On habits, products, marketing, and the public good

Posted by Rob Walker on July 14, 2008
Posted Under: Consumer Behavior,Ethics,World News

On occasion I’ve wondered why it is that “public service”-style marketing campaigns often seem so much less effective, less potent, than marketing campaigns on behalf of a product or service.

With that in mind I was interested in this article in the Times business section yesterday by Charle Duhigg. It’s about a public-interest organization focused on disease prevention in developing nations, teaming up with multinational consumer-products corporations with track records of “creating habits” via marketing.

(This is actually somewhat related to a June 10, 2007 Consumed on Unilever’s sales of Lifebuoy soap in parts of India.)

To make the point that such firms have a habit-creation record, Duhigg recounts the rise of Febreze, and its evolution into something that people basically spray in perfectly clean rooms, because they’ve acquired the (previously non-existent habit). A Procter & Gamble psychologist comments:

“For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed. … But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.”

Wow! You won’t hear a blunt description of demand-creation than that anytime soon!

Anyway, I digress, but the Febreze anecdote alone makes the article worth reading.

Back to the point. The piece explains how the role of advertising/marketing has in effect created good habits (hand washing, which greatly cuts down on the spread of certain ailments) via marketing that happens to yoke those habits to a product (soap).

So this brings me back to my curiosity expressed above. Are these companies just that much better at the persuasion process? Or, given that agencies/etc. who execute their campaigns also do plenty of traditional public service stuff, is it that there’s something about introducing the profit motive that affects the approach and increases the effectiveness? Is there some intrinsically more compelling about a “good habit” when it’s tied to a consumer good? Is it simply a matter of scale — ie, these consumer-goods firms have the budget to blow out a message in a far bigger way?

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

As an employee of one of the agencies that produces both types of ads that you discuss, it seems to me that the critical difference is not the skill of the marketer, or the profit motive, but the presence (or absence) of a product.
There’s something about the human imagination that can easily and naturally respond to the prospect of buying a thing. And most product advertising essentially boils down to the argument that if you buy this thing, you will be happy. Humans are naturally (maybe tragically?) susceptible to this sort of arguement. Daniel Gilbert wrote a fascinating book about this effect called Stumbling on Happiness. I’m certainly no exception. I know I’m just as much a sucker for hype as the next guy. (I must have that 3G iPhone!)
It’s much harder to convince a person that they should think a certain way or behave differently if this arguement is not tied to some sort of specific, discrete action such as purchasing a product. A purchase that promises the consumer an easy solution.
But just as the out-of-shape purchaser of an expensive treadmill feels that he or she has made an important, meaningful first step, companies and non-profits alike will continue to spend money on this sort of advertising regardless of its actual effectiveness. A person that buys a thing (or a company that makes an ad) benefits from the feeling of having made substantial progress to some goal, be it getting in shape, being more fashionable, saving the planet or getting people to wash thier hands more regularly.
I’d expect this trend to continue until someone figures out a way to make money from discouraging comapanies to make ads (or of someone can manage a profit from getting people to save instead of drop;ing a few hundred bones on a phone.) As for me, I’ll be at the Apple store as soon as those lines die down. I just know that my life will be better once I have one.

Written By Ben McAllister on July 14th, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

So where does something like the Truth (anti-smoking) campaign fit in? Those ads aimed at a good habit AND attempted to steer people from purchasing a product.

Written By Braulio on July 15th, 2008 @ 11:03 am

i have worked extensively on Febreze as a design and marketing consultant (and by the way, everybody that works on the Febreze team at P&G and all their agencies are great people who i like and respect a lot). there is nothing dishonest or sneaky about what P&G does in terms of “demand creation.” it seems absurd to me, because i could not possibly be less interested in things like air fresheners, detergent, or fabric softener, but like Ben McAllister said, people really love these products and most certainly believe that they’re deriving substantial utility from them.

what P&G, and companies like them, are great at doing, is not creating demand, but identifying latent demand and unmet needs. companies that fail (or P&G products that fail, like Febreze Scent Stories) are examples of what happens when you try to practice “demand creation.” it just doesn’t work, and it’s fundamentally different than introducing a new product (and corresponding new usage habit) that meets latent demand.

Written By anon on July 15th, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

anon: Thanks for the feedback.

Braulio: I think Truth falls pretty clearly in the “habit without a product” category of traditional public service marketing. I’ve read mixed things about its results, but I’m aware the tone was unusual and I think it won a lot of awards, or at least attention for the agencies.

Ben: Fantastic comment. I think you’ve convinced me that this is the best explanation. I’m still pondering the implications, but, really, great comment.

Written By Rob Walker on July 17th, 2008 @ 7:54 am
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