The Behavioral Psychology Behind Bold Creative

Learn how marketers implement bold creative effectively and how you can apply these behavioral psychology principles to your own campaigns.

In this week’s iAcquire EDU session, we’re going to explore what separates bold creative from the average or ineffective. Believe it or not, bold creative spots are rarely clever or original; they’re just well built around the principles of behavior that drive us all.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing though; we’re setting ourselves up to fail if we ignore the basics of human behavior and cognition when we’re preparing our content strategy. After all, these principles form the backbone of effective communication for our species, and marketing is at it’s core little more than weaponized communication.

Effective communication is the key to grabbing the attention of your audience, and getting their attention is the key to driving conversions, gaining brand visibility, and maintaining brand awareness.

Unfortunately the research suggests that attention is a finite resource. It’s not enough to just drive traffic to your content… you have to grab the user’s attention in your direction, or you’re just one more option in a sea of noise.

Considering how much content is created every day, brands really have to ask themselves an important question: “how do I get my audience’s attention?”

This is a three part problem:

  1. First we have to understand what attention is and how it works
  2. Then we have to understand our audience and their fundamental needs in relation to our campaign goals
  3. Finally we have to produce content that meets those needs while still observing the basic principles of how human attention works.

We’ll discuss what attention is very briefly; as it’s a huge topic always under active research, and then we’ll quickly discuss research related to consumer needs, before we get to the fun part: dissecting real world examples of bold creative to see what made them so successful.

So what is attention?

“Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of processing resources.” That definition comes courtesy of Wikipedia, and while a little nerdy, it works.

Since attention is a limited resource, allocation of that resource is an important concern. When an individual is exposed to too many competing stimuli, they have to make choices about what gets allotted their precious attention, leading to very little awareness of anything outside of their sphere of attention. It’s due to this fact that researcher Josef Falkinger is able to come to the conclusion that “competition for the buyers’ money is embedded in the competition for their attention” in his article Limited Attention as the Scarce Resource in an Information-rich Economy.

This phenomena is known as “Inattentional Blindness,” and it’s become quite famous thanks to one of the classic examples demonstrating it’s effects; the Invisible Gorilla experiment from Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University:

How is attention allocated?

In psychology, the allocation of attention is generally relegated to the “Executive Functions” which are themselves under active research and not easy to pin down. Attention is such an interesting and highly researched subject, with tendrils stretching from psychology, to neurology, to biology. Despite all this, we don’t have too many concrete facts about it… just lots of theories.

Generally attention shifts can be described as voluntary or involuntary/reflexive. Our instinctive drive for self preservation tends to drive the reflexive shifts of attention, while our own goals, values and the innate desire for reward tends to influence the voluntary shift of attention. Emotions also play a role in how arousing stimuli are prioritized for attentional allocation.

Ultimately, the allocation of attention is closely linked to motivation, and motivation is closely linked to need.

Attention can also be described as “selective” or “divided.” Selective attention is when we are focused on only one stimuli, often to the exclusion of all others. Divided Attention is the processing of multiple stimuli at once, and it’s commonly called “multi-tasking.”

While there are lots of models for attentional allocation, the ones demonstrating the most promise for marketers focus on the goal-directed voluntary allocation of attention such as the directed cognition model. These models suggest that when the user is likely to allocate more attention to a task or stimuli when doing so will maximize the potential reward.

According to stock trading South Africa experts, Behavioral Economics is also offering lots of interesting insight into how increased attention leads to changes in behavior. In Attention and Trading researcher Yu Yuan demonstrates that there are measurable fluctuations in financial market performance after attention grabbing events like record breaking movement within the Dow, while during other times the same traders could be described as being dormant.

Another great example comes from The Allocation of Attention: Theory and Evidence where researchers were able to create an effective predictive model, predicting within-game and between-game allocation of attention.

Since needs, goals, and values tend to affect the allocation of attention, the next step in producing bold creative is to understand our audience and their fundamental needs.

What do People Want?

Generally speaking, what do people want? They want to feel good about who they are and what they do. They want their needs to be met, and they want to feel safe. How do they get it? From staying true to their values, by accomplishing their goals, through resource acquisition & consumption, and through a host of neurological/biological processes.

Some of these biological motivations are pretty straightforward; for example, when we’re hungry, we eat and our body rewards us with the sensation of satiation. Response to loud noises and other survival related stimuli are other examples of straightforward motivations. However some of these motivation are a little less obvious; for example curiosity is believed to be in part motivated by reward system which triggers little doses of dopamine when we discover something new, leading the perceived pleasure in the brain.

Faced with the reality of the effect the reward system has on our biology, it’s tempting to try and connect all motivation and behavior back to the reward system, but that would be an error in judgment.

For example, how would that explain fitness and exercise? It takes a lot of effort, and therefore a lot of motivation & attention to develop and maintain a fitness plan, but there’s little direct input from the reward system to help keep us on track. In fact, we’re often given quite the opposite of pleasure in the form of sore muscles, fatigue, and hungry tummies.

To explain many aspects of human behavior, we have to look beyond the reward system, to fundamental human needs and motivation theory. Researchers are constantly exploring the concept of fundamental human needs and their impact on motivation. Many of you are probably familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy, but it’s only one of many theories of human needs.

One of the fundamental issues commonly brought up by researchers in regards to Maslow’s Hierarchy is the fact that it’s a hierarchy. Research suggests there are definitely universal human needs that transcend cultural boundaries, but it also suggests they are not hierarchical in nature, and that our interpersonal needs may be even more important to us than our basic needs for food or shelter.

Two more recent models of human needs that are gaining some traction are the model of Fundamental Human Needs by Manfred Max-Neef, and the 16 Basic Desires of Professor Steven Reiss. Both of these models seek to offer a more holistic understanding of human needs by addressing the reality that each of us relates to our fundamental needs in different ways.

So how does this relate to marketing?

Shopping and other related consumer behaviors are interesting as they not only fulfill core needs for things like food, shelter, and clothing, but they offer opportunities to fulfill our other desires; such as social status, curiosity, physical activity, and saving as expressed by the 16 basic desires of the Reiss model. Revisiting the idea of pleasure being a form of intrinsic motivation, shopping itself can be a form of recreation and pleasure seeking.

Researchers typically describe goods according that meet basic needs as being “utilitarian” in nature, while the goods that bring pleasure, recreation, or luxury would be considered “hedonic” in nature. For example, a house would be a utilitarian good, while an iPod could be considered a hedonic good.

The classification of utilitarian vs. hedonic is also used to describe the value or benefit presentation in a particular ad, as well as the shopping experience itself. For example, when offering the benefit presentation of an automobile like BMW, you could choose to emphasize it’s safety and it’s fuel efficiency, or you could demonstrate it’s luxury and highlight the experience of being behind the wheel of the ultimate driving machine.

These categories however are not absolutes, as many goods can be classified as both utilitarian and hedonic. Okada points out in Justification Effects on Consumer Choice of Hedonic and Utilitarian Goods that the classification of hedonic or utilitarian is not intrinsic to the good, but rather is perceptual and is based entirely on the consumer’s perception of their own consumption of the goods.

Due to this, it’s not necessarily clear as to whether addressing at least some of the fundamental human needs we’ve explored previously would fall under largely “hedonic” benefit propositions (vacation purchases come to mind), or if the concept of meeting fundamental human needs could in and of itself be considered a utilitarian benefit when trying to apply these categories.

I would be interested to see if anyone has conducted research on this. If you find something let me know!

The effectiveness of a hedonic or utilitarian benefit presentations also appears to be altered by cultural norms and customs. The impact that culture has on attention, and consumption of hedonic or utilitarian goods are great examples of why modeling accurate Audience Personas is such an important part of your campaign planning. Being aware of consumer opinion on consumption, latent needs and cultural attitudes towards hedonic goods will lead to successful messaging, effective content positioning, and the flexibility to create bold creative.


A Model of Emotion & Reason on Attitude Formation from Emotion & Reason in Consumer Behavior by Arjun Chaudhuri

Ultimately, the reason this matters is because consumer opinion is directly related to purchase intent and willingness to pay; while consumer opinion is informed by by previously held brand beliefs and the benefit proposition presented in the creative currently in the awareness of the consumer. If our benefit proposition is out of step with the needs, goals, or values of our consumer we can actually negatively sway consumer opinion and lose the attention of our audience.

Even before we are in a position to make the sale, we need to manage to get the attention of our audience… and as we discussed before, attention is allocated based on motivation, and our fundamental needs are highly motivating. By understanding our audience’s needs, we’re able to position ourselves to get their attention and maintain it.

As Inbound Marketers, we’re not only concerned with purchasing behaviors, but also sharing behaviors. Social Media Marketing, and Content Marketing are huge opportunities for grabbing our share of the attention economy and they rely pretty heavily on sharing behaviors.

So why do people share? Sharing is an innate part of our social nature, but it also has intrinsic motivators of its own. For example, an in-depth study from the New York Times titled The Psychology of Sharing suggests that almost 3 out of every 4 people share because it helps them process and retain information better. Interestingly this is how iAcquire EDU got started; with Tom sharing his own notes on Behavioral Psychology in the form of a blog post: Applying Behavioral Psychology to Inbound Marketing.The overwhelmingly positive response it got from the community caused us to realize we had tapped an unmet need that needing filling… and so iAcquire EDU was born.

Continuing on with the Psychology of Sharing, the Study found five major motivations for sharing that suggest all sharing is about nurturing relationships and increasing social status, which are inherently fundamental human needs.

Those five motivations are:

  1. To bring valuable and entertaining content to others
  2. To grow and nourish our relationships
  3. Self-fulfillment
  4. To get the word out about causes or brands
  5. To define ourselves to others

It also gave some very actionable tactics to help influence sharing, such as appealing to the innate motivation of your audience to connect with each other, and not just your brand. By giving your audience permission to connect, you’re encouraging them to fulfill a fundamental need while also fostering a community of supporters around your content.

Also worth checking out are the 6 share personas uncovered by their research. However, since this resource is a little stale, we’ll also examine some recent research.

A recent study from 33Across seems to poke some holes in the rosy picture painted by the NYTimes study, suggesting sharing behavior is primarily motivated by ego; the desire to define ourselves to others in the most positive light.

The real value in this study is that it had access to click-through rates on the content shared. The data they gathered suggests that some of the least shared content (Celebrity News, Shopping, and Men’s Media) actually had the highest click-through rates. This is actually great news for E-Com, if we can increase the share rate from a dismal <1%. Stay tuned for the first iAcquireEDU episode; where we’ll discuss motivating and triggering share behaviors in-depth.

When it comes to increasing our share exposure, marketers often rely on outreach aimed at targeting “influencers” a tactic that may not be too effective based on this data from BuzzFeed, at least as far as click-through rates are concerned. Their research suggests that most sharing is done among close knit communities and groups of friends, and links coming from influencers are not as equally valued.

I believe this highlights the importance of clearly outlining your campaign goals for social media sharing campaigns. There may be times when you simply want to increase visibility and share of voice on a network to increase brand awareness (not unlike buying a billboard ad or a display ad campaign), in which case influencer marketing would be a viable tactic. However if you’re interested in getting meaningful traffic, focus on nurturing an active and engaged community who can advocate on your behalf.

It’s also important to remember that much like consumer attitudes towards hedonic consumption, sharing behavior appears to have cultural attributes as well, as evidenced in Cultural Differences and Switching of In-Group Sharing Behavior Between an American (Facebook) and a Chinese (Renren) Social Networking Site.

However whether it’s purchasing a product or sharing content, it seems the motivations that translate into action tend to be tied back to fundamental human needs and whether or not our content strategy is taking advantage of them.

With that, we’re done with the nerdy stuff… now we get get into some of the fun stuff!

Finally… the behavioral psychology behind bold creative

Now we’re going to explore some popular video campaigns, many of which represented a bold or unexpected piece of creative from the brand. We’ll be focusing on some of the intrinsic and extrinsic motivational triggers that helped make them successful at grabbing attention, as well as the goal they seem to be trying to achieve, and the needs they appear to be targeting for the purpose of achieving that goal.

BlendTec – Will It Blend?

We’re going to start with something pretty straightforward. The Will It Blend spots from BlendTec are basically classic “Symbolize the Benefit” style ads with an added twist; there’s an element of Expectation designed to arouse our interest.

Will it blend? The only way to know is to watch and find out… Curiosity might get the better of us.

This goal of this creative appears to have been to demonstrate the power and reliability of Blendtec blenders in a way that was funny and interesting. Six years later they’re still at it, so it must be working.

Dove Beauty Campaign

This wildly popular campaign is actually believed to be the most viewed ad ever, so clearly it’s doing something right. The question is what?

The video leads off with a heavy dose of Expectation, or Anticipation as a way to arouse our interest and hold our attention.. We don’t really know what’s going on as we’re introduced to our characters, and as the narrative unfolds, neither do they. The first person we meet is a forensic sketch artist with “FBI” in his credentials. is Urgency and interest are maintained throughout by clever camera angles and lots of panning and slow zooming motion. This has become a popular cinematographic technique in the ad world, since motion is inherently arousing as a form of visual stimuli. It keeps an otherwise static shot from getting boring.

The soft music seems to evoke a dreamy, otherworldly, almost lullaby like quality, probably hoping to evoke tranquil, positive emotions. There’s plenty of research to suggest that music has powerful affects on our senses and can even induce emotional responses, so it’s certainly not a stretch to believe the music was chosen purposefully to evoke a certain state of mind.

As the narrative unfolds, the content itself is inherently emotional in nature leading to a further arousal of interest and finally it hits us with a dose of Surprise when the two portraits are revealed. Eliciting surprise is a very effective way to increase attention. It’s also possible the effect of Mirror Neurons are at work as we watch the surprise and various emotions play across the woman’s face when she sees the difference between the portraits.

The goal for Dove seems to have been to raise brand awareness and engage in a little corporate social responsibility based marketing, which despite the backlash they’ve gotten is ultimately a resounding success.

As for motivation to share, this content is loaded with it. To me, it seems to trigger 5 out of 5 of the share motivations discussed by the Psychology of Sharing study.

Google – Dear Sophie

It opens with something simple; the creation of a new email account. In this, there’s an element of Expectation. We’re not quite sure what’s going on, and perhaps curiosity has aroused our attention. The upbeat music is full of anticipation in it’s own right. It doesn’t take long for the narrative to unfold… we’re quickly greeted with the photo of a new born, and dad’s first message to his baby Sophie. As the narrative continues we’re greeted with milestone after milestone in Sophie’s life; we’re sharing in the experience of her growing up, and soon we begin to realize that her life is being documented via Google Services like Gmail, and Youtube. If that’s not enough to keep your attention high, clever camera work is deployed to keep the scene visually stimulating.

Then to drive the point home, we come to the end where we see “I can’t wait to share these with you someday” and then the slogan “The Web is What You Make of It.” This cleverly produced spot is relatively simple in terms of production values; it probably could have been produced with something like CamStudio, but it symbolizes the benefits of Google’s products through powerful emotions and a play on fundamental human needs.

The most interesting part is that the symbolized benefits are hypothetically real; there is not sleight of hand or exaggeration. You probably could document the life of your child through the Google cloud if you were so inclined.

It also serves as a product demonstration, highlighting the ease of using Google products, and their tight integration with one another.

I imagine the primary goal of the campaign was to increase consumer opinion of the products, ultimately motivating the consumer to sign up for Google services… I’d suggest it probably worked. I’m not generally a fan of Google or their products, but I still thought this was a great idea.

Old Spice – The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

I think everyone’s seen or heard of this one by now. It’s definitely bold creative. It’s designed to grab your attention from the very beginning. It’s got implied nudity, a careful slow pan to stimulate visual attention, and a constantly running shower for auditory stimulation. In short, you’re probably paying attention to the screen.

The main character is a caricature of masculinity and he’s addressing his target audience directly (“Hello Ladies”) using bold and engaging conversational language. He frequently commands the audience to “look at me” which is certain to direct attention back to the ad, while the dialog is subtly creating a vision of “your man” vs. “me” all based around the use of Old Spice. This seems to have the effect of creating an image of strength and desirability around the Old Spice brand, not unlike what their competitor attempted to do with the Axe Effect spots.

Then things get interesting, as the set shifts around from one unexpected scene to the next while clams turn into tickets that turn into diamonds. As we discussed previously, Surprise generated by the unexpected is definitely an effective means of grabbing and maintaining attention.

The goal of the creative was to raise awareness of the product line, since Body Wash was a new venture for Old Spice, and motivate purchase intent, primarily among women whom their research indicated were responsible for purchasing 70% of the shower gel for men in their households. While the creative itself was designed to grab the attention of women, it was also supposed to convey the masculinity of the product. It seems to have done so quite well, since we’re still talking about it three years later.

Making it work for you…

So now that we’ve seen a few real world examples, how can we apply these principles to our own creative? If you want your audience to see you, just remember SEEU.


Surprise is one of the quickest ways to make your creative stand out in a sea of noise. Challenge preconceived notions or expectations, play with perceptions, or do the unexpected.


Emotional stimuli are also highly effective at grabbing attention. Some of the examples we’ve seen are narratives, music, and visual imagery. Sound can also be effective, but avoid shocking or scary sounds; these tend to be universally perceived as negative. When in doubt, look to your personas and the universal human needs to see what hedonic benefits can be demonstrated or symbolized within your creative.


Narrative is a great way to build anticipation, but you still have to be interesting enough to maintain attention while the narrative unfolds. Delayed gratification can be a powerful way to apply Expectation… Teaser trailers are a popular example of using Expectation in creative.


Go back to basics with human needs, and the value proposition. Suggest a problem and then solve it with your demonstration, or take a page from Apple’s iPhone ads and just demonstrate features. Utility is all about what the product can do.

Your homework…

Your homework is to find some more examples of bold creative and tweet them @iacquire with the hashtag #iacqEDU. Feel free to blog your own analysis of what behavioral principles are at work, and tweet that at us too… or better yet, build some really bold creative of your own!

Our examples were pretty video heavy, so if you can find some that are infographics, images, or articles, I’ll be really excited.

iAcquire EDU is going to be a lot more interesting if we can all learn from each other, so please remember to share what you find.

responses to “The Behavioral Psychology Behind Bold Creative”

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