In the early days of advertising the marketer’s focus was on the What: what is the product? What does the product offer, and what features of the product improve the consumer’s life? The logic was simple – convince your customers that your product will give them superior, new, additional features and improves their life at a lower cost, and they will obviously choose to acquire your product. The earliest advertisements were built around basic information about products, sometimes simply a manufacturer’s or a retailer’s list of products, printed on a plain sheet of paper.
A look at the vast majority of commercials well into the early 20th century quickly reveals that the focus is almost exclusively on the product and its features. The spotlight is on the ways it will make you feel happier, appear better or even wealthier, or make your life easier –and that it will do so more or at a lower cost than similar products on the market.
When in the 1930s Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, pointed out that marketers would do much better to focus on people and their internal social and psychological drives, rather than on products and their features, the idea was novel and revolutionary. We need to “understand the mechanism and motives” of the individual and group minds, insisted Bernays. Bernays’ phrasing may strike us as basic and commonsensical today, yet it was in fact the harbinger of a new era in advertising, marking the industry’s awakening to human psychology and its role in human decision making. These were the early days of a great shift in marketers’ point of view on advertising. The “century of the self,” as the 20th century has been called, brought about a high awareness of the ‘self’ that lies within each individual human, and which functions as a core driving force. The marketer’s aim and challenge thus shifted from understanding the product to understanding humans and finding out their drives and desires.
Around the same time that Bernays was channeling Psychoanalytic insights into the world of marketing, John B. Watson, famous psychologist and one of the founding fathers of the Behaviorist school, had also left academia and tried applying principles of Behaviorism to advertising. Watson’s approach was also built around appealing to the consumer’s basic emotions such as love, hate, and fear, while applying the core behaviorist principles of stimulus-response and conditioning. Along with insights on drives and emotions that came from the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, Watson’s innovative approach proved the new focus on discovering drivers and barriers inside the individual to be effective, and these two models became heavily influential on the rest of the century’s psychology-based marketing strategies. The basic common understanding across the two major and otherwise competing schools of psychology of the time, Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis, was that the source of motivations and desires lies at the core of the individual human being.
As marketers began to understand and take more seriously the contributions of psychoanalysis, cognitive and behavioral psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences, the industry became more sophisticated, and gradually the driving question shifted from the What to the Why: why do consumers make the decisions that they make? By the end of the 20th century, the practice of marketing had become strongly human-centric and insight-oriented. It had become human-centric in the sense that the focus was no longer locked on products and their features or their effect on people, but on the consumers’ perceptions, and their subjective experience as they interacted with and “made sense” of products. And it had become insight-oriented in the sense that we had understood that the real forces and imperatives that direct and drive humans’ perceptions and reactions to a product are primarily internal and implicit, hidden not only from the marketer, but often from the consumers themselves.
And so by the end of the 20th century we managed to learn a lot more about the powerful role played by implicit drivers ranging from emotional, cognitive and behavioral processes to social, cultural, and even political motivators and barriers of decision making. We realized that for a marketing strategy to be successful, it had to pay close attention to, and align itself with these forces. For instance, we began to understand and appreciate the direct relationship between social and historical forces and internal individual feelings and experiences, and we applied our newfound knowledge to exploring new approaches to marketing and advertisement.
Nike’s ad attempts to leverage powerful historical and political affect (2018)
If by the end of the 20th century learned that, a) our focus should be on the human and b) “the human” needs to be understood in its context, today we are finding ourselves in front of a new set of challenges, as “the context” in which human interactions and decision making take place is going through drastic changes, and with it the very processes of desire and decision making are changing.
In reality, by the time we stepped into the 21st century we were already readjusting our focus, now exploring the place of subjective experience and psychological affect in the broader picture, rather than inside the individual. We had begun to have a much clearer grasp of the contextuality of human experience. We had started to notice that the internal drives we had so intently focused on throughout the second half of the 20th century were all embedded processes: they were not just informed by, but actually formed by the “systems of meaning” in which they took place. And we had started to further understand that these so-called systems of meaning were in turn produced by social, political and historical processes, and functioned based on specific structures and mechanisms. We had now woken up to the idea that in order to understand the internal world of the individual, you need to understand the way it is embedded in its external world of meaning, the ways in which it is connected to its surrounding social and cultural grid. This was a very significant realization, but not all! As we made this transition, we noticed an altogether new register of meaning and experience rising in our horizon and demanding our attention: the age of virtual experiences and networked interactions had arrived.
As humans, we have entered a new era of novel experiences, and new ways of acting as social subjects. And as marketers, we are starting to make sense of this new era: an era that is promising us unprecedented understanding of the way human desire and decision making are experienced and shaped in novel ways through new media and in a new environment. The new environment of human experience is composed of a networked world of social media, digitized information, and virtual sensory and affective experiences. This brave new world of human experience has two core features: 1) it is decentered and networked rather than centered and individual-based, and 2) it is data-informed and information-driven, rather than reality-informed and ideology-driven.
Here at Insync, in keeping with our long tradition of moving ahead of our times, we have closely analyzed these core features, and we have identified major opportunities in them. Specifically, we are acutely conscious of the fact that the locus of the 21st century consumer’s motivation is no longer to be sought inside the individual, but in the extended network. We are keenly aware that, thanks to the structural features of the new environment and the possibilities afforded by new technologies of communication and information, the processes that lead to the formation of human desire and decision making can now be identified, unpacked and analyzed in ways that have never been possible before. We now speak not only of What a product does for the consumer and Why the consumer may or may not desire a product, but also of How the desire for a product is created. We examine and unpack the processes through which desire leads to motivation and from there to specific decisions, and we are able to address the ways in which those processes can be leveraged, countered, or reconfigured.
Insync’s strategic program for full utilization of these opportunities includes two broad steps: step one consists of full incorporation of Behavioral Economics in our research methods and analyses; and step two full integration of new technologies of information, specifically Artificial Intelligence. We have long incorporated and mastered the analytic and methodological capabilities of Behavioral Economics, so that today we consider BE one of the mainstays of our approach to research and analysis. And we are currently in the process of integrating cutting edge AI capabilities into our work, through a phased process, details of which will be outlined in future entries.
Ask our clients, and they will tell you that Insync’s driving question today is no longer simply Why, but How. How do thoughts and motivations work? How do they get translated into decisions and behaviors? And how can we influence that process? At Insync, we are no longer satisfied with thinking about products and their advantageous features, nor with identifying and leveraging the implicit motivations that shape the consumer’s behavior.
The new realities and the new technologies are on the verge of releasing a genie from the old lamp marketers have been rubbing for the past few centuries. Today we are learning to hone and control the unprecedented ability to deeply understand, predict, and shape the consumer’s desire, and we are only too well aware that with such power come serious moral and ethical responsibilities. As a result, a good part of our thinking today is dedicated not simply to advancing fast and strong into this new era, but also to simultaneously updating and upgrading our moral and ethical compass as we navigate new horizons, and to being certain that what we do leads us only to what is good for all of us, for all of us humans living in this constantly shrinking global village.
At Insync, we promise our clients the opportunity to anticipate and address their consumers’ desires before the consumers themselves are conscious of those desires, while committing ourselves and our clients to deep and hard observation of the boundaries of not just human health, but also human well-being, human welfare, human prosperity, and above all, human dignity.
Sadeq Rahimi, MSc, PhD, Senior Social Scientist and Strategy Consultant at Insync.
Sadeq Rahimi is senior social scientist and strategy consultant at Insync, and professor of medical anthropology affiliated with Social Medicine and Global Health at Harvard Medical School and Culture and Psychoanalysis Program at Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.