Two weeks ago in Campaign, Rory Sutherland argued that the marketing industry “could do with a bit more hard science” to generate consumer insights. He contested: “we are light on hard findings. Most other businesses are allied to an academic discipline of some kind. Marketing isn't.”
But is behavioural economics the answer – the opportunity, as Rory puts it, “for the industry to regain some of the influence it has lost, and to raise our game”?
My colleagues Paul Kitcatt, Richard Madden and I put our heads together to explore the argument. In a letter published in Campaign this week, we explore what philosophy has to teach us about the dangers of constraining creativity within the rules of science.
Rory Sutherland is quite right to say 'we could do with a bit more hard science' (‘Exploring the Science of Persuasion’, 14 January 2011.) But before we decide Behavioural Economics is the answer to every problem, a cautionary tale.
John Stuart Mill's dad was a right bastard. He brought his kid up on a diet of pure utilitarianism (it’s what happens if you go drinking with Jeremy Bentham too much).
JSM was forced to think through a Benthamite prism from an early age. In other words, try to solve every problem by calculating which course of action will create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This drove him mad by the age of 25.
This reminds me of BE. In fleeing from the 'rules' of classical economics, we have found sanctuary in another set of so-called universal behaviourist principles (social proof, expert endorsement, reciprocity, consistency, middle-menu rule and so on). If we're not careful, this set of rules will become our intellectual prison, just as utilitarianism was to Mill.
In his autobiography, Mill relates that he recovered from his depression on hearing an overture by Weber. This work of art followed no utilitarian principles. But he found himself becoming irrationally happy.
What's our Weber overture? ‘Think small.’ ‘We try harder.’ ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.’
None of these use any BE 'rules'. Instead, they rely on the intelligent juxtaposition of ideas, something Steve Harrison calls 'creative abruption', and simple likeability.
BE has its uses. Goodness knows, it's driven the less respectable parts of the fundraising industry for the last 30 years (free pens = reciprocity etc.). And it's invaluable in informing choice architecture (range structuring, pricing etc.)
But it's no substitute for creativity. Nor will it ever be.
Just remember JSM. He founded liberalism and is still read today.
And Bentham got stuffed and put in a box at University College London.
That’s our two penneth. What do you think?