Expectations and Disappointments

September 29, 2009

Many of the great disappointments in life are when our fantasy or imagined expectation does not match with reality.

More often than not people blame reality not their imagination.  In the battle between expectation and disappointment it is easier to blame the other guy, not the image makers in our brains.

This is a issue that advertising must address.  After all, advertising is the purveyor of expectations when we tell people about products and services.  We help create the expectation that our clients deliver on when purchases are made.

It does make some sense to ask the question “Why do people rely on their imagination more than they rely on reality?”

I think it has to do with learning.

We imagine outcomes from a set of assumptions and then correct our models of expectation with reality.  That’s effective learning.  If I put the money in the vending machine, the reward drops out.  I expect it and reality confirms it.  So I can put money in again and I will get another reward.  Basic behaviorism or S-R theory – see B.F.Skinner or even Pavlov.

Sure, but with social situations our predictive mental models are not as accurate.  We don’t always have the correct information, or understand what the other person(s) motivations really are.

My wife is constantly talking out loud when she is driving.  Asking, rhetorically, “Why did that person do that!” (Expurgated version of dialogue).  Since she never gets a real answer I wonder why she keeps asking.  She never stops another car and interrogates the driver – as if the driver even noticed what they did or understood why they might have done it.  So her disappointment is often a lack of understanding for the other person’s motivation.

In advertising we are creating expectations of performance.  That is, we try to show what the product or service is and how it works.  Not all advertising is cognizant that viewers will not necessarily understand this basic.  Advertising that assumes viewers know what the product is had better be entirely certain or the advertising will be near useless.

If advertising does not clearly explain what, particularly, a new product is why would someone buy it.  I find this often the case with technology, specially technology toys.  The advertiser assumes that people know what the gadget does and starts to explain minor differences between their gadget and a competitor.  Not everyone understands the difference between an iTouch and an iPhone or an iPod.  As the market grows into those not obsessed with the item advertising runs the risk of excluding potential buyers by being too clever.

Advertising not only creates expectations of product performance, advertising creates expectations of context.  When is it socially appropriate to use a product and how does one use it within a social context.  Is it acceptable to walk or drive down the street drinking a Coke and eating a sandwich?  It didn’t used to be.  Now it is.

Advertising showed it to be okay.  Fast food marketers supported this with the development of a drive through window.  When Wendy’s introduced it, they thought people would be picking up food to take home.  Not so.  They wanted to eat it NOW!

Then automobile companies responded in the 1980s by including cup holders to reinforce the appropriateness of drinking beverages and eating while driving.  And if you can’t use your cell phone while driving (in many jurisdictions, and many more to come) who says it is safe to eat your burrito while you cruise along at 100 kph.

Now back to expectations versus disappointment.

We cannot cure rampant imagination.  What we can do in advertising is make sure we accurately show a product in its operation and its social context.

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