Marketers are missing out because of a fear of being different

Humans often avoid employing effective tactics just because they’re scared to look silly, and marketers’ aversion to rhyming ads is one prominent example.

Rick Barry is a basketball legend, one of the best short forwards ever. Nicknamed the Miami Greyhound for his speed and slight frame, he scored more than 25,000 points in his career.

There was one area in particular where he excelled: taking free throws. He converted 90% of his shots – the best performance ever when he retired in 1980.

The 6’ 7” player attributes his success to a rarely used technique. In stark contrast to other athletes he held the ball between his legs and threw it underhand. You can watch him in action here:

Despite the success of this technique it is used by almost no other players; instead they deride it as ‘granny style’. This poses a conundrum: why would professionals not adopt an effective tactic?

The answer becomes clearer when you consider the comments of other players.

Prioritising ego over results

One of Barry’s team mates, Wilt Chamberlain, dabbled with the technique but despite his scoring record improving he soon reverted to the standard approach. In Chamberlain’s words: “I felt silly, like a sissy shoots underhand. I knew it was wrong. I know some of the best shooters in history shoot that way.”

Chamberlain wasn’t a one-off. When it was suggested to Shaquille O’Neal, a great player who struggled with free throws, that he should shoot ‘granny style’ he snarled: “I’d rather shoot zero.”

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It seems that players have dual motivations – to maximise results but to also impress their peers. In the words of commentator, Michael Lebowitz: “Rick Barry’s ‘granny’ shooting style offers stark illustrations about how human beings guard their egos and at times do imprudent things in order to be viewed favourably by their peers and the public. It is this protective behavioural trait, rooted in the fear of being different, that frequently weighs on our ability to make decisions that are in our best interests.”

Marketing’s Rick Barry problem

Interestingly, marketing suffers from a similar problem. Sometimes choices are made in the interests of the decision maker’s ego rather than a dispassionate evaluation of what will be most effective.

One area where this is apparent is in the declining use of rhyme in advertising. Alex Boyd and I analysed copies of The Times and the Sun newspapers, stretching back to 1977. We found that in the last decade, the number of ads with a prominent rhyme has halved; since 2007 about 4% of print ads have included a rhyme, compared to 10% in the previous years.

Just as with the case of underarm shooting, this unpopularity is despite clear evidence of its effectiveness.

The academic evidence

In 1999 Matthew McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh, psychologists at Lafayette College, asked 60 students to rate the comprehensibility and accuracy of 30 aphorisms. However, the students didn’t all receive the same aphorisms.

Each group received a slightly doctored list of sayings. Some rhymed, while others were tweaked so they didn’t. In both cases the meaning was the same, only the rhyme changed. For example, one group heard that “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals”, while the remainder learned that, “What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks.”

The results were stark. Rhyming sayings were rated as 22% more accurate than non-rhyming ones. The academics attributed the greater power to the “enhanced processing fluency” of the rhyming aphorisms.

What should we do?

The advertising implications from the Lafayette study are clear: if you want your strapline to be believed, rhyme is a powerful tool to help.

Agencies often advise clients to take risks with their advertising. Perhaps we should take that advice to heart and be prepared to risk our image among our peers.