Social Distancing… for Dogs?

One of the great pluses of the UK’s current sort-of-lockdown is the chance to spend more time with my border collie Martha (pictured). She lies quite content by my side while I work in my home office, appearing somewhat bemused, and is not adverse to making an impromptu vocal contribution to any online class or meeting. There’s something comforting about the presence of our oldest companions, isn’t there, and others clearly feel the same as sales and rehoming of dogs are both experiencing a boom. But how exactly do dogs make us feel better, and what’s in it for them?

Dogs are probably the oldest animal we humans have domesticated. According to the Canine Cooperation Hypothesis, their high social-attentiveness and tolerance made dogs the ideal candidate to evolve traits for both cooperation and companionship, aiding us for thousands of years in our hunting and gathering. Over the centuries, they gradually adopted a new role, that of a sort of furry mental health practitioner, providing comfort and reassurance when times are bad. That’s particularly important at present with many of us experiencing enforced solitude, physically detached from our normal human social networks through isolation. The presence of a dog doesn’t just give us someone to talk to and a reason for maintaining a routine, it also has a very positive effect arising from our brain’s accompanying responses. Patting a dog in particular can generate positive emotional responses, stimulating the release of the hormone oxytocin which makes us feel relaxed, reduces stress and anxiety, and is exactly the same neurohormonal response a parent experiences when making eye-contact with their newborn child. No wonder Battersea Dogs Home has seenrehoming more than doublesince the Covid-19 crisis began!

Although some people are sniffy about the notion of dogs experiencing emotions too, however, the science tells us the human-canine bond really is two-way traffic. Studies have found many dogs (including my own Martha) prefer attention and interaction to other forms of reward, including food and other treats. More interestingly, although even the largest canine brain is barely the size of a lemon, it has a caudate nucleus pretty much the same as ours, it releases oxytocin and the pleasure transmitter dopamine when we pat or interact with the dog, and it generally produces the same calming relaxing sensations in our four-legged companions as we experience ourselves.

And here’s the rub when it comes to the Covid-19 situation… mere proximity is enough to trigger that response in Martha, which is why she will happily lie near my desk while i’m at work on my computer, but only if she is way closer than current human personal space recommendations mandated by the government. Put another way, social distancing doesn’t cut any ice with dogs, i’m afraid! If we want them to make us feel calm and happy, we need to let them feel calm and happy too, and that for a dog is way closer than any two metres. Just as well the science is also telling us that this is much safer than being with another human.

So there we are. Dogs make us feel good in the current pandemic lockdown and we in return are – at least neurologically speaking – doing pretty much the same for them. This perhaps explains why so many are now turning to canine companionship in their hour of need. Let’s hope though that the bond isn’t a transient one, but the start of a lasting relationship. A dog is for life, not just for Covid-19 folks!

Happiness and the Betty Crocker Effect

Those who’ve jumped on the bandwagon of that often-superficial beast we call behavioural economics know all too well about the mysterious power of the so-called Ikea Effect.  This is the tendency to place a higher value on an item we have had some role in constructing ourselves compared to a comparable product ready-made for us.  It may be a crap and badly-assembled chest of drawers, but it’s my chest of drawers, and it’s worth far more than than pristine and well-crafted dresser you’ve got!

Personally, I always refer to this as the Betty Crocker Effect as it was the motivational researcher Ernest Dichter who first exploited this phenomenon when he told the world-famous cake company to amend its recipes so consumers were required to add a quite unnecessary egg to its cake mixes with a quite dramatic effect on sales.  Because of the egg, American consumers felt more like they were “baking” a cake themselves and so loved the end results more.

Whatever we call this variant of the goole-old endowment effect (over-valuing something we already own), its impact on both perceived monetary value and affection for the product is well established.  A recent post by Utpal Dholakia over on the Psychology Today blog, however, suggests that the power of the Betty Crocker Effect may be far greater than we first thought.  Revising recent studies in this area, mostly surrounding food products, Dholakia points out that products involving a degree of self-creation tend to be consumed more mindfully and responsibly.  For instance, we tend to be less likely to over-indulge, waste food or experience feelings of post-consumption guilt.  In short, we eat healthier and develop far more positive perceptions of our own health in the process. Most importantly, perhaps, we actually enjoy the product more too.

With the growth of self-creation, especially in the FMCG sector, there are some really useful potential marketing messages here, as well as some possible new ways of encouraging responsible and sustainable consumption practices along the way.

World Cup Winners? Coca Cola, of course

Apparently, there’s some sort of football competition going on out in Russia.  England could easily win it, all they have to do is field the women’s team instead of the men and the trophy is as good as ours. Whatever the outcome of this quaint-but-hugely-profitable tradition, of course, the real winners are almost certain to be the marketers and those smart brands that cleverly associate themselves with the world’s largest sporting event in true Pavlovian style.

As the competition gets underway, it’s worth pausing to give special mention to Coca Cola, the World Cup’s longest-standing corporate partner. This is a company that really understands the concept of conditioned emotional responses. Just as Santa’s red suit and the lorry travelling the country have become firmly fixed in our Christmas psyche, so the World Cup affords another opportunity for Coca Cola to associate its brand image with the excitement and anticipation of a truly global sporting occasion – with global TV audiences to match, of course.

Whether in India, China, Turkey or the USA, 70% of TV viewers will place Coca Cola top of their league when asked to list the first brands that spring to mind after a game, with Classic Coke itself as the most-recalled product. Only Adidas comes vaguely close to catching up with the famous red cans among World Cup audiences.  An investment worth every penny for the world’s number one soft drinks brand. And of course they have the creative campaigns in place to fully exploit this powerful association.

Logos on cans, limited edition products, branded songs… you name it, it’s there. A text book case study of effective sponsorship collateral for any marketing course.  Worth special mention, if only because of my long-standing love of the c-store sector, is the partnership with 7-Eleven that brings special promotions and pricing to over 61,000 small retail outlets worldwide – a more significant alliance for Coca Cola than with any larger supermarket chain.

My own personal favourite, though, has got to be the team-branded cans. Just as the named bottles encouraged us to “be social” in our Coke drinking a short while ago, becoming one of the most successful campaigns of all time bar Santa Claus, so the chance to drink the real thing from your own team’s can seems set to steal the show as the true competition-winner of Russia 2018.  Inspired!

Neuromarketing and the Size Zero model

The so-called “size zero” model has been a source of controversy for many years. It is contributing factor in women developing unrealistic body images, often with negative effects on their own psychological well-being.  It is often seen as a largely male construction, a projection of power by a relatively small-but-influential group of designers in their attempts to present their designs in a particular way.  Now, it seems, it may also be bad for business too, according to consumer neuroscientists.

In a very elegant series of experiments by Russell Clayton and his colleagues, female consumers were exposed to advertising images depicting models of varying sizes, with physiological and paper-and-pencil metrics being taken of their cognitive and emotional responses.  The results were interesting on two levels.  Firstly, from the consumer point of view, women viewing models of average size or plus sized showed much healthier self-image scores afterwards, along with corresponding improvements in self-esteem, as well as displaying a more realistic – and positive – perception of their own body size.  From a marketing point of view, however, the more striking finding was the fact that consumers remembered far more about both the model and the ad content than when thinner models were used and, consequently, were also more likely to indicate that they would actually buy the product.  Plus-size models showed a slight advantage generally in increasing the likelihood of a purchase, irrespective of the size of the consumers viewing them.

So, there we go… hopefully another nail in the coffin for the marketing obsession with Size Zero!  It’s not just an unhealthy form of image for women to constantly exposed to, it is counterproductive anyway and is probably losing sales.


You have been (comfort) watching…

From playground violence to the election of Donald Trump, it seems there’s nothing its critics won’t blame on Evil Edna, the television set in the corner of the living room.  It’s long been a focus of attention for psychologists too, of course, who seem more than willing to offer an opinion on whether the “goggle box” is or isn’t good for us.  And why not… Americans spend on average three hours each evening transfixed to its screen, the British even more so.  It’s unsurprising therefore that this strange invention – pretty much surpassed by computers and other devices anyway – continues to be such a fertile are for academic research.  But what does that research actually say?

The honest answer is “very little”.  Statistically speaking, the results of most studies either fail to achieve a satisfactory confidence level or, if they do, the results are not particularly impressive.  Nonetheless, a rather unsubstantiated consensus seems to have developed that suggests the good old “telly” is probably bad for us, at least in the sense that prolonged viewing can make us unhappy.  The logic at work here?  Television takes us away from the things that make us happy, such as hobbies and pastimes, and it also keeps us indoors away from established environmental factors that encourage positive effect.

In a way, this line of argument – even if true – is based purely on circumstantial evidence.  Saying TV makes us unhappy because it keeps us away from things that would make us happier doesn’t necessarily follow through.  Moreover, interesting new research by Deniz Bayraktaroglu and his colleagues suggests that we may be looking at the whole problem the wrong way round anyway!  In a large-scale diary study of almost 1700 adults, the authors found no relationship between hours spent viewing one day and being less happy the next – but they did find that a negative mood does correlate with more hours glued to the box the following day.

So where does this leave us?  Well, we still can’t say watching TV makes us unhappy, but we can argue convincingly that being unhappy makes us more inclined to watch TV.  It’s not immediately clear why this should be the case, but it seems to me that the most likely explanation is that TV is a source of distraction when we are feeling down.  Comfort viewing, you might say.