The BBC, Trust and Jimmy Savile

If you live outside the UK, you almost certainly know the BBC, although you may not have heard of Jimmy Savile –  a DJ and media ‘personality’ who was a permanent fixture on BBC TV and radio schedules for more than three decades.  Since his recent death, hundreds of allegations of sex abuse have emerged about him, embroiling the BBC in one of the worst crises in its history, and resulting in the resignation of their Director General, George Entwistle, after only 54 days in the post.

For any brand or institution ‘trust’ is a hugely valuable asset, and for a publicly funded broadcaster like the BBC it is arguably the most precious asset. That’s why the Guardian newspaper commissioned my company to conduct a Metaphorix® study to gauge levels of trust in the BBC in the wake of the Savile revelations. The results give fascinating insight into both the resilience of a great brand, and the way that trust can erode rapidly in the face of negative buzz.

Conquest found that around half the population trust the BBC less than before ‘recent events’, and a third blame the BBC directly for Savile’s behaviour – even though there are also allegations that he carried out sexual abuse at several institutions other than the BBC.  Further, almost half felt the Savile affair is ‘the worst crisis’ in the BBC’s history (echoing remarks made by veteran foreign editor John Simpson in late October) and almost one third agreed that the BBC needs a radical overhaul.

Bad enough you might think, but, perhaps most ominously for the publicly funded Corporation, over half agreed that the £145.50 a year licence fee is a waste of money and should be abolished. The current licence fee deal runs until 2017, but negotiations over the next phase will begin the year after next.

Yet, despite the damage done to its public perceptions, the BBC remains by some distance the most trusted source of UK news with 39% of respondents choosing it as their most trusted, significantly ahead of ITV (13%), Sky News (10%), the Guardian (8%) and the Daily Mail (6%).

Furthermore, 46% of people feel the BBC is still a vital institution, while over six in ten agree that it would be a ‘disaster if Britain lost the BBC’. Maybe what is propping the broadcaster up is a perception that it is a ‘national treasure’ so that, despite its failures and faults, it is forgiven – or at least given the benefit of the doubt. Thus most believe (despite some evidence to the contrary) that recent events are ‘more cock-up than conspiracy’  –  that the BBC has made genuine mistakes and is making efforts to sort them out in a transparent and self critical way.

Read the full report here


What is the Viagra of Virality?

We all know that virality is the new Holy Grail, as marketers look for new ways to subvert the constraints of the traditional media model – because getting your idea across for nothing is always nice! 

At its simplest, Virality is about sharing; it’s about people sharing (talking about) an idea or object) which then becomes a social object. But what is it that transforms things and ideas into social or viral objects?

Richard Dawkins suggests that viral ideas are selfish replicators – units of cultural transmission (“memes”) that are unconsciously imitated. Implausible? If so, why do people often talk (metaphorically) of being ‘drawn towards’ ideas they love, or of being ‘repelled’ by the things they hate? Conventional wisdom has it that people (rationally) choose ideas; but our work supports the converse notion: that ideas recruit people by operating below the conscious radar, firing up their emotions – either positively or negatively. In other words, emotions may be the viral Viagra that transform things and ideas into socially infectious objects.

But which emotions give us viral Viagra? We have seen again and again that a wide range of emotions are associated with viral objects, but it is the intensity of emotional response  that characterises and differentiates such objects. Two of the most talked about things we’ve measured recently are the Olympics and disgraced BBC media personality, Jimmy Savile. Both provoke strong emotional response, but it is the valence of those emotions that matters most – either strongly positive or negative. Why? For the simple reason that we share and talk about the things that we feel strongly about.

Many (most?) viral objects are infectious because of the positive emotions they engender, and the two feelings we find most commonly associated with them are energy and excitement. These emotions drive us to share ideas with others, and it’s why we often speak (metaphorically) of viral ideas having a life of their own/on the up/spreading like wildfire – some power or energy that (seemingly) propels them through the population.

But there’s a third powerful predictor of virality: empathy. And negative empathy (rejection) can be as powerful a driver of virality as positive identification. If I witnessed the following exchange between a brand lover and a detractor – “ I love this brand.” What? I can’t stand it.” – I’d guess that each of them is going to talk about it, but for very different reasons. Ideas we love draw us in (through the power of emotion) and inspire us to become their evangelists. Ideas (and brands) we hate repel us and encourage us to share our (strong) emotions with others.

Why do brain scans dissolve our critical faculties?

One writer has remarked that “A brain scan is a fast-acting solvent of our critical faculties” and, in the age of fMRI and EEG, and it’s easy for marketers to get bamboozled by our technological capacity to “look into the brain”.  I believe this approach (which Raymond Tallis calls “neuromania”) is underpinned by a number of fallacies, which have diverted us from looking at the things that matter, the things that make us human – particularly culture, language and metaphor.

The “We Are Our Brain” Fallacy: If we can’t see something in the brain it doesn’t exist

We can’t “see” consciousness, sociality, identity or memory in the brain, all of which exist. The fact is that the meaning and significance of brands exist outside the brain – in the culture that humans create – and while a neuroscientist might reduce a brand to its neural correlates, that may be no more helpful than  reducing the Mona Lisa to the paint molecules that make it up.

The Sameness Fallacy: if the same part of the brain ‘lights up’ when we think about one thing as when we think about another, the two mental states must be the same

In Buy.Ology, Martin Lindstrom reports an experiment where religious zealots and brand loyalists’ brains were scanned whilst they each contemplated the objects of their devotion: “Bottom line, there was no discernible difference between the way subjects’ brains reacted to powerful brands and the way they reacted to religious icons and figures…” So what? Of course there are some similarities between religion and brands, but I don’t know anyone who worships at the Church of Apple, goes to Apple Heaven when they die, or believes Steve Jobs is a deity.

The Freedom Fallacy: Because brain activity may sometimes be observed before we’re aware of making a decision, our free will is an illusion – our brains are in control

While this could be subject of an extensive philosophical debate, people can definitely control or limit their instinctive response to a situation: “free won’t” instead of “free will”, as it were. For example, deciding not to hit or not to kiss someone (inappropriately).We can’t control how we ‘feel’ about a brand, but we can control our subsequent (purchase) behaviour.

Which brings us to…

The Automatic Pilot Fallacy: Our unconscious/emotions compel us to act (irrationally) instead of working with our rational faculties to facilitate better decision making

Almost no one now argues these days that man is autonomous, completely free or consistently rational, yet that doesn’t make us robots or zombies.We have learned (and have evolved) to live with our emotions, adopting (cognitive) controls that stop us from obeying their every dictate. – the exception being in situations of “fight or flight”.  Not much of that at the supermarket fixture!

The Reductionist Fallacy: We can locate reason and emotion in specific parts of the brain.

Actually, at the higher levels of cognition, the brain is not that modular, and neither emotions nor reasoning reside exclusively in specific locations within it. The areas that control emotions and reasoning are located side by side in the brain and constantly interact. EEG, in particular, is very poor at locating activity within the brain. No one has come close to locating a ‘buy button’ in the brain.

The All in the Head Fallacy: Thought, feeling and cognition are ‘all in the brain’ and not outside it.

What it means to be human is to have relationships with others – to have cognitive and emotional connections. We part of a cognitive community of minds, and it is through that community that we create culture and language. Language is the most obvious expression of our shared consciousness, yet it is a late comer in the evolution of collective consciousness.

First we started with episodic memory – of specific events that they apply unthinkingly to present circumstances –  then had nonverbal language (signs, gesture and mime). Next was non-verbal representation and metaphor – both key means of communicating emotion. Finally symbols and language came along.

Metaphors may seem to be linguistic, but they are representational – linking something we want to convey with a commonly understood experience. And since they pre-date language, it makes sense that metaphors might enable us to get closer to our emotions. That’s why my company’s Metaphorix® approach (to measuring emotion) draws heavily on Primary Metaphors, which are present in almost every language and every culture.



Neuromania and why we need to re-humanise research

If you’ve been to the ARFconference  in New York recently, and attended any of the ‘company presentations’  you’ve probably heard a pitch along these lines:

“More has been learned about the brain in the last 10 years than in the previous thousand. Neuroscience proves that our brains are in control of our behaviour and that asking people questions misleads us about our true nature. That’s why we, at XYZ Research Inc, have pioneered BrainZap™ – a unique technique for finding out what your customers think, BEFORE THEY EVEN THINK IT. ”

I exaggerate (ever so slightly) to make the point that there are those in neuromarketing (usually not neuroscientists) who get carried away with the notion that all (consumer) behaviour can be explained by reference to the brain. It’s what philosopher/neuroscientist Raymond Tallis calls neuromania.

Of course it’s true that everything we do has a neural correlate – because mental activity has to happen somewhere- but it doesn’t follow that by observing that correlation (via fMRI, EEG or indirectly via biometrics), you explain the behaviour. It’s a type of crude reductionism that seeks to ‘explain’ human behaviour mainly in terms of neuronal response and unconscious emotional drives – drives which, it is argued, can only be accessed by expensive and invasive  methods that reduce our feelings to a squiggle on an EEG trace or similar.

It’s bizarre that we humanise animals (often by attributing to them feelings they don’t have) yet animalise humans. . For example, we use ‘memory’ to describe both the process by which an dog locates his buried bone and the infinitely more complex one by which we weave together our past experiences into a self-narrative. Consciousness and a sense of self are the two faculties that most differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom, yet each remains strangely impervious to adequate explanation via neuroscience.

Neuroscience is a necessary rather than a sufficient explanation of consumer behaviour  because our brains constantly interact with the culture in which they live.  What results is a kind of shared human consciousness – a community of minds. The evidence is all around us, in the wonderful stuff we produce: in literature, in art, and in brands and advertising too.  We create this stuff through a combination of conscious reflection and imaginative intuition; though the application of reason and emotion; through neurons firing and through social influences.

The point is, we can learn as much from analysing the cultural/linguistic outputs of the brain as from an EEG trace or fMRI scan. For example, metaphors are a uniquely human linguistic construct that link emotion with the conscious mind – making them a wonderful and powerful tool for accessing and understanding emotion. Looking at neurons alone will never give us the answer. Treating people as humans might.

I’m glad you asked me that…

I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity and originality of procurement departments. No, really…I don’t think I’ve ever been asked exactly the same question twice. But the hardest question I’ve ever been asked by a procurement guy is: ‘What is insight?’

OK…should I go with the standard response of ‘it’s about actionable/value added interpretation that drives successful/profitable brands…’, or perhaps try a different tack? I went the latter route. Here’s an abridged version of what I said:

True insight is about:

  1. Going beyond the obvious. People may tell us that they’re ‘happy’ with a brand, yet beneath the surface of their (rational response) their commitment to it is eroding. Typically this may manifest itself in declines in behavioural metrics such as purchase/visit frequency, but their cause is often non-rational . Insight is about using all the tools available (see point 4) to elicit how people are feeling as well as thinking about your brand.
  2. Recognising that customers are human, We are all capable of thinking rationally, but there are real limits (boundaries) to the exercise of that rationality in practice. Hence complex conjoint exercises that assume people can trade-off the utilities of different policy benefits of an insurance product may miss the simple insight that that isn’t how people choose them.
  3. Recognising that context is key– where you ask a question is as important as how you ask it. Thus asking someone about customer experience in a branch is likely to be more useful than ‘phoning  them two weeks after the event, when recall of the experience has faded.
  4. Making use of all the tools available. Conventional research only goes so far because asking people questions typically elicits a rational response and will often not reveal feelings (towards a brand or ad) that a person may not even be aware that they have. That’s why we have to supplement conventional questioning with non-verbal approaches, indirect questioning and ethnography to access that part of the consumer’s mind that they can’t tell us about.
  5. Looking forwards as well as not backwards . Businesses often rely on metrics such as consideration which move slowly and often reflect past market place changes rather than flag up future trends. Insight is about recognising that the past is no guide to the future. While ‘Black Swans’ (random, game-changing events) are mercifully rare, the events of the last decade have taught us to expect the unexpected. Insight is not about predicting the future, but it is about identifying the risks in continuing with current strategy – so that businesses can stress test for unexpected events
  6. Recognising that no business exists in a bubble. Insight is as much about observing what’s going on in the market place and wider society as interpreting the responses from surveys. True insight comes from watching, reading and listening as much as asking questions.