How Hard is Choice, Really?

(Note: this is a re-post from when I wrote for Beyond Madison Avenue).

If you have been loyal readers of ours for the past few years (first, thank you!), you would know that we thoroughly enjoy the times when marketing and other realms of thought intersect. Marketing and advertising are fields that we wholeheartedly believe generalists excel in, for it is imperative to know a little bit about everything to be successful.

Knowing only what makes a catchy ad or how to write well cannot be the only prerequisites. Knowing about economics, sociology, psychology, and even philosophy can help the marketing professional increase their professional lifespan.

The topic of today’s post comes from a TED talk done by philosopher Ruth Chang, and it deals with choice.

If we boil down advertising into its frame, the goal is to get the consumer to choose our good or service over several options: 1) the consumer creating a solution on their own, 2) going to a competitor, 3) going to a substitute, or 4) doing nothing. Brands and advertisers compete against those choices every time the consumer begins to notice a want or need they have.

Many times in life, the consumer faces easy choices and hard choices. In marketing education, those processes are called extensive decision-making (hard choice) or routine decision-making (easy choice).

Ms. Chang identified choices as easy if one alternative had clearly better options or outcomes than the other and hard if one alternative was better in some ways but the other alternative was better in others. Chang also brought up the point that if a choice is hard, we can sometimes rely on unreasonable tactics like fear to default to the path of least resistance (PLR), so a hard choice can be avoided.

Chang noted that people (or, in our jargon, consumers) have the wonderful power to create reasons for why we make the decisions we do, and we can turn an easy decision into a hard one, or a hard decision into something fairly easy. When behavioral and marketing scientists study actions of consumers and perceived instances of cognitive dissonance, they see that consumers may create reasons justifying why certain things were bought and why they were acting certain ways.

How hard is choice? In truth, it depends on how hard consumers choose to make it. Humans have the uncanny ability to choose to be irrational, meaning going against a scientifically or socially superior decision, and create a reason that trumps it. Absolutely remarkable.

What does this have to do with advertising? A lot, actually. That is why taught and seasoned professionals know the difference between rationally and emotionally driven messaging. That’s why we research to find out what drives consumers to choose the things they do, and document how they came to those conclusions. That is why we should also look at why certain goods and services weren’t chosen over the products we provide. Then we compile the data and choose to reinforce the consumer’s choice if it went our way, or persuade the consumer to consider a different route if we were left in the cold.

The bottom line is this: The mass marketing theory can officially be archived. We need to engage consumers to know how they make choices in order to be a part of the process. If consumers can create reasons to love a brand, we might as well have messaging and content out there to help.