Should your disclaimer become your headline?

Sam Tatam

  • Head of behavioural science, OgilvyChange Australia
A registered psychologist, Sam is head of behavioural science at OgilvyChange Australia, a practice that combines leading research in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics with the creative expertise of the Ogilvy Group.

To avoid misleading customers, or simply through fear of legal backlash, advertising has evolved to hide the potential shortcomings of an offer in its disclaimer.

A practice ensuring possible negatives like “limited stock” or specific “terms and conditions” (pretty much anything that might require an asterisk) are buried away in size 6 font, in a low contrast colour, at the bottom of the page.

To the purely rational mind, this makes sense.

It certainly makes sense from a risk management perspective. Legally, to cover our bases, it’s critical to recognise anything unstated or possibly misleading in the core copy.

From a rational point of view, it also makes sense for us to bury the limitations of our offer so they don’t overshadow the great things we have to say. In essence, as our consumers weigh up all the pros and cons, we ensure the pros end up on top.

We know, however, that this isn’t how we navigate the world a lot of the time. We’re not rational ‘maximisers’. It’s often too costly (in time and energy) for us to make a sound choice based on a product’s rational qualities, so we leave the decision to other things that are easier to determine, like: “Is it popular?”, “are there many left?, or “what do I need to do to get it?”

Unsurprisingly, over time, marketing has evolved to capitalise on these mental shortcuts, or ‘heuristics’, even if inadvertently.

What we’re beginning to find, however, is that by proactively exploring the use of these shortcuts in communications, many of the caveats that typically find their way into the disclaimer, the negatives we hide from sight, can actually be a powerful signal of value. In some instances, they’re the most motivating element of our offer.

Until sold out

When something becomes scarce, we anticipate the regret of losing it and irrationally value it more. For humans, scarce commodities are a short-cut to value; a signal that other people must want it. By understanding this, we can benefit by framing our offers to appear more scarce or alternatively, under greater competitive demand.

While phrases like “while stocks last”, “valid until”, “offer expires at” may feel cheap and nasty, when used sparingly and articulated creatively, the inherent (or manufactured) scarcity of our offer may be the most potent driver of a response.

Maximum of 5 per customer

It’s really expensive for humans to think; it costs us a lot of calories. Because of this, we rarely engage our costly and distinctively human, rational brain. As a result, our decisions can be guided by irrational reference points or anchors, no matter how arbitrary they might be.

For example, it’s been reported that simply recalling a randomly allocated social-security we can be anchored to spend more on a bottle of wine. It’s also been found that setting quantity limits, like ‘maximum of 5 per customer’ not only act as a signal of value, they can actually influence the number of products purchased.

Often considered a deficiency within the offer, quantity limits like these are frequently buried in the disclaimer. In our work, we’ve found that explicitly showcasing these limits in our copy - even as central to our strategy - brands can profit from this powerful signal without changing the product or price itself.

Pick-up only

Humans are natural ‘game theorists’. If a brand provides something of astonishing value, rather than scramble for it, we tend to question how it could possibly be. We wonder how this discount or price-point could be justified without a compromise elsewhere.

Strategically or accidentally, businesses have evolved to manage this reflexive nature, reinforcing the origin of their value by showing where the sacrifice has been, or will need to be made. Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK and co-founder of OgilvyChange, argues that we can appease our ‘inner game theorists’ by highlighting this value payoff. He argues that by explicitly showing the downside or personal sacrifice to be made, we can shape perceptions of the offer.

The budget airline industry is a great example here. While the tickets are cheap, budget liners reinforce the origins of their value by deducting elements from normal service, such as complimentary meals and flexible seating options, reinforcing the fact that the savings weren’t cut from core costs, like plane maintenance or pilot salaries. Additionally, by illustrating the personal effort or downside associated with securing such a great deal, like ‘sides not included’ or ‘pick up only’, we can actually work to reinforce the value on offer.

Importantly, what I’m not suggesting is a recession back to ‘fire sales’ and garish starbursts. Rather, by better understanding the behavioural levers we have at our disposal, many of which are currently buried away, we can creatively harness their power.

Recently, we’ve been exploring the use principles like scarcity, anchoring and value payoff to establish different ways to frame our client’s product or brand offers; divergently ideating to generate scores of propositions - sometimes into the hundreds. We’ve found that by highlighting what may previously have been considered a product limitation as our central proposition, we’re able to supercharge our message and drive behavioural change.

We’re finding that sometimes our disclaimers should be our headline.

Tags: digital marketing, brand strategy

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