(a) They’re all titles of award-winning films.
(b) They’re all part of a complete breakfast.
(c) They’re all failures in the world of persuasion.
If you didn’t guess (c), either you’re not paying attention or you’re more, um, unusual than most of my readers. And please don’t invite me for breakfast.
A hunt for research about influencing people is bound to come across a few techniques that don’t work, despite widespread belief in them. It turns out that sex and violence are both in that category, at least as far as advertising goes.
Ellie Parker and Adrian Furnham tested the persuasive ability of sexually suggestive advertising by having their study participants watch either an episode of the family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle or a particularly sexually explicit episode of the adult comedy/drama Sex and the City. During the commercial breaks, half the participants in both groups saw ads with high sexual content while the rest saw ads with low sexual content.
Which ads were remembered best? It turns out that participants who viewed ads with sexual content had no better recall of the products being advertised than those who saw non-sexual ads. And those ads shown during Sex and the City were even less memorable, apparently because the sexual content of the show overshadowed the memory of the commercials.
This isn’t the only evidence. In his book Buyology, Martin Lindstrom reported on research showing that sexual stimuli can interfere with an ad’s sales message: only half as many study participants remembered a brand or product when the ads for it contained sexual content. So much for sex.
Research by Brad Bushman also found that sexual advertising was remembered no better than non-sexual advertising. However, Bushman also tested commercials containing violence and found that they were noticeably less memorable than other commercials. So much for violence.
What about focus groups? Gathering a group of people and asking them questions can be a useful start when you’re creating a survey or questionnaire, but it doesn’t appear to produce accurate results when you’re asking people to judge your new product.
I couldn’t find any studies on how well focus groups work, but it’s been argued that focus group participants make snap decisions with little information, are unlikely to be completely honest, and don’t know their own real preferences.
Research in psychology and behavioral economics has shown time after time that people have bad intuitions. We are very good at explaining our behavior (sometimes shocking and irrational), and to do so we create neatly packaged stories – stories that may be amusing or provocative, but often have little to do with the real causes of our behaviors… This “focus group bias” is not just a waste of money, it is also most likely a waste of resources when products are designed according to the “information” gathered from these focus groups.
So much for focus groups.
And pop-ups – those obnoxious ads that appear in a new window while we’re browsing the web? A recent article confirmed that we don’t like them at all and came up with some good suggestions for making them palatable (“be nice and polite and don’t make yourself a nuisance”).
Until designers start taking those suggestions, however, I think all pop-ups should include half-naked women blowing things up. Hey, if you’re going to fail, fail big.