Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Mind the gaps! Because in research, they can teach us more than David Ogilvy imagined. 

By Emily Hale, Research Manager at Flume

Emily is part of the latest PMU cohort

A very famous, very clever man (the “Father of Advertising” no less) once said: 

“The problem with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.” 

As a (currently) unknown female researcher who somewhat paradoxically agrees with 95% of Ogilvy (1963)’s rather sweeping statement, it would be tempting to simply bow down in submission and go about my day, but I’d like to unpack it a bit. Why? Because I disagree with the sentiment, 100%. 

First up for unpacking: “People don’t think how they feel.” 

This is absolutely true: so many of the processes involved in decision making (to which purchase decisions are no exception) are at a subconscious level. Humans are weird and wonderful; they’re emotional, unpredictable and multi-dimensional. 

Psychologist Kahneman (2011) distinguishes between two operating systems in our brain: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is unconscious and responsible for the vast majority of our thinking, our feeling. System 2 is deliberate and conscious, but requires mental effort to use. Humans (albeit wonderful) are intrinsically lazy and typically default to System 1. If research only takes into account what people think in the System 2 sense, we’re going to end up with conclusions fairly detached from the reality of human experiences. 

Second on the unpacking block: “People don’t say what they think.” 

Finding out what people think has always been the typical remit of market research – problematic in itself. But that aside, no traditional research methodology is perfect. Issues of self-representation are prevalent, with individuals often either wanting to portray themselves to others in a particular light or trying to tell the researcher what they think we want to hear. 

The Myth of the Ethical Consumer (2010) highlights a great example of this. 70% of people said they preferred a 7x more expensive organic apple over a standard one when asked in public, however in private, only 2% did. This is not by any means a point-blank condemnation of all of these methodologies, but rather something that requires skilful navigation. Of course, sitting people down in a strange room full of strange people and asking them strange questions about what they think about Strange Steve from Creative’s strange ad concept is probably not conducive to anything very useful. But good researchers don’t do that. 

Third and last (but not least) up: “People don’t do what they say.” 

True, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s lying, they’re just not fortune tellers. They simply don’t know what they’re going to do, and they often can’t even recall accurately what they’ve already done/do now. So we get wild statements like 66% of consumers actively consider sustainability when making a purchase (McKinsey & Co survey 2020), when let’s be real, they don’t, and people saying they only watch 20 hours max of TV a week when in reality they’re watching 30 on average (ICM poll 2011) Overclaim and underclaim is big, and we need to take it with more than a pinch of salt (perhaps a spade?). 

So what’s the point? Why waste a career in research when I could quit and live my dream of being a feral cat lady living in the woods? Well, fortunately for my sanity and existential wellbeing, I see these gaps as opportunities rather than abysses in which to condemn research forever. So how can research adapt to fill the gaps?

Don’t ignore emotions and the subconscious; build them into your research approach. The possibilities for this are evolving rapidly – there’s IAT, sentiment analysis, facial coding, body language analysis and so much more. 

Instead of getting exclusively bogged down in verbalised opinions or trying to predict unpredictable human behaviour by analysing emotions, watch people, observe them. “Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose” (Zora Neale Hurston 1942). That’s my excuse for my chronic nosiness anyway – and there’s plenty of ways to conduct research in a more “real” way.  It’s also important where possible to utilise combined research disciplines and other data (sales, for example) in order to have lots of different sources to soundboard off one another. 

The ‘say:do’ gaps highlighted in research are actually valuable insights; especially when it comes to future behaviour. People are often wanting to do something but for whatever reason aren’t, and what better way to uncover the reasons behind these gaps and help brands to bridge the barriers stopping people from matching intention and action than research?

So I want to suggest a teeny edit to Ogilvy: my “problem fascination with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.”