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Advertising Rory Sutherland UK

Why the false consensus effect leads to inappropriate advertising

By Richard Shotton | Deputy head of evidence

October 13, 2016 | 4 min read

What would you do in the following situation?


You’re driving in a 20mph zone when you’re flagged down by a policeman. He’s caught you driving at 35mph on his speed gun, so he issues you with a £50 on-the-spot fine. Back at home you realise his report is riddled with errors, such as the make of your car and the road you were on. This gives you a good chance of being able to appeal successfully. Would you? Or would you accept the fine?

Obviously you’re a safe driver, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Have a ponder and then make your decision. I’ll wait.

OK, now you’ve decided, another question – what do you think most people would do in the same situation? Contest or accept?

If you’re like the 320 students interviewed by Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University, you’ll assume that the majority will make the same decision as you – whatever that decision was. In Ross’s words: “The person who feeds squirrels, votes Republican or drinks Drambuie for breakfast will see such behaviour as relatively common”. He termed this the false consensus effect.

So why is this an issue for brands?

The false consensus effect is a problem for brands, as marketers and agency folk differ from their consumers. The key difference is that they are, in Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon’s words, maximisers not satisficers.

Simon, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon, coined the terms in 1957. Maximiser describes people who spend considerable time and effort finding the ideal product in a particular category. Satisficers are those who will settle for the first product that meets their criteria.

Most marketers are maximisers in their category, while most consumers are satisficers. As Rory Sutherland puts it: “The vast bulk of the money in any market at any time is in the hands of the satisficers. People who want to meld with a peer group, not to outdo it, and people who are more eager to avoid social embarrassment or regret – including purchase mistakes - than they are to display dominance.”

The false consensus effect suggests that marketers assume consumers are maximisers and create ads accordingly. This leads to attempts to persuade people that their product is perfect rather than reassuring them it won’t be crap.

Striving to convey perfection often leads to a focus on intricate detail irrelevant to most. In contrast, reassurance comes from stressing the popularity of a brand, whether directly or by investing in high profile, seemingly wasteful displays of advertising that only the most profitable companies can afford. Brands need to decide whether their audience are maximisers or satisficers and communicate accordingly.

What about the speeding drivers?

Still wondering what most drivers would do? 54% would contest the fine. Unfortunately, Ross doesn’t say what most marketers would do.

Newsworks’ recent experiment among media agencies ‘Sample of one’ demonstrates the danger of the false consensus effect, and the importance of realising that not everyone is like us.

Richard Shotton is head of insight at ZenithOptimedia. He tweets @rshotton

Advertising Rory Sutherland UK

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