Context, communications and Cleopatra's nose

Do you think something as trivial as the length of an individual’s nose could change the course of history?

Blaise Pascal did. He famously said: "Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed."

Back then a long nose symbolised strength of character and Pascal believed that without that, Cleopatra would have been unable to rule. If she hadn’t been Pharaoh, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony wouldn’t have clashed, and the Roman Empire wouldn’t have been terminally weakened. European history would have taken a different course.

The “Cleopatra’s nose” theory of history suggests that seemingly inconsequential factors can have a profound influence. It’s an important idea for historians, but it is relevant for brands too. Small differences in the context in which we advertise can have powerful effects.

The power of contextual tweaks

There are hundreds of minor contextual shifts which can change the impact of advertising. Here are two.

The first is the effect of group size on humour. Most people assume that the funniness of an ad is determined solely by the content, but psychologists Yong Zhang and George Zinkan have shown that the context is important too.

The two University of Houston psychologists recruited 216 people to watch soft drink commercials, either on their own or in groups. They found that ads watched in company were rated as 20% funnier than those viewed alone. The impact of large groups might be due to social proof – this is the idea that people are consciously, or subconsciously, influenced by what others are doing around them. So one person in the group laughing encourages others to laugh.

The second example is the influence of mood. Fred Bronner, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, measured the effect of mood on ad recall amongst 1,287 participants. The participants flicked through a newspaper and then answered questions about which ads they remembered. When the data was split by the reader’s mood, the results were conclusive: readers in a good mood remembered 28% more than those in a bad mood.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has provided an evolutionary explanation for this phenomenon. When we’re in a good mood this signifies the absence of danger and, therefore, removes the need to think critically. So we’re far more likely to absorb ad messages when we’re happy.

It’s simple to take advantage of these findings – a brand with a funny ad just needs to identify programmes that tend to be watched in groups. And all brands can benefit from reaching people in a good mood.

However, since many of these contextual changes feel trivial, many advertisers ignore them. It doesn’t seem logical that they have such an effect. But this is to misunderstand consumer decision making. Many decisions are not made rationally.

As Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD

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