this situation to their advantage better by aggressively responding to people joking about their product.  They could have reminded people what Under Armour stands for (other than creating questionable college football jerseys).  But either way, the initial decision was an inspired one, taking advantage of a marketing landscape that offers enormous opportunity. 

The NBA Lock-out: Does anyone understand psychology?

It’s difficult to describe the frustration of watching a train wreck when you’re presently studying the precise methods of preventing said catastrophe.  And witnessing the negotiations surrounding the present NBA labor dispute—negotiations that spit on, chew up, and run over pretty much every sound principle of psychology and group dynamics you can think of—has been a maddening exercise.  

The most important issue in a dispute is fairness; each side must feel that the resulting deal is fair.  But the NBA owners and players have cared more about overwhelmingly winning the negotiation than being fair, a disastrous position.  Persuasion comes easier when one finds areas of similarity and then gradually attempts to move the anchor in his direction; the NBA owners, on the other hand, initially proposed an egregiously unfair offer and then wondered what was going wrong. 

No one, especially the owners, seems to have any clue how human behavior works.  For example, if owners knew about the Ultimatum Game, they might realize that people will absolutely refuse a deal that benefits them out of sheer spite and revenge.  Humans are irrational creatures, and one of the easiest ways to get them to ‘cut off their nose to spite their face’ is to challenge their sense of fairness.    

The only kind of ultimatum the league understands is the threatening type, one that they delivered to players last week.  Apparently, they are the only people on the planet who don’t realize that humans respond to ultimatums not by caving, but by loading up and fighting harder.  

There’s clearly a bit of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in play as well; both sides would be better off if they took a middle-ground deal, but each side sees that potential deal as worse for himself, and so they end up hurting themselves.  If neither side tries to understand the psychology behind the others’ perspectives, they will in turn end up hurting not only themselves, but also everyone of us who loves the sport.

The Penn State fall-out

The sporting world this week is justifiably shocked and awed by the allegations emanating from the Penn State University football program.  The apparent sexual abuse of minors by an assistant coach and cover-up from numerous others, including formerly revered head coach Joe Paterno, has left us grasping for explanations.  A few interesting psychological factors are at play. 

First, Paterno’s casual treatment, in 2002, of the news that one of his assistants had assaulted a 10-year old boy boggles the mind on many levels.  Psychologists have long understood that people are reluctant to call for help when witnessing an attack, but this ‘bystander effect’ is usually more pronounced when many people have the opportunity to help.  Both Paterno and his informant—the assistant who did witness the attack—should have realized that they were the only ones with the power to do anything about it.  Often, being the only person with this power compels people to help; that neither of those two called the police in the last nine years makes a mockery of any kind of logic. 

Second, the PSU student riots angry over Paterno’s firing exhibit a classic case of cognitive dissonance.  Even if students logically understand why Paterno was fired, it’s much easier to rally against the people punishing someone whom you and your city have embraced for decades.  It’s much more difficult to say, “Yeah, the person we loved did something horrible, and he deserves to be fired.”  Instead, we get overturned vans and fires in the street. 

College sports never lack for scandals and investigations and somber press conferences.  Sadly, PSU has taken that pattern to a much more damning level.  Recovery will be arduous. 

The psychology behind 9-9-9

I’m usually the definition of apolitical, but the buzz surrounding Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan was hard to avoid.  I have nothing to say about the pros or cons of the plan; what’s interesting to me is the way its success—at least in terms of generating publicity—stems from a couple psychological factors that politicians can take advantage of.  

The smartest thing about the plan, from a PR standpoint, is obviously the name.  As soon as you introduce numbers to an argument, you’re doing yourself all kinds of favors.  This happens for a couple reasons: a) people trust numbers, and b) people don’t really understand them; that’s a deadly combination.  Charles Seife’s book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception lays this out nicely.  Seife illustrates the way people get down on their knees to worship at the altar of numbers, without really wanting to critique or comprehend them.  If you want to erroneously claim that vaccines cause autism, for example, you can point to the number of autism cases.  When people hear that natural blondes will be extinct in 200 years, as Good Morning America once declared, they assume that the number brings a measure of credibility.  

It takes cognitive work to break the numbers and the logic down.  Thus, it’s easier to endorse a tax plan that, by virtue of its numbers, seems to have direction and focus.  Whenever you can reduce someone’s cognitive effort, they will appreciate it, which relates to the plan’s other effective trait: its simplicity.  It’s safe to say that Cain’s plan wouldn’t have taken off if its numbers were, say, 9.5-11.3-7.4.  Simplicity appeals in almost every realm.  2010 Oscar-winning flick The King’s Speech trumped movies like The Social Network and Inception, I’d argue, because of its simpler story.  When people’s lives are as complex as they are, simplicity is appreciated.

One might argue that it’s doubtful the best tax plan for America is one that happens to fit so nicely into a box of 3 identical numbers, but as I said, I’ll let the more educated economists argue the data.  The point is that, whatever happens to Cain’s campaign now and in the future, he got himself a healthy dose of publicity from a tax plan, and that’s a politician’s most valuable currency.  

The psychology behind Facebook’s Timeline

In the near future, Facebook will roll out its latest profile redesign, a platform called Timeline that will dramatically reconfigure the site’s functionality.  Timeline, which will replace the current profiles, will portray users’ life stories in a chronological fashion, serving essentially as a virtual scrapbook of our lives.

This change has a couple notable psychological implications.  Firstly, as this article highlights, Facebook modifications starkly reveal just how change-averse we are.  The outrage over this announcement overwhelemed any discussion of its positives, even though one would think that people would eventually start to trust Mark Zuckerberg (we all howled over the initial News Feed launch back in ’06, and now it’s indispensable to our lives).  People simply get uncomfortable with change, and they over-estimate how difficult it will be to adapt to a new situation.  It’s much easier, and safer, to default to the status quo.  

The other interesting implication—and the biggest reason people should be embracing this move—is how well Zuckerberg, again, is tapping into the human condition and extracting what we like.  FB users will lap up the ability to display the key aspects of their lives in an orderly and chronological fashion—with a prominent lead photo that allows for all sorts of creativity.  Basically, it will facilitate even more narcissism and self-aggrandizement, traits on which FB has always preyed.  Timeline may very well once again change the way we present ourselves, a psychology that Zuckerberg, in addition to all his technological wizardry, knows all too well. 

Facebook’s Next Addition: Jobs?

Facebook’s gradual push towards world domination continues unabated.  On Thursday, the website announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor that will match job-seekers up with employers on the social networking site.  As Labor Secretary Hilda Solis put it in a press conference, the ‘Social Jobs Platform’ is designed to be a one-stop shop for the unemployed, a place to be connected with employers and other job-placement resources.   

This news is at once great for the working man and potentially damaging for other job-placement sites.  One of the most notable aspects of Facebook’s takeover of western civilization has been the way it chops off smaller rivals a la Wal-Mart.  Flickr has pretty much been consumed by FB’s photo capabilities.  Anyone looking to play an online game doesn’t have to leave the comfort of their friends’ status updates.  The new video chat may render other similar services redundant.  And now this threatens to do the same.  In a few years, will Facebook have swallowed up all the capabilities of, say, 

The Labor Secretary announced a desire to involve Twitter and LinkedIn with this service, so it’s not as though Facebook quite has everything to itself.  Yet FB’s desire to maintain traffic, which they’ve been remarkably skillful at doing for longer than many predicted, may end up making it esaier for all of us to navigate the complex world of social media.  Either way, this is promising news for job-hunters, and it will be interesting to see how popular and successful it becomes and whether it paves the way for additional services. 

How social media has changed TV marketing, distribution, and fandom

It’s clear that the Internet and social media have changed many aspects of the entertainment industry, but that goes beyond the commercial-neutering appeal of TiVo.  Another interesting development has given viewers the chance to express interest in shows that traditional ratings measures can’t reach.  This change in both technology and attitude has forced networks to respond.

The recent announcement that FOX show Arrested Development, off-air since 2006,would soon return underscores the way social media and the Internet are allowing people’s voices to be heard more and more.  Once upon a time, networks took the pulse of the country through traditional Nielsen ratings of television viewership by channel; nothing else mattered.  But thanks to social media, such old-fashioned gauges, while still relevant, have become but one of many telling indicators. 

Now, blogs and forums allow anyone with Internet access to share their love for a show with like-minded others.  An iPhone application allows users to ‘check in’ on Twitter and Facebook while watching a show, linking to a description of it.  And such outlets are having an impact.

Shows like Friday Night Lights and Chuck—critically-acclaimed and possessing a devoted fanbase but consistently posting poor Nielsen ratings—survived numerous attempts at cancellation thanks to fansites and pleas on Facebook and Twitter.  Chuck in particularcharted high in analyses of programs’ prominence in social media, blogs, and forums.  An even more extreme example is teen drama Gossip Girl, which made up for its poor ratings with heavy iTunes episode downloads and other new-school indications of interest.  As an article in New York’s Vulture Magazine stated, “Even executives at Nielsen threw up their hands and admitted that Gossip Girl appeared to be speaking to an audience so young and tech-savvy that they hadn’t really figured it out yet.” 

The psychological appeal of blogs has long been easily explainable.  They provide anyone with a soapbox, a platform for expressing views, a chance to persuade others.  But when it comes to TV shows, though, the situation becomes more inclusive.  The basic human need for social interaction, for affirmation, for congregating with people who like similar things as you, can be met easier than ever nowadays thanks to social media and fansites.

Studios and networks have grumbled over many technological changes—not just TiVo, but also the ability to watch shows (and movies) online, often illegally.  Executives do deserve some credit for listening to the fans Friday Night Lights and Chuck.  Thus, while Nielsen ratings are still a significant factor in determining what shows make the broadcast schedule and stay on the airwaves, the ratings test is splintering into many other forms.  It would be wise for networks to pay attention to these other outlets; they’re not going anywhere.  

Tweets, emotions, and a competitive advantage

Twitter has generally been studied for its networking possibilities, its ability to easily transmit links to many people, and the way it removes boundaries between celebrities and the average person.  But now, researchers believe they can study people’s tweets to ascertain telling information about human emotions.

As this article explains, the journal Science published a study by researchers at Cornell University who investigated 500 million tweets sent out by users in 84 countries over the last two years.  They parsed out indications of positive and negative emotions—from enthusiasm and delight to distress and fear—as they were expressed at various times of day, days of the week, and times during the calendar year.

The findings confirmed many conventional notions of mood.  Positive emotion was highest during the early morning, grew more negative during the workday, and improved again in the early evening.  Moods were higher on weekends and when the sun was shining.  The late evening hours, interestingly, featured high expressions of both positive and negative feelings, suggesting that the time is overall the most emotional one of the day.

The potential ramifications of Twitter accurately judging emotions would be far-reaching.  As smartphones and tablets make it easier and easier for companies to reach consumers instantaneously, businesses might want to carefully allocate their messages based on the time of day.  For example, attitude research suggests that people process less cognitive information when in a good mood—essentially, they don’t want to be faced with any reason for the good mood to dissipate—which might encourage companies to steer clear of promoting messages that involve the central route of processing at such times.   

However, it must be strongly cautioned that this research was not particularly scientific.  Aside from the admittedly subjective method of divining mood from tweets, the sample wasn’t remotely randomized.  It slanted heavily towards young, Caucasian, wealthy people; furthermore, there was no demographic information for the tweets, making it much more difficult to separate the effects of gender, age, race, and SES from these results.

The linked article stated that these results might indeed be meaningful and generalizable because of “the fact that [the study] gives predictable answers.”  Yet this is imperfect reasoning; the mere fact that the results meet our society’s ‘common sense’ expectations of emotions does not by itself make it legitimate.  One of the consistent hallmarks of psychological research is proving common sense wrong; therefore, it should take more for such studies to gain critical acceptance.

Given these limitations, however, this marks an interesting step in the realm of using new-wave social media to glean emotional states.  If such research proves legitimate, it will, of course, only be a matter of time before businesses try to find a competitive advantage from that.

What is Netflix doing?

Last week, I wrote about Netflix’s controversial decision to alter their pricing structure for delivering DVDs and streaming video to their customers.  This week, the company jolted its customers with another radical change, by splitting up its DVD and streaming services into two separate companies.

The latter will retain the Netflix brand, while the DVD service will now be called Qwikster.  The move, thus, seems aimed at assuaging investors; the poor-performing DVD-only service will now be separate, financially, from the streaming service, even though Netflix will still own both.

What’s particularly interesting about the move is the PR side of it.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings released a YouTube video, with new Qwikster CEO Andy Rendich, to announce the shift.  He also offered an apology for the way the recent price increase was communicated, especially for not being more forthright. 

But if the video was an attempt to patch up the PR side of the equation, I doubt it succeeded.  From the outset, it looks amateurish, with Hastings and Rendich sitting in what appears to be someone’s backyard.  There are verbal slip-ups, needless redundancies, and wooden performances from the two men.  One would never believe that these people owned such a powerful company.

In the video, Hastings declares that Qwikster needs its own brand so that they can innovate aggressively and advertise properly, but he doesn’t explain why the separation enables that.  Nor does he explain what has changed to make the separation necessary after so many years of successful DVD and streaming operations.  It’s possible that enough has changed to make this necessary, but Hastings is vague on that point.  

Wired Magazine speculates that the move stemmed from a desire to allow each service to negotiate rights with movie studios independently, without allowing studios to leverage them against each other.  That had better lead to a tangible improvement in service for customers fast, because complaints have already started to arise over the logistical inconvenience of having to deal with two companies, two websites, and two fees instead of one for anyone who wants DVDs and streaming.

With sites like Amazon offering streaming capabilities, Netflix’s stock plunging, and Facebook poised to enter the movie-streaming business as well, Netflix faces itself in an unprecedented quandary.