Why Super Bowl Commercials Are So Much Better

February 2, 2015 BY danariely

superbowl adOn Sunday, the Super Bowl once again served up a batch of funny, cool, and even moving commercials. For decades now, Super Bowl commercials have continued to impress and touch us with a car starting Darth Vader kid,  a horse-befriending dog, a 1984 rule breaking Apple user, a Pepsi drinking Cindy Crawford, and on and on.

This has left many wondering: why aren’t all commercials as good as the Super Bowl commercials? If business can make such great ads, why don’t they always do so?

To answer these questions, we need to remember the real purpose of any advertisement is: to be effective. Unfortunately for viewers, ads don’t need to be good to to be effective.

The Super Bowl is a rare case where the audience is paying full attention expecting greatness. This environment allows the ads to be complex, nuanced, and entertaining.

However, outside the Super Bowl, ads have to play an entirely different game. Many everyday-ads have to fight to win the attention of highly distracted TV viewers, who are often channel surfing or multitasking. Many viewers don’t even look at the screen as they play on their computers, clean, or get ready for work.

This means the ads cannot tell an extended story about a puppy returning home like the #BestBuds Budweiser ad from this year. These ads only work during times like the Super Bowl when people say, “Be quiet the commercials are on!”

Instead, everyday ads must be loud, aggressive, and full of brand references. They must grab viewers’ attention and increase awareness.

Businesses want their products to enter into what market researchers call consumers’ “consideration set,” – the few products that come to mind when consumers thinks about a product category. This is often accomplished through annoying ads or unconscious mental processes, and can come at the expense of quality.

This means ads like Coke’s 2015 Super Bowl spot #MakeItHappy, though cool or even inspiring, do not work well during  the average commercial break. For instance this 2015 Coke ad features a somewhat complex premise with multiple lines of evolving text that require reading. And there’s no helpful guiding narration. The result: it is a super engaging ad, but only for viewers who are already engaged. This advertisement would not stand a chance during a Good Morning America commercial break, while a parent focuses primarily on prepping a child’s lunch.

Finally, most normal ads get heavy rotation. This means the ads need to be effective over relentless viewings. Many Super Bowl ads rely on a twist, shock factor, or a heartfelt narrative. Excessive viewings of these types of ads can lead to a loss of value and could even cause backfire effects.

For instance, the “edgy” 1984 Apple ad could lose its edge with each viewing. One can think of a Super Bowl ad like an amazing artsy song—great, but not for every moment—and everyday ads like the second radio single from any Maroon 5 album—mundane but infinitely digestible.

The Bigger Lesson

When we contrast Super Bowl ads with normal ads, we learn a powerful business lesson: being effective does not always mean being good. It’s a lesson many of us find hard to swallow, but it’s a bitter pill we all need to take.

Quality has its place in TV advertising and so too does effective mediocrity. Unfortunately, the latter is usually the norm. Yet, we can all be thankful that for one evening each winter, the stars align such that what makes an advertisement effective is also what makes it enjoyable.

By Troy Campbell


@TroyHCampbell studies marketing as it relates to identity, beliefs, and enjoyment here at the Center for Advanced Hindsight and the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. In Fall 2015 he will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business. 

Enjoy Summer Movies with a Childlike Wonder Again

May 29, 2014 BY danariely

With the summer movie season officially starting with The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Though arguably it started this year early with Captain America), it’s time once again to enjoy big budget spectacle movies. But as adults sometimes it can be hard to feel the movie magic we felt as children. Don’t fret! Here are a few tips (inspired by research in consumer psychology) on how to enjoy movies with a childlike wonder.

 #1 As a kid you had more time for movies. So as an adult, you need to make a little extra time.


When adults see movies, they might talk about the movie for a few minutes afterwards. If they are true nerds, maybe they read a blog or two. But that’s about it. The movie experience starts the night they see it and ends that very same night.

For a kid, the experience doesn’t end when the movie ends. Instead, the movie is an invitation into years of immersion into a fictional world. Kids talk nonstop about movies, force their parents to take them to Toys R Us to buy the action figures, and then expand on those stories through play, reading, fan websites, and video games.

The Fix:

You should make the time to get more involved with a movie world. How “good” you find a movie, can be affected by how much effort you put into it. This means reading blogs about movies and watching the behind the scenes features on the DVDs.

 #2 Kids are encouraged to be excited about movies. So, as an adult you need to find friends that encourage that same excitement.


Not only do kids feel a sense of wonder with movies, but they are also encouraged to embrace that sense of wonder. Parents encourage their children to tell them about the things they love. No one encourages adults to talk about movies. The guy in the office next to me has explicitly made it clear that he doesn’t want to hear any more about the awesomeness of The Empire Strikes Back.

This is unfortunate, because the suppression of expression is terrible for enjoyment. Professor Sarah Moore of the Alberta School of Business finds when people explain exciting things in a boring way, they end up finding the content boring. But if they explain it in an exciting way, they magnify their enjoyment. The conclusion: if people do not express their passion with strong emotion, they may lose out on some of the passion.

The Fix:

If you want to enjoy movies more, put on a costume and attend a convention where nerd passion is socially encouraged. Or have a Katherine Heigl movie night if that’s more your thing. Or at the very least just post about a movie on Facebook and start a discussion. The point is, if you share your passion with others you can maintain and grow your passion.

#3 As a kid, everything was magical and new. So, as an adult, you need to find new things.


Remember how impressed you were as a kid by that quarter behind the ear trick? Today you find that completely unimpressive — at least hopefully you do.

The next time you are even slightly impressed by an action movie, think how impressed a kid would be. Kids love things so easily that they probably even thought X-Men Origins: Wolverine was cool.

Scientists find that when people become overexposed to content (e.g., a type of fight scene), our brains stop paying as much attention. Once something is no longer new, our brains tell us to check out, so the joy starts to fade away.

The Fix:

Adults should branch out and start watching slightly “odder” content – I suggest the indie monster film Monsters or a Wes Anderson film. Adults won’t be desensitized to the new type of content, so they’ll likely find more magic and wonder in it. Or, try a more intense movie experience like The Wolf of Wall Street.

 #4 Nostalgia is why we love our childhood movies. So as adults we need to create more instantaneous nostalgia.


Nostalgia gets a bad rap publicly. However, nostalgia is a very powerful feeling, and there are many positive reasons to spend some quality time indulging in nostalgia.

The great thing about nostalgia is that nostalgic memories tend to be linked to memories of social connections. For instance people’s memories of Star Wars are wrapped up in memories of their parents showing it to them for the first time or playing “Rebels vs. Empire” with their friends. These connected memories bring about the feelings of warmth, support, and love that fulfill humans’ greatest needs.

You might even think that movies from your childhood were terrible, but love those movies nonetheless. You love those movies because they have meaning to you. The emotional connections and meanings are sometimes more important to you than the quality of the film.

The Fix:

If you want to enjoy modern movies more, you need to make movie-going become more instantaneously nostalgic. So go see the films in big groups. Start a Sunday afternoon movie crew or go to a midnight showing. Again, if you want to enjoy something, you need to change the process by which you enjoy it to make it bigger, more memorable, and more full of social interactions with other fans.

So, next time you go to the movies, see if you can bring back some of the magic from your childhood.  Try a new genre of movie, talk about it with your friends after, or just put a little more effort into really enjoying the experience.  You may not be a child any more, but with these tips in mind, you just might be able to enjoy the movies like one.


~ Troy Campbell ~

4 Ways Freud Is Still Relevant

February 3, 2014 BY danariely
Illustration courtesy M.R. Trower.
Illustration by M.R. Trower, inspired by those classic 80s and 90s TV commercials

For better or worse, the man Sigmund Freud remains the image of psychology. Though over one hundred years have passed since Sigmund Freud started to unveil his ideas, YouTube’s insanely popular Crash Course YouTube series made Freud the near entire focus and image of their first psychology video to promote their new online psychology “crash course.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 11.27.25 AM

Should modern psychologists be angry about this?

Well maybe. Many modern psychologists have complained, and rightly so, that some of Freud’s ideas (even some of the obviously bad ideas he took back or eased up on) have remained popular amongst many people, academic departments (e.g. many humanities departments), and even therapists. However, we want to take a moment and comment that a lot of the best modern psychology is still rooted in a lot of Freudian ideas. And so maybe Freud as a mascot isn’t the best, but not completely terrible either. Because regardless of the flaws and floweriness of much Freudian psychology, there are many basic ideas that he “invented” and/or popularized that positively shape the current exploration of the human mind.

freud (1)

Here are 4 positive ways Freud’s ideas live on in modern research.

Goals and Goal Conflict

Much of modern psychological research is about goals. In fact, in the eyes of many current psychological theorists a person can be best understood as a creature that pursues and manages goals.

Freud’s id-ego-superego theory was all about different goals and managing such goals. In Freudian theory, the id is our basic desires (food, sex, and video games), the super-ego is “anti-id” and focused on high desires (propriety, education, honor), and the ego is the man in the middle that is both separate from and part of the other parts. Current research on goal hierarchies, multiple goal pursuits, and the information signal model (the latter of which shows people more or less people lying to different parts of themselves) are very Freudian at their core.

Psychic Energies

Though it seems archaic to call the forces in the mind energies, it may not be far from the truth. Roy Baumeister and many other psychologists have discovered that one’s self-control is more or less a type of energy.

That is, one’s self-control can be depleted with too much use over too short of a period. It can be replenished (e.g. through relaxation, food, or positive moods). Furthermore, one’s self-control can expand. If one works at it, one’s self-control machine can gain, in a manner of speaking, a larger energy capacity. Roy Baumesiter even chose to call his theory of self-control depletion “ego-depletion” as a nod to Freud and the “energy” nature of it. One’s ego can get tired when it gets pulled in so many different ways (see title image).

Dual Attitudes

Research finds people have multiple attitudes toward the same thing and this often happens at the same time. Additionally, people can often hold conscious attitudes that differ from their automatic non-conscious attitudes. For instance people can have explicitly positive feelings toward an out-group (e.g. African Americans) but can hold unconscious biases against them. It all is very id versus superego like. And it is very important to recognize how unconscious tendencies influence behavior, especially when a majority of psychology and economics examine the human as always engaged in rational and conscious processing.

Unconscious desires

Let’s be honest, Freud went in some exaggerated and frankly wrong directions with the unconscious—especially when it comes to repression and repressed memories. However, Freud presented us with an important concept: our behavior may be guided by factors outside of conscious thought. Time and time again research has found that we are motivated by unconscious “thoughts” and we even pursue goals and experience emotions without awareness. And simply on a temporal level, neuroscience research shows that actions and decisions often occur before our awareness. The unconscious might not do everything Freud said it did. It might not be as full of repressions and daddy-mother issues, but it is just as powerful and important. And if it weren’t for Freud it would have been much longer before we realized that.

~Troy Campbell~

Buckling Up

November 15, 2013 BY danariely

During my recent trip to New York City, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in taxis—taxis with ads that endlessly drill messages into your thoughts. I’ve never watched much TV, so my brain hasn’t evolved that uniquely American ability to tune out the mind-numbing commercials. As hard as I try, I just can’t look away when there’s a TV in sight.

As the commercials looped, one ad stood out to me and had me grinding my teeth each time it popped onto the screen. It wasn’t that it looked like an old-fashioned PSA, or because its protagonist donned a charmingly insincere Mr. Rogers smile. No—this ad grabbed me because of its heartbreaking ignorance of basic psychology. The goal of this ad was to get passengers to buckle up for safety, but its method was painfully misguided.

A number of strategies have been used over the years to get people to buckle their belts. For example, we have:

Laws. This map shows the seatbelt laws in all US states, and according to the National Safety Council, seatbelt use is 13% higher in states with primary enforcement (meaning you can get stopped and ticketed just for not wearing a seatbelt) than those with secondary enforcement (88% versus 75%).

Penalties. Although people are probably not thinking about the $69 fine they might have to pay or even the drivers license points they could rack up if they get caught, it is possible that some people may buckle up to avoid these consequences.

Enforcement. Here, we’re talking about high-visibility enforcement such as checkpoints where all cars are stopped to check for seatbelt usage.

• Incentive awards for police officers to give tickets (ranging from small model cars awarded to individual police officers to much larger grants for police agencies).

• “Click it or Ticket.” This campaign has been particularly effective because it serves as a reminder of the immediate stakes (getting a ticket), even though they are smaller than the larger consequences (such as sustaining an injury in an accident). Reward substitution works. Fun fact: the campaign began in North Carolina, home of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and was adopted by other states because of its success (most likely due to its catchy name).

• Safety belt reminder systems. These excruciatingly loud alarms get my passengers to buckle up in record time.

• Safety belt ignition interlocks. Some cars will refuse to start until all belts are in, although you can imagine why the idea hasn’t gained much traction.

• Education. Teaching children about seatbelt safety in school, while not an official persuasion method that I can find in any academic paper, has turned diligent recycling enthusiasts who just say no to drugs into relentless seatbelt reminder machines. I imagine that if our kids were the enforcers of just about anything, we would all be better off.

Some of these strategies work better than others, but none of them are actually detrimental to seatbelt compliance. And yet this taxicab ad, which I was forced to watch over and over in agony, conspicuously ignored what we know to be a primary motivator of behavior: social validation.

The ad gave one pivotal piece of information, which you can see in the accompanying photo: “60% of taxi passengers do not buckle up.” This kind of scare tactic is ineffective because it simply sends the wrong message.


Robert Cialdini has shown over and over again that social proof is an intoxicating principle of persuasion. We look to others to decide what to do, and when we are told about how most people behave in a given situation, we are likely to follow their lead. (This is why “word of mouth” can be so powerful, and companies pay top dollar to try and influence what their customers tell their friends.)

So, what message does this ad convey to cab riders?

This statement gives an implicit recommendation, noting that most people do not wear seatbelts. As social creatures, we look to others to determine how to behave in all kinds of situations, and riding in a taxi is no different. Rather than encouraging seatbelt use, this statement lets seatbelt-wearers know that they are in the minority while giving non-seatbelt wearers the comfort of knowing that their behavior is normal. It doesn’t matter why the majority doesn’t wear seat belts—whether it is uncool, unsanitary, too much of a hassle, or even unsafe—now they know that most people don’t do it, and that’s a good enough reason to go along with the flow.

If you want to persuade people to wear seatbelts, you should tell them that 84% of people in the US do wear seatbelts. Or you can further tap into group identity by noting that 90% of New Yorkers wear seatbelts.

It’s a shame that a message as important as “wear a seatbelt” could be so badly butchered. If companies have figured out how to use the concept of social proof to get people to spend more money, why can’t our safety promoters figure out how to use it to get us to make better decisions?

For a quick review of all six of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion (reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority and scarcity), see this article.

~Aline Grüneisen~

P.S. Some friends have informed me that you can simply turn off the taxicab TV. Noted for next time.

What a $1 sub is really worth

September 20, 2013 BY danariely


As you leave our lab and take a narrow walkway down to one of the main streets in Durham, you pass through a small parking lot and a few chain restaurants. Yesterday afternoon, that parking lot was packed tightly with a long line of patrons waiting to buy a $1 sub for Jimmy John’s “Customer Appreciation Day.”

If the crowd was any indication, the promotion was a success (although it’s hard to tell how “appreciated” the customers felt without distributing some surveys—maybe next time…). It was clear, however, that they were willing to wait an incredibly long time to get a cheap sub. And that might very well change where they get lunch in the future.

In standard economics, the way we decide to spend our money reflects how useful or enjoyable we expect a product or service to be. We pay five dollars for a sub because we expect to get five dollars of value from eating it, and so on. But findings in psychology and behavioral economics suggest that the choices we make can do more than simply reveal our preferences—they shape them, too.

One classic study by Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith showed the effect that actions can have on our preferences. Participants in their experiment performed a mind-numbing task and were asked to describe it to another person while pretending to have enjoyed it. But there was one crucial difference between two groups: They were paid either a low or high amount of money to do this. Compared to those who were well compensated, the participants who were paid a small amount of money enjoyed the experiment more and reported a higher likelihood of returning to perform a similar experiment.

Festinger and Carlsmith concluded that their low-paid participants experienced a dissonance between the amount of money they were paid and their own willingness to perform the task. And since they couldn’t take back their efforts, they justified their behavior by increasing their enjoyment of the task. Here, we could say quite a bit about what Festinger and Carlsmith called “cognitive dissonance,” but let’s instead focus on how this affected their participants’ later behavior.

When we look back on our past actions, we tend to ignore situational factors and assume instead that we made that decision for good reasons. This actually changes how we feel about those decisions later, and that can change our future behavior. This process, where we look to our past behaviors to guide our future decisions, is called self-herding. To provide a simple example, imagine that you got a particularly flattering evaluation last Friday at work. You were feeling pretty happy about this and decided to celebrate by inviting some co-workers to a bar for a drink. The next Friday, as you’re considering what to do that evening, you might look back on your past excursion and decide to do it again. You look to the past behavior (going out for drinks) rather than the situational factors (the glowing report) that led you to the behavior.

So the people waiting in a long line for a cheap sub that everyone seems excited about might look back tomorrow and like Jimmy John’s more than they otherwise would have. Though they might look herded to one another, standing in a line that stretches out the door and into the parking lot, it’s how they’re herded to themselves that matters in the long run.

~Vlad Chituc~

Read more:
Chapter 2 in Predictably Irrational and Chapter 10 in the Upside of Irrationality
Dan Ariely and Michael Norton (2007), “How Actions Create—Not Just Reveal—Preferences.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. Vol. 12, No. 1: 13 – 16.

Women, Men, and Math Problems.

June 10, 2012 BY danariely

In the experiments my colleagues and I have run on cheating, we’ve used a task in which pride about personal performance and ability has no part. The matrix test is merely a search task (wherein participants find the two numbers out of 12 that add up to 10) rather than a skill. It’s not something you’re going to brag to your friends about in all likelihood.

Recent graduate Heidi Nicklaus of Rutgers University was interested in the opposite; she wondered how people’s pride about their perceived and imputed abilities would affect their dishonesty. Specifically, she was interested in gender stereotypes. We’ve all heard the stereotype that men tend to excel at math more than women, and that women can talk and write circles around men with their superior verbal skills. So the question was, if men are more proud of their mathematic ability and women of verbal, it might cause them to cheat more.

In her experiment, Heidi first primed her participants with two comical videos that exaggerate gender stereotypes (see below). Then participants were presented with one of two sets of fake data (presented as legitimate); one supported the math versus verbal aptitude stereotypes, the other countered them. Finally, participants took brief 10-question tests measuring both math and verbal aptitude, and were told they would receive $.50 for each correct answer. Similar to the experiments my colleagues and I have run on cheating, half of participants in each condition could cheat while the other half could not.

The results showed that when people could cheat, they generally did, which is what I’ve always found in cheating experiments. On average, people claimed one extra correct answer than when cheating was not possible (an average of 4 instead of 3 correct answers out of 10 on both math and verbal tests). No news here, so what about the effect of gender stereotypes? Did having them reinforced or, alternatively, countered before taking the test have any influence on cheating?

First, the hypothesis. What Heidi expected to find was that men and women would cheat along stereotypical lines, that is, that men would cheat more on math (to show that they did, indeed, excel in mathematics) and women would cheat more on the verbal portion for the same reason. So it was intriguing when Heidi found that men cheated more on math question than expected, but men and women cheated equally on verbal questions (rather than women cheating more as anticipated).

These findings—that people did not cheat more to keep up with perceived higher achievement by others—are similar to what my colleagues and I have found. In one experiment our results showed, similarly, that people cheated by the same amount regardless of whether they thought their peers solved an average of 4 or 8 out of 20 questions in a given amount of time (reporting an average of 6 correct answers). People cheated as much as they could justify, and apparently others’ performance is not of any great concern in this justification.

Oh, and as for the stereotype that kicked off the experiment: there were no differences in performance on math or verbal questions based on gender. So hopefully this harmful stereotype will fall by the wayside sooner rather than later, since nearly all similar studies yield the same conclusion.

The Psychology of Pain: "I didn’t mean it!"

February 10, 2009 BY danariely

There’s a phrase we hear all the time, and one that suggests something about our psychological makeup: we’re not just concerned with actions, but with their attendant mens rea – or lack thereof – as well. If it wasn’t intentional, then it’s not as painful.

And, as it turns out, that is quite literally true: Harvard researchers Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner recently found that we experience greater pain when we perceive it to be deliberately inflicted, rather than by accident.

In their clever experiment, they had volunteers perform a variety of tasks, including an assessment of discomfort. This involved receiving electric shocks and then rating them on a 1 to 7 scale. When participants thought their “study partner” (who was actually a research accomplice) had selected the task for them to complete, they rated their perceived pain as higher (Mean ratings = 3.62) than when they were told the selection was computer-generated the pain was lower (Mean ratings = 3.00).

What’s more, deliberate pain was not just more acute, it also lasted longer: whereas participants rated the unintentional shocks less and less unpleasant as the experiment progressed, the intentional shocks remained just as painful.

So next time you are at the doctor try to think that he or she really cares about you.