Has Advertising got a Linda Problem?

What if I told you that  - I am a forty something male, who enjoys films, believes in freedom of thought and the reasoning of mankind and I instinctively disliked the Nobel Prize winning, best selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman? 

Which of the following two alternatives is more probable?
1. I work in advertising.

2. I work in advertising and I dislike modern planner’s strategic hyperbole.

All will be revealed.

Why is the advertising industry jumping on today’s fashionable thinking that human behaviour is without reason? That a brand’s advertising should solely illicit emotions from it’s viewers, as people buy on feelings alone? When didn’t advertising jump on a bandwagon, you may well ask.

The idea today that human behaviour is fated is fashionable again in modern societies. Just like it was for the Roman or Greek philosophers where the Gods controlled their world. We were all in their hands.

Today, instead of the Gods, more sophisticated arguments to prove ‘determinism’ (which is a less dogmatic sounding word than fate) are put forward by cognitive scientists, behaviourists, neuroscientists (and brand planners). In fact stick neuro in front of any word today and you’ll get heads nodding In agreement. Neuro-planners anyone?

Their list of biases (list bias included) that determine human behaviour grows everyday.  Apparently we don’t make decisions with reason. Daniel Kahneman, similarly to Plato with his reason v emotions,  points out our brain has two system for thinking about decisions. System 1 is lazy, instinctive and prone to error, and although system 2 is more reasoning, it is slow and hard graft, burning up energy faster than Lewis Hamilton's Formula One car.

So system 2 just post rationalises system 1's instinctive knee jerk feelings.  The problem is that system 1 is poor at making choices, as it bases decisions on gut-feelings,  inferring cause and effect where there is none. So system 2 just confirms the instinctive decision of system 1. Or at least so it goes.

Of course there aren’t really two systems in the brain but many, as Kahneman states at the beginning of his book. Although, like any film with an opening scene of the protagonist going to sleep as the film ploughs along, we forget about that part till the end nears. Then we are finally reminded that it was all just a dream. But with Kahmann there is no such reminder that, far from their being two systems, there are many, containing billions of neural pathways.

In fact, dividing the brain up at all can be misleading. Very little is really understood about the brain, what with it being the most complex thing in the known universe. But we’ll get there I am sure (using science and reason, noticeably).

Like the cinematic trick I think at times Kahneman is a tad of a trickster too. He has started with a theory as all good scientist do and then tried to find the data. As Darwin noted he had the theory framework, he now needed the data. The data proved his theory right. 

Some scientists refuse to admit they work like this, but they do. You have to start somewhere. Richard Feynman was crystal clear on this - you start with an idea / hypothesis, then you try and prove it. If you can’t prove it, it’s wrong.  But that was physics and this is social science which is a more slippery fish.

As Kahneman will tell you, people don’t like being wrong, so guess what they do? They make their theories fit, especially in social behaviour studies. You can fiddle to make anything fit near enough. Especially when it fits to fashionable thinking. Is Kahneman prone to a confirmation bias? Makes you think, doesn’t it?

One way to prove that people are a bit thick is to give them trick questions. You probably know the sort. Kahneman specialises in them.

One of his classic well-discussed problems is called ‘The Linda Problem’ that goes a bit like this:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which of the following two alternatives is more probable?
1. Linda is a bank teller.
2. Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.
Rationally, statement 2 cannot be more likely than statement 1, as 2 is a subset of 1, but 85 percent of respondents said that it was.
Kahneman argues that in making this kind of judgment we seek the closest resemblance between causes and effects (here, between Linda’s personality and her behavior), rather than calculating probability, and that this makes statement 2 seem preferable. It’s called a ‘conjunction fallacy’.
There are loads of versions of this problem touting conjunction fallacy. Today people never grow tired of showing how clever they are by showing how dumb others are.  If there is a kick to be had today pointing out human biases forms the basis of it.

And as everyone in planning departments knows, people are FAPS (thick as pig shit) and this be proof, if proof be need be. If they can prove that clients and their customer are dumb they win. Kerching.

Back to the the Linda problem, I instinctively knew it was designed to trick.  All I had to do now was to find the data.

The problem is actually a wording issue. The word probable means something different in everyday language compared to mathematically speaking.

So the answer is to reframe the Linda problem so it is easier to answer:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
There are 100 people who fit the description above. How many of them are:

1.  Bank tellers

2.  Bank tellers and active in the feminist movement too

Guess what happens to the results? Yep, the conjunction fallacy disappears – far more participants now choose 1. (90%)  over 2.

This would be a better lesson to learn for the advertising industry, clarity of communication counts, rather than people’s lack of reason or their stupidity.

Although me reframing the problem may not be necessary, because guess what, you have learned the trick and so you will be unlikely to fall for it again. 

Other problems that Kahneman sets are similarly problematic, rather than proving that we are dumb and unreasoning. Some show that we don’t have a firm grasp of probability for example. Nothing that a few rounds of playing poker wouldn’t solve I reckon.

The problems posed in Thinking, Fast and Slow are often not in understandable terms. Needing a firm grasp of maths at times, more than anything else. Yet, instead they infer we act on system 1’s instincts that lead to bad decisions being made.

The problem with tricks, including those used in advertising, is that they don't last long. Once the audience knows them, it’s game over.

Remember the two parallel lines that look different lengths but aren’t? Did you fall for that a second time? Even when the optical illusion endures, you now know they’re not the same length, so your reason over-rules system 1.

Or guessing which is the heaviest a kilo of gold or a kilo of feathers, did you fall for that twice? What about, would you rather, run a mile, jump a stile or eat a country pancake?

My point is that far from being dumb we learn from our mistakes. Trick me once, fool on me, trick me twice, go on then. Three times, what is the matter with you?

If you want to prove people are gullible go for it, you’ll have no end of successes, but so what? What next?
“Hey look your laces are undone.”
“No they’re not.” 
“Tricked yer.”
“Blimey, you’re tedious.”

People will stop trusting you -  that is what the end result will be.

This is of interest to advertising. Tricks don’t last long because they get revealed. People don’t like being tricked by advertising, eventually it erodes trust. And trust in a brand, and what it says, is important.

The question in advertising should be, what do viewers want to get out of advertising?

If your advertising is tricksy, for example playing on people’s emotions in irrelevant ways, once people find out your trick they rebel, kick back and shame you with your disingenuous intents, and so trust is broken.

This is why advertising that solely targets people’s emotions will have its day. Its intentions are unworthy and far from being informative and entertaining, it is manipulative and verging on a confidence trick.

And as people learn what purely emotional advertising is doing, far from getting them to love your brand, they’ll despise it. “How dare you”. they’ll say “Who are you to say you sponsor our Mums (P&G), or to help us Find True Happiness (Coke) or broker World Peace Day (Unilever)? You’re as a probable moral agency of change as David Hasselhoff.”

However, not all is lost, because these companies are pretty good at inventing nifty products.

How about they crack on and create great products? We’ll buy them if they fit into our lives and you give us a reason to buy. Albeit demonstrated entertainingly or charmingly as ads trip into our living rooms during half-time or before I watch a film at the cinema, or in between the pages of my newspaper, quid pro quo.

If I want to find your products make sure I can find you on google, if you sell your wares online. But don’t follow me around with your online ads you weirdos.  That’s just creepy and we hate you for it, start learning, because we are.

In closing, we all make mistakes, we all have our shortcomings, we are neither robotic or zombies. But reason is central to progress and learning. And even if you disagree with me you’re going to have to use reasoning to do it. You can't put together a solely emotional argument and if you do you lose, remember when you lost your cool in that pub chat, you lost right there.

As to my initial Linda style problem at the beginning, what do you reckon, am I answer 1. Or 2?

I think you should have a bit of trust in your own reasoning, and that is a good place to start. Then you’ll find it easier to trust in others. So what if you are wrong now and then, I just called out a Nobel Prize winner, what do you think the probability of me being right is? 


  1. I assume there was a deliberate irony in stating that you "instinctively disliked" Thinking Fast And Slow?

    I'm halfway through the book, and found most of the experiments fairly convincing (though I also found the Linda one a bit dubious). One only has to look at the comments below a Guardian or Daily Mail article to see the power of confirmation bias in full effect.

    I think there's a place for System 1 advertising. But its purpose should not be to make people love the brand (or even to consciously think of it in any particular way at all), but simply to make the brand or product name memorable, so they're that bit more like to buy/use it when they're in the supermarket / shopping online / buying insurance etc.

    Nice to see a Day Today reference slipped in under the radar, though...

  2. I don't think you're being fair trying to use Kahneman to bash "emotional-only" ads. System 1 isn't an "emotional" system, it's a short-cut system. As you sort of express towards the start of your post, system 1 is employing a rule of thumb approach in terms of deciding what to do. It takes too much brain power to apply pure logic to every single decision (as some economists would have us believe) so we take short cuts. Whether that's picking an answer because it sounds about right, or going with the most popular choice because the majority are usually right, we're looking to reduce our mental load and not spend every single second debating every single decision. This doesn't say at all that we don't use system 2 to make logical decisions - it's just that it's only selectively used because it's hard work. So we save it for when we need it (deciding which mortgage/pension/investment plan is right, work problems, exams etc).

    But I don't think that advertising should only be in one system or the other. It depends on the product and the category. But also to me advertising has had the biggest successes when it's understood and used the heuristics of system 1, e.g. using testimonials, "the world's favourite airline", catchy jingles, inertia marketing etc etc. Classic techniques using heuristics before the term was fashionable.

    Advertising should be looking for new ways to utilise our inherent lazy biases of system 1 to help sell products rather than just assuming that the opposite of rational equals emotional.

  3. Marry me Sell Sell.

  4. The whole point of Kahneman can be zipped in one sentence: human mind is lazy, so it'll always decide for a shortcut.

    While this sounds like a academic blasphemy, you know it's true.
    Just look around and proofs will pop-up instantly.

  5. @19:36 Get in line mate.

  6. Thanks commenters, some good points (and proposals) there. All gags were intended and well done on the Day Today spot, didn't expect that to be noted.

    There are more long posts to come on this topic, which we hope encourages some debate and explains more about our thinking on what is quality advertising today, and its role in the growth of brands.

    The reason we wrote the piece is that far from being academic blasphemy, the idea of humans being lazy, irrational, zombie like or unreasoning is in vogue. Especially in Adland – maybe even more so than in academia.

    The point of the article is to make the case that the heuristic we believe a brand is after is the one that was the reason / benefit of the product and the problem it was designed to solve.

    But we are being told we don't make decisions for reasons, we are 'all' gut instinct, lazy, irrational and so on. 'We only post rationalise decisions', for example. And 'We often make bad choices', see the Linda problem. The counter argument based on learning and re framing the problem - which advertising could actually learn from, is largely ignored.

    What we think has happened today is that brand people and planners have associated our gut feelings/heuristic with our emotions. So we make decisions emotionally based on gut feelings. Kahneman's work for example is often used to support this.

    Far from separating reason from emotions, we think that the product reason or benefit however trivial should be conveyed in a charming, entertaining, fun, joyful (emotional) way. This will help the brand become known for what it is designed for. Or, in common parlance - the truth.

    So we start with what the product does (benefits) then add the charm (emotions). So the short cut we want associated with our clients' products is why it came to market – however trivial that may seem, that is our job – to sell them.

    And this is a continual task because people don't really really love brands, they are fairly indifferent and will switch easily and frequently. But today we are being told that people do realy really love brands, as if they are irrationally addicticted to them for no reason at all.

  7. Oh boy, we already are hitting that stage when it becomes fashionable to go after Kahneman. I appreciate the effort, it's always important to be critical, but here I find this fastly misguided. I actually think your example is a perfect illustration of the point he makes. Unless we are clearly told to behave rationally, we are excellent at not behaving this way (even though we have the capacity to). I never read it as "we're intrinsically dumb" but rather "we constantly find ways to be dumber than we really are".