Doing The Wrong Thing With The Right Data

Data, data, data. The ad industry is constantly talking about data. Big data, small data, personal data, any data. Data-driven strategies are not to be questioned. After all, how can you question data? Data is undeniable.  

Well, it might be undeniable, but you can surely question our ability to accurately interpret the data and our approach to transforming data into effective campaigns.

Data in itself is information about the audience. But having information about an audience is not the same as knowing how and what to communicate to the audience, in order to influence their behavior. Sometimes, you can do the wrong thing with the right data.

Social psychologist Emile Bruneau details how accurate data can inspire an ineffective campaign, and also trigger the exact opposite behavior than intended.

His theory is that humans essentially have two minds, one that is rational and another that is irrational. The irrational mind is automatic, a set of survival reflexes that we inherit. It’s driven by ancient patterns of survival and regulates most of our behaviors. One of these reflexes is our tendency to follow social norms, what the majority considers accepted behavior. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re conditioned to follow the group behavior to increase our chances of survival. 



He shared an example of a stone forest, where tourists would visit and take a stone as souvenir. As the forest was gradually deteriorating, the forest administration attempted to solve the issue by putting up a data-driven sign that, in theory, made all the sense in the world. It went something along the lines of “Every year, thousands of tourists are picking up stones as souvenirs, thus destroying the habitat. Please refrain in order to preserve the forest for future generations.” Nothing truer. And yet nothing more counterproductive. 

Instead of discouraging theft, the sign actually increased the number of people stealing stones. Why? Because the message, although data-driven, involuntarily portrayed stealing as the norm – and after all, we’re inclined to follow norms. In the end, a simple message that read “Please don’t take stones” proved to be far more efficient. 

This makes one question all of the award-winning social campaigns that reinforce a negative norm in the name of a good cause. “Every year millions of people are throwing plastic bags into the ocean.” Rationally, anyone would agree that this is wrong. But at an irrational level, we register that everyone is doing it. Is this as counterproductive as the forest sign? 

Social psychology provides several examples of how we’re conditioned by norms and other biases to behave in irrational ways. The classic towel test performed in hotel rooms seems to confirm the theory. Using signs with positive norms like “The majority of guests reuse their towels” proved far more efficient than traditional messages focused solely on environmental protection, because it reinforced a positive norm. The behavior seems to hold true across the spectrum. 

More than collecting data, it’s important to understand how the mind works and what drives our behavior; we need to use this knowledge to create human connection. In its simplest form, advertising boils down to people communicating with other people in the name of brands. Data is important, a scientific approach is informative but, ultimately, emotional connection truly ties the knot.

Peter Seligmann, a leading environmental expert, said that conservation is first and foremost a communication problem. Scientists are right in their theories and warnings, but they communicate in a very academic way (“mitigating climate change”) that doesn’t connect to our day-to-day lives and doesn’t resonate with a broader audience. In the end, even scientists need some emotion to be effective.

6 comments about "Doing The Wrong Thing With The Right Data".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, February 28, 2018 at 11:20 p.m.

    Mihai: Would you agree that we really haven't done enough work on data utility in the creative process?  That data-fueled "personnas" are a midway point? (But often short on insights for creatives.)  If we are having a bit of trouble translating all this available data for brand marketing departments, then it's unfortunately likely that really effective data-driven creative is a bit down the road.

    I don't necessarily agree that  Brueau's work is directly applicable but I do agree that social pyschology and communication research in persuasion theory have much to offer creatives.
    Some of the creative briefs I've seen...are pretty thin on providing helpful "data" guidance to creatives in the trenches.  Getting more creatives involved in all stages of data analytics is a must.

  2. Eddy Hagen from, March 1, 2018 at 3:17 a.m.

    There are two books on this topic that I can really recommend: 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman and 'Predictably Irrational' by Dan Ariely. The first one explains how the brain works (based on decades of interesting experiments). The second focuses more on how you can influence peoples behavior, which is of course very interesting for marketing... Both books are fun and easy to read and deliver unexpected insights. Daniel Kahneman is also a winner of the Nobel Price for Economics.

    Another book that might be interesting, but I didn't read it yet, is 'Nudge' by Richard Thaler, last year's winner of the Nobel Price for Economics.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 1, 2018 at 7:33 a.m.

    It seems to me that we might give more examples of exactly what kinds of "data" we are talking about so the objective reader can evaluate the premise of the piece. "Creatives" have always used "data" as a referrence point and/or as a guide when coming up with brand positionning strategies and ad executions for their clients. Even "Mad Men's "genius", Don Draper, often cited "data", though obviously, he didn't delve into it deeply, leaving that to the nerds. Too often the use of "data" in media buying and targeting is confused with other applications of "data" in the advertising process. 

  4. Mihai Botarel from RXM Creative replied, March 1, 2018 at 11:43 a.m.

    @james smith I 100% agree, I think as advertisers we should seek to educate ourselves in the industry and have a more informed and scientific approach

  5. Mihai Botarel from RXM Creative replied, March 1, 2018 at 11:45 a.m.

    Thank you so much, Eddy! I just finished Thinking Fast and Slow and found it extremely eye-opening and insightful. The other 2 are in line, appreciate the recommendations. 

  6. Mihai Botarel from RXM Creative, March 1, 2018 at 11:49 a.m.

    I totally agree, data takes many forms and I didn't get into too many examples because I only wanted to make a point that collecting data is not enough and that we should all be a bit nerdier in educating ourselves on how to fully make the most of it. 

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