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Head versus Heart

5 November 2013

Rejoice, as today OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) announced that the UK is a great place to live and work. The trouble is, as I stare out the window at leaden skies and a road of throbbing, mud-slinging traffic soaking passers-by in a spray of grit, it doesn’t feel that way. So – which is right, the statistics or my own intuition?

Obviously, mine is a subjective take on the state of our nation but for anyone interested in engaging communications is no less valid than hard facts and figures. Feeling has a massively powerful influence on how people engage with issues, products and organisations. It is feeling, subjectivity that makes me retch with bile at the sheer effrontery of the recently launched brand campaign for Royal Mail, coming with indecent haste after its fire sale to the lowest bidder, but makes me think nothing but kind thoughts towards Marks and Spencer, despite them being equally in thrall to shareholders looking for easy profits.

At Forster Communications, we run a lot of campaigns encouraging people of all types to use more sustainable forms of transport, from bicycles and shoe leather through to buses and trains. There are tons of stats about why these are great ways to move around – cheaper, safer, more environmentally friendly, more sociable and healthier than the dreaded private car – none of which make the slightest bit of impact on the average car driver, whose relationship with and addiction to their own motor transcends all rational argument. Many people LOVE their cars.

Telling people that cycling is statistically very, very safe does nothing to convince them that is so – the fact that for many it simply feels dangerous trumps all the stats. I ride around on a bike every day, happily helmetless, to the shock and disapproval of many friends, family members and colleagues. My retort that statistically the helmet would do very little to save my skin in an accident at any speed over walking pace falls on deaf ears. Tell them that, again statistically, the logic of helmet wearing  means that we should all be wearing them when walking down the road or sitting in a car, and they laugh in my face at my eccentricity. It just doesn’t feel correct, it is a crime against social norms.

Logic and rationality have their place in persuasive communications, but they will never succeed in changing attitudes or behaviours when used on their own. They are much more powerful when aligned with messages that chime with the audience’s subjective feeling. I don’t ride a bike every day because it reduces my chances of getting heart disease by x%, or because it saves me around £30 a week on tube fares, or even because it increases my serotonin levels. I ride a bike every day because it allows me to relive being 11 again and riding round the streets where I grew up on my Grifter pretending to be Poncherello from CHiPs.

It’s not just messaging where feeling and statistics meld together. Audience testing is the arena where we often try to wrestle emotional response into a nice, tidy excel document that proves we, the agency, were right all along. Testing has become a sort of faux science, driven by our desire to “prove” that one subjective idea or approach is better than another and creates a danger that we give the results of activity like this more regard than it really deserves.

Creative industries have always had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with facts and figures, with that dreaded concept that haunts the dreams of many – metrics.  Of course, we need rigour and measurement, to continue to wrestle with objective gauges of the success of subjective activity, but we must not lose sight of the enduring influence of feeling, whatever the graph is telling us.