Stimulus vs. Response

Many years ago, when I started my first advertising job at J. Walter Thompson, the first thing my boss taught me is the difference between stimulus and response. When you walk around and look at the average advertising in a train station or on billboards, very often you’ll notice that the folks who made the ads didn’t understand the difference. They bluntly state the response they want to elicit from you (how they want you to feel and what they want you to do) and hope that you’ll simply agree – and do what you’re told. This is clearly not the way it works. Imagine if Starbucks – who very much want you to feel that their stores are an Oasis and a Daily Ritual You’re Addicted to – printed those very words on a cup or in a store. You’d laugh at them. Or balk at it. Or just tell them (in your heart) to piss off. People want to come their own conclusions, not simply to be told where they should go.

Finding the right stimulus to elicit the response you want is a tricky thing, both an art and a science. It is behavioural psychology, in a sense. A great campaign nails the insight and delivers the stimulus in just the right way. The old and iconic Volkswagen campaign from the 1960s, while it wanted you to love the car and buy it, declared that the Beetle was the “oddest looking car on the road.” To anyone in the 60s looking to feel like an Individual who makes his own decisions, this was exactly the right stimulus to get them to embrace the car. The famous Michelin campaign with the cute babies sitting on tires stated that “Because so much is riding on your tires” – and elicited the purchase response from millions. Indeed, if your tires aren’t good quality, you and your loved ones are in peril. It elicited the protective impulse, brilliantly.

So, next time you want your girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse to agree to something that’s a bit of a hard sell, ask yourself: What is the stimulus that will elicit the desired response? It must be insightful. And it must be authentic (or she’ll see right through it).