There’s one barrier every message has to get through for it to succeed: your audience’s brain. It’s why your message needs to be more than just relevant and remarkable, it needs to be resilient, too. It has to be strong enough to survive the beating the average brain is going to give it.
And brains have a LOT to beat your message with. Namely, seemingly little logical loopholes that create big (and often bad!) effects for your message: cognitive biases. One of the worst effects happens when cognitive biases widen the gap between how you understand your message and how your audience does.
You can see some of that in play in this episode of ‘What’s Missing From Your Message?,” where I talk through why a recent outdoor ad for the Apple Card probably won’t send the message Apple wanted it to.
In that case, the biggest bias to overcome is one that’s useful for all message makers to know: the “peak-end rule.” I’m going to go ahead and quote Wikipedia here:
The peak–end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience…. According to the heuristic, other information aside from that of the peak and end of the experience is not lost, but it is not used.
In other words, we decide how we feel about an experience based on how we felt at the strongest emotional point of it and how we felt at the end. That’s great news if you’re consciously thinking about those two points in your message, but a big ol’ danger zone if you don’t.
When you’re aware of the peak-end rule you can structure your message to build toward specific emotional peaks, and make sure that you’ve wrapped it up in a powerful way. When you’re not? Well, you run a high risk of sending a very different message than you intended.
Let’s say, like with Apple Card, you want to contrast a benefit of your product or service against a negative feature of your competitors. If you lead with “goodness” of your benefit and end with the “badness” of what your competitors do, the “end” is a negative feeling. But maybe not about your competitors… about you. People don’t like people who give them bad news, and if bad news is the last thing you tell them? The feeling they’ll remember is a negative one.
There are a few other cognitive biases and brain quirks at play here. Generally, humans:
- Remember best what’s repeated most (especially spaced out over time)
- Process a positive before a negative — in order to not think of a pink elephant, you have to think of one first (ironic process theory)
- Remember best what’s said last (recency effect)
Taken together in the Apple Card, here’s what I see happening:
- “Apple Card” is the only thing repeated, which could be good — you’re likely to remember it’s an Apple Card ad
- The negative message (“Confusing points and rewards”) is said last, which is bad — you’re likely to remember it more than the first message, and, as I already mentioned, feel worse about it
- That negative message is paired with “NOT Apple Card” (emphasis mine), which sadly, means they’re likely reinforcing the connection between the Apple Card and the negative message feeling in the process of trying to negate it… which is bad
As I say in the video, even a simple switch of the order of the messages would help, because that would help the message work with cognitive biases rather than against them.
We all have cognitive biases. None of us is immune. It’s why we so often suffer from the Persuader’s Paradox and our messages suffer as a result. But we don’t need to be persuaded. Our audiences do. If you want your messages to be successful, you have to work against your cognitive biases and with theirs.
The easiest way to do that: test your message, in whatever form, with someone who isn’t already convinced your message is right. Even better if you find a skeptic, or someone disinclined to believe you. (Just beware the Semmelweis reflex when they give you their opinion!)
If it can survive that test, it’s likely strong enough to survive just about anything.Your message needs to be more than just relevant and remarkable, it needs to be resilient, too. Click To Tweet
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
In the continuing saga of finding what’s missing from messages out in the wild, it’s another advertisement. And this time for the Apple Card. What’s missing from that message? A proper order that leaves us with the message that Apple wants us to have. I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com, and that’s what we’re talking about on this episode of What’s Missing From This Message?
The other day I was walking around downtown Boston when I happened to spy this outdoor advertisement, probably 50 feet away. And what caught my eye was the fact that they were spending a lot of time and effort. The message that was super clear was the message on the bottom of this ad, that there was confusing points and rewards. And from a distance, I couldn’t tell what the ad was for. And so I thought to myself, “Well, that’s kind of weird that they’d be advertising confusing points and rewards, what’s going on here? Because it seems like something might just be missing from this message.” So I went to take a closer look. Now, if we go and take a closer look, then we see that it’s an ad for Apple Card. And let’s look at how it’s laid out. So up in the upper left it says Apple Card, kind of rainbow font. And then it says unlimited daily cash back. Rainbows, white light, yay, positive benefit.
And then down in the dark blackness of the thing below, it says confusing points and rewards, not Apple Card. Now at heart, this is a really good message. And so as always, what I’m trying to do is figure out how do we make a good message stronger. And full disclosure, I’m not a graphic designer, but I do know a thing or two about how people, or at least I read information when it’s on a sign, and something about how humans more broadly tend to remember things in general. Now I as a human tend to read top to bottom on something like this. So if we read this ad top to bottom, it starts with Apple Card, unlimited daily cash back, confusing points and rewards, not Apple Card. Okay. So it works fairly well, but at the same time, it means that we’re ending on a message that isn’t associated with the brand. And I’m not sure that that’s the best thing to do.
And here’s why. Because where the research backs me up on this is something called the peak end effect that we tend to remember the things that give us emotional peaks, and what we remember last. Another thing that backs us up is something that’s called recency bias. You’re going to remember best and favor those things that you heard or read or saw most recently. So from that point alone, the one thing I think that would make this particular message stronger is to simply flip the order of these two. So the last thing that we’re reading is actually something associated with the brand. We’re saying confusing points and rewards, but unlimited daily cash back. So we’re contrasting that. Not Apple Card, you get confusing points or awards, that’s at the top. And then but at Apple Card, you get unlimited daily cash back. Just that little flip makes that intention actually come through. Now, again, not a graphic designer, but the other thing that I would fault this message for is the contrast, or actually the lack of contrast, and how that does or doesn’t help this message.
So we also want to make sure that wherever somebody sees a message, that’s not just hearing a message, but sees a message that even when they scan it, that the message comes through clearly. But let’s go back and look at what that thing looked like from 50, 100 feet away. It’s actually really hard to read that top part where it says unlimited daily cash back. The thing that’s really easy to read, however, is confusing points and rewards. Now I know some folks would probably say, “Well, if people were intrigued, or potentially confused or curious, maybe they would go forward and look for it.” Okay. folks, I think I’m pretty much the only person that’s like, “Let me explore why this thing doesn’t make sense.” And I’m sure I’m not the only one, but the average person passing on the street is probably going to go, “Doesn’t make sense to me,” and keep walking. So be thoughtful when you are putting your messages together, even a simple one like this, about two things, order and visibility. And remember visibility can happen with what you say as well.
You can set something apart with not only where you put it in what you say, last for instance, but you can also set it apart with the contrast that you put around it. So for instance, you’re not going to listen to something that I’m saying when it’s in the middle of a major point like this, I just gave you a major point. I kept on running, and… But if I stop and I’m and I’m talking and I’m giving you this normal thing and I’m like, but this, this is a major point. And then I can keep going to something else, you’re going to hear and feel that difference. So to me, that’s the auditory equivalent of giving something visual contrast. So there wasn’t really much missing from the intent of this message, but in the delivery of this particular message, even though it was visual, there’s a lot that we can do, or at least two simple things we can do to make it much, much stronger.
Change the order, and put the contrast where you want it to be, make the message that people see the one that you want them to remember. And that’s true for what they hear, too. That’s this week’s episode of What’s Missing From This Message? I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com. If you enjoyed this episode and the others like it, feel free to like and subscribe. And, if you want your own message reviewed this way, or you spot one in the wild that you want me to take a look at, send it to RedThreadMe@TamsenWebster.com.
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