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The Yellow Papers Series

Research World vs. Real World Why Current Research isn’t Enough

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


“I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

- Alan Greenspan Isn’t this an exciting time to be in communications? We spend our days trying to understand people. Then, we turn this human understanding into ideas which change our clients’ businesses. So aren’t we lucky that there is so much fascinating new stuff emerging right now from so many directions- evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, network theory, behavioural economics and anthropology – all of which is transforming our understanding of us as 21st century primates. But at the same time, there is a bit of a problem. It’s becoming clear that the research we all routinely use to come up with strategies, and to pre-test and track our communication ideas, is the same old research we’ve been using for decades. There’s a growing and worrying disconnect between what the latest science tells us about how people think and how they are influenced by communications in “the real world,” and how in the “research world” we attempt to understand and measure these things. It’s as if the dials on our research dashboards are no longer reflecting what’s going on under the bonnet (i.e. inside our brains). We’re not measuring what’s really going on. This paper isn’t going to solve all our problems. It’s too soon for that. But things do need to change. And we all need to be part of making this happen. Here we outline some of the issues that we all need to grapple with over the coming months and years. And then, we point to some very new ways to try to resolve this disconnect. So: • Let’s recap on what we’re learning about how our brains really work • What’s the disconnect between these new learnings and how we still use research today? • Finally, what sort of research should we be using instead?

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


Sarah Carter is a Strategy Director at DDB London. With Les Binet she co-edits all our IPA Effectiveness Awards entries, writes a monthly column for Admap and with Les will be running DDB’s new Brain Lab project. This is a pioneering new joint venture with Goldsmiths, University of London whereby a Research Fellow from their Psychology Department will act as part-time Scientist in Residence with us at DDB, helping us to continue to be at the forefront of understanding how communication works.

How Do Our Brains Really Work? This is covered in much more detail in the accompanying “Do you know your audience as well as you think?” yellow paper. But for our purposes, here’s a quick summary of brain learnings which are important when we think about research.

• Our brains are led by System 1 (emotional brain) thinking – fast, automatic, effortless, rooted in habit and heuristics. This is the system that research is now revealing as dominating decision-making and behaviour. We can, and do, engage in System 2 (rational brain) thinking – slower, conscious, usually verbal – sometimes – but only when we have to. Usually we manage very nicely without it, so we don’t bother. The result: We think much less than we like to think we do. As Daniel Kahnemann1 said, “We are to thinking as cats are to swimming. We can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.” • This leads to a second very important thing to understand. It means when it comes to the order in which things happen in our brains, we tend to ‘Feel – Do –Think,’ not ‘Think – Feel – Do.’ So if we think at all about anything – and remember that we often don’t – we are more often than not merely post-rationalizing what we have already decided via System 1 (the emotional brain). We humans are absolutely brilliant at post-rationalizing (yes not just planners!). So good, in fact, that very often we have no idea that this is what we are doing. So remember we humans are not rational creatures but rationalizing creatures. • Because most decisions are led mostly or totally by non-verbal System 1 (the emotional brain), it follows that it is very difficult for us to understand or articulate in words why or how we have made any particular decision. That’s why, when we do verbally explain why we do something, it’s usually a convenient post-rationalization – not the real explanation. Its not that we’re lying – we’re trying really hard to be helpful, but we just can’t do it. As someone said2, it would be like dancing about architecture. • We have evolved to be brilliant copiers of other people. We like to think of ourselves as highly independent, free–thinking individuals, don’t we? But, actually, we’re much more influenced by what other people say and do, than we like to admit to – or are even aware of. As Mark Earls says,3 “we are a ‘we’ species that thinks it is a ‘me’ species.” This is important because it means that groups of people behave in ways that are not easily predicted from the behaviour of individuals.

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


The work of Paul Watzlawick (an expert in communication theory) has shed fascinating light on the important elements of communication. According to him, all communication has a “content” and a “relationship” aspect. The important bit of this theory for us is that it is the relationship bit that has the greatest influence on any communication – that’s why he calls it meta-communication. For a lesson in the power of meta-communication, remember how Nixon was said to have “won” the 1960 debate against Kennedy but only for those people who heard it on radio. Those watching it on TV were more swayed by Kennedy’s tan and confident demeanour which stood in contrast to Nixon’s sweat and pallor, than by any words – highlighting the power of System 1 (the emotional brain). In other words, how you say something has more impact than what you say. Anyone who has a teenager, who grunts “whatever” knows exactly what I mean! So when it comes to advertising, the same thing applies. The dominance of System 1 (emotional) thinking in our brains means that its the metacommunication. Music, pace, typeface, casting, facial expressions, production values, media context, etc., are much more influential than words, message, proposition, support, etc. A humbling thought when we consider how much time and discussion we devote to those two aspects of our communication ideas in our day-to-day work.

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


Okay, so that’s a quick review of the important things we are learning about us 21st Century primates. Let’s turn now to how we tend to do research at the moment. Well, by and large it seems we’re doing it all wrong. • Our brains are led by System 1 (emotional) implicit thinking. But research is led by System 2 (rational) thinking. We merrily do research as though rational, cognitive, verbal and logical thinking and behaviour lead us. We live by the questionnaire. We ask people rational, logical, verbal questions in a nice tidy order, then collect unquestioningly their logical, post rationalized verbal responses. • We are rationalizing not rational creatures, as we’ve seen. So we can’t help but be unreliable witnesses to our own minds and behaviour. But in research we assume that what people think, believe and feel, they can easily understand and then helpfully explain in words to a researcher. We assume that there are always good reasons for what people do. We then gratefully take these verbal responses at face value. • We are a “we” species, but we research people as a “me” species. We ask people questions as individuals and then aggregate answers up by computer. So there’s no opportunity for people to be influenced (research would

call it “contaminated”) by what others think or do. But this is what happens all the time in real life. Sometimes we do put people in groups in research of course - the “focus group” - but these are artificial groups in artificial sitting rooms. So this may be a bit better than individual research, but usually we specifically prevent people from being in groups with the sorts of people they are most influenced by in real life - i.e. we actively exclude their friends, peers or family. • In researching our ideas, we slavishly obsess over the communication (the language or main message) at the expense of the meta-communication (the body-language or tone and execution). And yet, the metacommunication is the most important bit. We will happily spend thousands of dollars researching propositions or messages out

of any context, but then balk at paying for an original sound track or a more evocative location. We believe it makes no difference to research an animatic (essentially an ad with all the meta-communication stripped out) vs. a finished film. I often wonder - if this were really true – why clients don’t just save themselves a lot of “unnecessary” production monies and just run the animatic.... • Clearly there’s some considerable room for improvement in how we use research in the future to more helpfully reflect how we humans really think, feel and behave.

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


So what sort of principles should we be adopting in research? Let’s look at some examples of these in action. • Questionnaires and verbal questions and answers are fine for any decisions and thinking which takes place at a System 2 (rational brain) level. And some decisions do take place at this level e.g. the latter stages of car buying. But we should be very wary of using them for System 1 (emotional brain) thinking and we should certainly not take responses just at face value. • Where System 1 (emotional brain) thinking is prevalent (and this is usually the case as we’ve seen), we need to be much less dependent on self reporting and words, and instead find other ways of revealing what’s going on “ under the bonnet” • This means finding more ways of using and prompting visual rather than verbal responses (visual responses are more linked to System 1, whereas verbal is more linked to system 2). • More focus on feelings rather than words • More observation and less self-reporting – so, for example, think about using ethnographic research rather than just focus groups. Go and see what people really do with your products rather than asking them to tell you what they do with your products. • More creative ways of getting under the radar or disarming the post- rationalization of System 2. • Use speed of response as a measure (see the discussion of Implicit Attitude Testing in the next section), or get quick gut reactions from participants by asking that they click immediately on a visual icon rather than responding in words, or find ways to distract the rational bit of the brain so we can access the intuitive bit (see later for an example).

• Renew focus on interpretation of body language, posture, facial expressions, etc. in focus groups as opposed to the words uttered. It is worth noting that focus groups grew from motivational research doctrines in which Freud, et al, stressed the importance of what lay beneath the surface of the easily expressed. Although not perfect, qualitative research (when its practiced by someone who knows how to use projective techniques and understands the importance of interpretation rather than just reporting what people say) still gets us closer than most current research to System 1 (emotional) thinking. Unfortunately, focus groups are not always run with this level of skill, and the pressure for instant debriefs can work against us using our learnings to get underneath the rational responses.

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


• When it come to pre-testing, the task isn’t easy. But we do need to appreciate much more the importance of execution in how something communicates. For an ad working more on a System 2 (rational brain) verbal/rational level, this may be a bit less important. But in many ads it is an inconvenient truth that the apparently insignificant details, which are only there in a finished piece of communication may be more important than anything else. Sorry - but this can only mean that much pre-testing is limited in its usefulness and predictive ability. So what do we do instead? • It may be in some cases that it’s actually better to research a mood film, for example, than an animatic. Or we may recommend pre-testing finished films where we know it’s a particularly emotive ad. • In some cases, it may even mean that a pre-test is not going to be useful. • Perhaps, ‘Do- Test- Learn’ is a better model than the old ‘Test- LearnDo’. So in those media where production costs are low, maybe we need to be much more ballsy and actually produce more work without testing it. Or where production costs are higher, maybe we can exploit free distribution and tap into online communities to get their feedback before paying for media. Remember that no less than the lauded last CEO of Procter & Gamble, A G Lafley said he was unhappy if MORE than 60% of P&G’s new products each year were successful – since this would mean they were playing it too safe! Maybe when it comes to pre-testing we might all benefit from accepting a bit less apparent certainty.

Maybe when it comes to pre-testing we might all benefit from accepting a bit less apparent certainty.

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


Some Examples of New Thinking in Research It is not possible here to detail all the different research techniques being used by different companies. But here are descriptions of a few creative new ways to tackle the woeful current disconnect between what our research dials are telling us and what is really going on in our brains. • Think of ways you can disable System 2 (rational) thinking. This can mean employing simple strategies such as design research, which is more visual and playful. Online research makes it even easier to make the process fun for respondents. They can move icons around, drag and drop visuals into different containers, select different images, etc. When the activity is fun and visual, you’re more likely to be sidestepping System 2 rationalizing. • In the States, DDB took on the task of trying to understand perhaps the most rational of all subspecies of humans: the male CEO. Interviewing them in their offices, or in the back of their limos as they were driven into New York, was hopeless. They were in full-on C Suite mode, and we had no chance of getting beyond the rational brain barrier. But our planner had the genius idea of instead talking to these alpha males on the weekends— as the CEOs were driving their cars themselves. With the CEOs no longer in work mode, and with their thinking minds concentrated on the roads, we could access a much more intuitive part of their brains.

Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series

• Another way you can get at System 1 (emotional) thinking is to look at speed of response, not just the response itself. We have done this for years in an informal, qualitative way; for example, by using quick word associations with a brand. But speed of response can also be determined more formally via something called Implicit Attitude Testing. • This technique, which basically measures speed of response rather than answering questions verbally, helps get to the System 1 (emotional) thinking under our rational or post-rationalized responses. At DDB London we used this type of research when exploring attitudes among the public toward people with facial disfigurements. When asked, all people said that they weren’t at all prejudiced against people who looked “different.” They claimed that they were just as likely to give disfigured people a job as they would anyone with a “normal” face. And they weren’t lying. They genuinely believed this. But when they were given visuals of different faces and forced to rapidly click on words which they associated with different faces, the analysis of speed of response found that there was in fact sometimes quite profound subconscious discrimination going on.


Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series

• This same sort of idea can be used to help pretest ads, too. We must always think of ways in which we can use research to get at the feeling bit, not just the thinking bit, of our brains.4 We need to use more techniques that allow us to measure both the conscious and the unconscious takeaway from a communication—how it makes people feel, not just how they respond rationally when asked to recall an ad. Techniques that achieve this transcendence have found up to 40% more positive ad effects than more conventional measurements that overplay explicit System 2 (rational) elements and miss many of the more subtle, implicit System 1 (emotional) effects. • Visual rather than verbal responses can be used in pretesting, too. FaceTrace5 is an application that allows people to click on different facial expressions in answer to questions like, “Which of these faces best expresses how you think people would feel about this idea?”

• Think of ways to get at “we” not “me.” Use the wisdom of crowds to predict the success of a product or an ad. Instead of asking whether individuals would buy a product, ask how well they think the product or ad would perform among other people. Think of ways to mirror the online YouTube share value effects of an ad. Why not encourage people to share our ideas with friends and get their responses? • When possible, use techniques that observe people “in the wild” rather than asking questions “in captivity.” Encourage people to make films of themselves using the brand at home, use mobile phones to get quick gut reactions at specific moments of encountering a brand, participating in a product-related experience, etc.


Research World vs. Real World  The Yellow Paper Series


Final Thoughts As I was searching for interesting new research techniques to share with you it became clear that as yet, there aren’t many. Despite all the exciting new developments in understanding how our brains and our decision-making really work, there seems to be a bit of a willing conspiracy to just quietly carry on with the same old research. Too many research companies and too many clients have too much business, too many norms, and too many internal procedures invested in doing things the old way. If they change at all, it’s to do what Russ Ackoff6 has called “doing the wrong things righter.” And the more efficient you get at doing the wrong things, the wronger you become. If we want to dismantle some of these old ways of doing things, we’re going to have fight for change. But I think there is a great opportunity to start this process with some of the new media ideas. For example, using a standard pretesting methodology like the Millward Brown Link Test, it wouldn’t possible to pretest ideas like Telstra’s “Cabbie-Oke” program, which involved equipping taxis with karaoke kits, or Hasbro’s online experience for Monopoly City Streets. If we can start looking at creative ways to research these sorts of ideas using the principles I’ve outlined here, who knows where it may end?

Sources: Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, was a leading thinker on behavioral economics. He coined the terms System 1 and System 2.


Russell Davies Blog 2006. We’re as disappointed as you are – thoughts of an account planner.


Mark Earls, Herd; How to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature.


See Implicit /Explicit Attitude persuasion test demo for an example of this.


See lots of new research techniques based on latest thinking about the brain


Russ Ackoff (1919-2009) Organisational theorist, pioneer in the field of operations research, system thinking and management science. “All of our problems arise from doing the wrong thing righter. The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It’s much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter. If you do the right thing wrong you can correct it, you get better.”


DDB Worldwide Communications Group Inc. ( ranks among the top five consolidated advertising and marketing services global networks, according to Advertising Age. Consistently one of the most creatively awarded networks globally, DDB was Campaign’s 2009 Global Network of the Year and captured both the Cyber Grand Prix and Film Craft Grand Prix at the 2010 International Advertising Festival in Cannes. With more than 200 offices in over 90 countries, the DDB Group helps grow the value and influence of leading brands around the world. We believe that creativity is the most powerful force in business, allowing us to develop the ideas that people want to play with, participate in and pass along. We call this Social Creativity which results in ShareValue, the powerful combination of influence within social communities and tangible business performance. DDB Worldwide is part of Omnicom Group Inc. (OMC).


The Yellow Papers Series Why Current Research isn’t Enough So: • Let’s recap on what we’re learning about how our brains really work • What’...

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