Cognitive Bias In The Business Of Advertising: Introduction

Over the last six months, we’ve undertaken a daunting process at Swash Labs - we’re redesigning our product. 

It doesn’t exactly make sense -- why would we think about rebuilding everything from the ground up after six successful years in business? What would make that seem like a good idea?
 
For one thing, it isn’t the first time we’ve worked on ourselves. We have redesigned individual parts and processes of our business continually over the last four years, to great effect. If you’re our client, you’ve seen the results of this work across the whole shop: in how the media reports have evolved; in how the creative briefs and design guides have become powerful engines at the center of an account; and in how planning and strategy have become efficient, deeply consultative, and immediately transformative.
 
The idea behind the current undertaking is to zoom out, to really examine the relationship between advertising and behavior. We want to use that to start engaging in process design thinking based around how the human brain actually works. If the broad strokes of our advertising -- or, indeed, of the agency/client relationship -- are grounded in a deep understanding of how people think, everything should work better than ever. Right?
 
We have always had two missions at Swash. The first is to provide a global agency experience to small and medium-sized businesses. The second is to tell the truth in our advertising, and to only tell that truth to people who have a good reason to hear it. A third, less often specified mission buried under those two is to figure out who needs to know about one of our products but doesn’t know it yet, and to communicate to them in a way that doesn’t feel like yelling. 
 
This need brought us to the study of cognitive bias, and the role it plays in how people receive information about products, services, and the reality around them. The brain uses shortcuts to process information and weigh risks out of necessity, and as a result, bias automatically plays a huge role in many decisions that people make every day. That same bias makes people worse at judging risk and making decisions. 
 
I’m writing about this subject as a way to formally introduce the concept of cognitive bias into the regular professional vocabulary of advertising to a more formal and considered degree than the surface treatment it has traditionally been given. The overt mission of this work is to begin the exploration of the inclusion of strategies and practices that account for -- and try to circumvent -- common bias mistakes or errors in judgment. To that end, I will seek to explain the heuristics employed during the cognitive bias phenomenon: these act like seemingly logical information-processing shortcuts, but they cause human beings to make errors in judgment.
 
I am going to paraphrase extensively from the following paper as the core underpinning of this entire exercise, so feel free to read it in the original form: Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Amos Tversky; Daniel Kahneman. Science, New Series, Vol. 185, No. 4157. (Sep. 27, 1974), pp. 1124-1131.

So: do a little reading, and meet me back here later this week for the next post in this series.

Josh Berthume

Swash Labs, 608 E. Hickory St. Suite 120, Denton, TX 76201, United States