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  • Bob Hoffman


As business people we are taught to think logically. The logic of business is mostly quite simple. If I do A then B will happen. In other words, it is the logic of cause and effect. For most business activities cause and effect is the right way to think. It is not the right way to think about advertising.

The right way to think about advertising is likelihoods and probabilities. Advertising is too unpredictable and too contingent to assign anything like the assumed reliability of cause and effect. I pompously call this the “quantum advertising” effect.

Until the discovery of quantum theory in the early 20th century, scientists were convinced that there was a logical cause and effect explanation for all physical phenomena. They might not understand a given phenomenon at the moment, but given the right tools, the right methodology, and enough time, they believed they could derive a logical explanation.

This was undermined by quantum theory which asserted that there are no certainties — just likelihoods and probabilities. Among other weird things, it asserts that something can actually change by the process of being observed. The idea that observation could change the nature of something was completely radical and deeply upsetting, but has turned out to be true. Look at it one way, it’s a particle. Look at it another way, it’s a wave. Look at it at all and it will change from a wave to a particle. If you’ve never read about the mind-blowing “double-slit experiment,” I suggest you do so.

The point is that business people, like scientists, are used to thinking that there is a logical explanation for every business phenomenon. We may not know the answer now, but given the right tools, the right methodology — you may substitute the right metrics and the right data — and enough time, we can find a logical explanation for all consumer behavior. I’m not so sure. The idea that more data will lead us to a universal understanding of how advertising motivates an individual consumer may ultimately result in our arriving at the same conclusion we have reached about the physical world – it is way stranger and way more complicated than we imagined.

On the other hand, if we think about advertising in the context of likelihoods and probabilities, consumer behavior is much more easily understood. Consumers are more likely to buy products they are familiar with; they are much more likely to buy products that are easy to buy; they are much more likely to buy products they believe are socially acceptable; they are much more likely to buy products that make them feel good.

As we sit here today, we have two major competing models of consumer behavior. The first model suggests that consumer behavior is basically logical. This theory asserts that people behave rationally and do not throw their money away on stupid crap. There is a lot of persuasive evidence for this model. A good example is in retailing. Retailers know that they can stimulate sales by lowering prices, offering discounts, and utilizing other types of promotional activities. This is clear evidence for a rational basis for consumer behavior.

The second model asserts that consumer behavior is essentially non- rational, or emotional. This theory, brilliantly demonstrated by Daniel Kahneman, holds that people are not always aware of their motivations and are influenced substantially by emotions or subconscious activity. The evidence for this model is equally persuasive.

So we are faced with a problem. We have contradictory models of consumer behavior that both seem to be valid - - the rational model and the emotional model. Either there is another model which we cannot see underlying them both, or we need a more comprehensive explanation that unifies the two. In quantum physics an elementary particle can be understood as either a particle or a wave. I am going to suggest that in advertising, consumer behavior also has a dual character.

In quantum physics there are no certainties – just probabilities and likelihoods. I am going to suggest that in advertising our strategies have no inevitability about them. Just probabilities and likelihoods. On the nature of light, Einstein said: “We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”

I believe this type of duality and uncertainty is true in advertising and marketing as well.

     - Under certain circumstances, a brand can be described as having great power with a consumer. And in certain circumstances the same brand may have little to no effect on the same consumer.

     - The same person may buy brands whose advertising she likes, as well as brands whose advertising she hates.

     - The same person may buy products that are clearly differentiated, and products that are generic.

     - The same person may buy bargain products that are exceptionally good values, and luxury goods that are ridiculous and overpriced.


I am convinced that many people who bought Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous $75 “This Smells Like My Vagina” candle also saved 39¢ by buying bargain peanut butter the next day.

This is not unusual. In fact, this duality is typical of consumer behavior. There is an inherent contradiction that confounds us and mocks our most cherished beliefs about individual consumer behavior. I’m going to invent an obnoxious term here, but it’s necessary to communicate what I’m trying to say. The term is “behavior plasticity.”

The point is that because of the duality of consumer behavior, marketers who think they can describe it as either this or that are wrong.

“Behavior plasticity” – or the duality of consumer behavior – is the most mysterious and confusing element of marketing. It is the one factor that marketing people continuously misunderstand in their struggle to describe and predict individual consumer behavior.

Believing in the orthodoxy of one advertising philosophy, one media philosophy, or one creative philosophy is a trap that misreads the fascinating subjects of both advertising and human behavior.

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