This Will Never Happen to You

Car accidents, failed businesses or marriages, and lackluster marketing campaigns happen to “everyone but me.” Or so we like to think — or, rather, are programmed to think.

Car accidents, failed businesses or marriages, and lackluster marketing campaigns happen to “everyone but me.” Or so we like to think — or, rather, are programmed to think.

According to Tali Sharot — author of “The Optimism Bias,” published in Time magazine in 2011, and then a research fellow at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging — our brain’s frontal cortex causes our thoughts of the future to be more positive than negative. We tend to associate our life events with good outcomes, not bad ones. You know, “other people get divorced, not us. Other people’s kids get sick, not ours. We have a chance of winning the lottery, despite all the odds,” and so on.

When you consider the role the frontal cortex plays in our lives, it makes sense. The frontal cortex drives our thoughts associated with goal-setting, and we set goals because we believe we can achieve them. If not, we would just live to exist, not to self-actualize, which is a key part of the human psyche, and a strong driver in many of the choices we make personally and professionally, as well as our purchasing choices.

So if we tend to live in a state of hope that life will turn out how we expect it to, what does that mean about our ability to accept the reality that the opposite might occur: That maybe we will be the ones to experience loss, tragedy, defeat and more?

Freud identified a series of ego defenses, or thought stages, we go through to help us survive against threats associated with reality and deal with conflicts. His daughter Anna elaborated on his concept of defense mechanisms and helped to build a list of mental stages that represent various ways of coping when reality is too much to accept. I call these defense mechanisms “denial stages,” or places we exist to avoid thinking about what we don’t want to face someday. The mechanisms, or denial stages, include:

  • Repression: When our unconscious keeps disturbing our unconscious thoughts from becoming conscious.
  • Denial: When we block external events from our awareness and choose not experience situations we can’t face.
  • Projection: When we project thoughts about traits we don’t like to admit about ourselves onto others to make our own weaknesses more acceptable.
  • Displacement: Substituting an impulse with another object, like eating sweet berries when you really wanted ice cream.
  • Regression: Moving back in psychological time to a place that seems safer than the place where you currently are in life.
  • Sublimation: When we satisfy an impulse with something positive, like putting your addictions into running vs. alcohol.

For any of us, many of our customers live in one or more of these stages. We need to “face” which of these stages affect our target consumers and how consumers might block our messages in order to fall deeper into denial. A state that does not open their minds to our products, messages, offers and such.

Take financial services for example. We do not want to think of ourselves as getting too old to work, so we might slip into denial and thus block out messages about retirement planning and investing. Life insurance companies face this dilemma every day. “Other people die and leave their children without a parent or with a compromised financial future.” No one wants to think about something that bad happening to their family and to engage in life insurance purchasing processes means accepting that it actually could.

Moving consumers from a state of denial in which they have likely dwelled comfortably for a long period of time is a tricky but critical process for marketers in just about any business category.

Is It Ever Good to Be Bad?

If you were to ask Miley Cyrus the question in this headline, the answer would be “Oh, yeah.” But if you look at album sales for her chronological counterpart, Taylor Swift, compared to Miley’s since she went “twerking,” the answer is clearly “no.” It took a year for Miley’s most

Miley Cyrus vs Taylor SwiftIf you were to ask Miley Cyrus the question in this headline, the answer would be “Oh, yeah.” But if you look at album sales for her chronological counterpart, Taylor Swift, compared to Miley’s since she went “twerking,” the answer is clearly “no.” It took a year for Miley’s most recent album, “Bangerz,” to reach 1 million in sales, and Taylor Swift’s most recent one, “1989,” hit 1.2 million in just one week. That was Taylor’s third album to sell 1 million copies within a week.

So if positive personas, values and public behavior sell more records, why do the politicians keep upping the volume and intensity of negative campaign ads?

According to Wesleyan Media Project research from 2013, presidential campaign ads hit a record new high in 2012 for volume and for negativity. Interesting, given that further research by Dowling, Conor M.; Wichowsky, Amber, as printed in the American Journal of Political Science in 2015, shows that voters actually punish politicians for negative ads.

But do we really punish negative advertisers? Consciously, it’s fair to say that most people claim to reject negative ads, maintaining that we are not swayed by mudslinging personal attacks and we make choices at a higher intellectual level. Yet, unconsciously, those negative messages, repeated over and over and over, get into our heads and linger longer than we might know. Because 90 percent of our thought is unconscious, according to Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard Business School neuromarketing pioneer and author of “How Customers Think,” those lingering, and likely dormant thoughts might, have a different response to negative ads than the leftover 10 percent that guide what rolls off of our tongues.

Ruthann Lariscy, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia who focuses on studying political advertising, suggests those negative thoughts do linger in our minds and have a lot more influence on Election Day than we want to admit, to ourselves and especially to anyone else. As Lariscy, points out in a recent article she wrote featured on, we process negative information a bit more to help us better understand the implications of the message and that longer contemplation time enables it to register deeper into our psyches. Thoughts that linger longer, even passively, often resurface at later times to influence our behavior, says Lariscy, who refers to this process as the “sleeper effect.” Per her article, we tend forget the negative things one politician says about another and move on. But come Election Day, when we are standing in the election booth with ballot in-hand, something triggers that negative energy associated with claims made in the past and, in a lot of cases, that is when we punish politicians by voting against that bad memory, even if we don’t recall all the details or the source.

While Lariscy calls it the “sleeper effect,” I refer to it as the “survival effect.” Just like other species on this great Earth, we humans are programmed for survival and that deep-rooted and dominant DNA strand affects much of what we do in our daily lives, and has a lot of influence on our attitudes and opinions. Once something has negative energy associated with it, we unconsciously go into survival mode, and start to feel anxious or uneasy without really knowing why, in many cases.

We get a good example of how negative energy impacts our unconscious drivers from the Iowa Gambling Task. This task, which the University of Iowa originated in the 1980s, teaches us that our unconscious responds to negative energy and affects our behavior well before our conscious mind does. Participants in the study were given $2,000 and four decks of cards. The task was to play cards from the four decks, and earn money or lose money accordingly. Two of the decks had high risks for loss, while the other two had a greater chance of earning rewards. Participants were hooked up to monitor stress responses while playing the game. Among the healthy participants, signs of “unconscious” stress showed up after flipping over just 10 cards. It took between 40 and 50 flips for the unconscious mind to catch up! That implies that it takes our conscious mind four and five times longer to catch up with the attitudes, conclusions and drivers of our unconscious minds!

My conclusion from the above study is that our unconscious minds are wired to recognize stress and threats to our survival quickly and, as a result, put us in “survival” mode when we don’t consciously realize it.

How does this impact advertising? In terms of conscious statements about intent to vote or purchase from a brand, there’s likely not much change. But in terms of unconscious drivers that impact 90 percent of our thoughts and behavior, it suggests a great deal: Negative energy associated with your brand or products can impact sales down the road.

Negative energy can come from statements made by competitors questioning your integrity, ability to keep promises made and even financial stability. It can also come from using colors that create unconscious feelings of anxiety vs. those that put our minds at ease and create a sense of trust. And it can come from us, in the form of bad ads that leave one to question our values and our familiarity with what matters most to our customers.

GoDaddy, more known for its bad Super Bowl ads, perhaps, than its great customer service (which it has, by the way), is an example. For years, GoDaddy has tried to use shock value during Super Bowl games to get people talking about the brand. That goal is achieved, as the ads continue to pepper the top of the “Least Effective” ranks, in terms of generating persuasion, relevance, watchability and other results, as measured by Ace Metrix. In 2014, GoDaddy achieved No. 1 and No. 4 spots for the least effective Super Bowl ads with the “Body Builder” and “I Quit” ads. In 2015, the company went with one designed for even more shock value by having a beautiful top model sucking face with a quintessential unattractive nerd. GoDaddy claims that that kissing ad generated its best Super Bowl scores yet. And, per Mashable’s report on the ad’s results, its best sales day ever, with increases of 45 percent for a single product.

While “shock value, off-beat” ads might work great for short-term gains, in this case it clearly didn’t work for long-term sustainability. Forbes, on Oct. 30, 2015 — a few short months after the ad’s debut — reported that GoDaddy has posted a $71.3 million dollars earnings loss. Per prior years of running weird Super Bowl ads, GoDaddy reported a $200 million net loss in 2013 and, in June 2014, listed its total indebtedness as $1.5 billion. Clearly, there’s a lot more at stake here than advertising, but its fair to say that a brand’s persona and the energy it puts out does have an overall impact. Again, compare Miley Cyrus to Taylor Swift. Two talented female artists who write and perform songs based upon their personal values and those they want to project to the world.

Recently, Bloomingdale’s released an ad that suggested “date rape” for holiday partygoers. After much backlash and media attention, which likely upped its overall brand awareness scores at the time, the brand apologized. Only time will really tell if this likely ploy for attention will impact sales, not just this holiday season but down the road when shoppers can choose similar products from other retailers who don’t engage in doing bad for others while trying to gain good for themselves.

Lesson Learned
What you put out in this consumer-driven world of ours comes back. Maybe not immediately, but eventually it does. Because our conscious minds might “sleep” on bad energy; but in time, our survival DNA brings it back to the forefront of our unconscious drivers of behavior, and often influences us to choose “good” over what feels “bad.” Because success for any brand, large or small, lies in long-term sales, not short-term spikes, it’s easy to see that in this world of ours, in politics and in business, good does and will triumph over bad!