CMU helps Marc incorporate behavior theory into advertising


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The American Heart Association wanted people to call 911 when they felt symptoms that might indicate a heart attack. Research showed people didn’t always do that.

It wasn’t that they didn’t know the symptoms. Plenty of ads over the years have shown an older man or an older woman, maybe with hand on chest, describing the signs of a life-threatening problem.

“Most of those campaigns were not very memorable,” said Alex Kuhn, senior director of Mission: Lifeline, the association’s effort to improve heart attack care, for the health association affiliate that covers Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Heart attack victims still do things like drive themselves to the hospital or have a friend take them in, delaying by minutes or even hours care that could make a difference.

Could marketing agency Marc USA come up with something to get people to pick up their phones instead?

The Station Square agency has been integrating behavioral economics, or the psychology of decision making, into its marketing efforts through a several years-long relationship with Carnegie Mellon University.

“It’s not traditional research,” said Michele Fabrizi, president and CEO at Marc. “The reality is all about getting into the deep emotion.”

A year ago, Marc and CMU officially announced a strategic alliance, but the connection started several years earlier and led to projects like a mammography awareness campaign for Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Ill., in which women could easily make appointments and send “mammo-grams” to remind others to do so, too.

Marc isn’t the first marketing agency to embrace behavioral economics. Increasingly, businesses have started to chase the kind of insights found in the research coming out of academic circles.

People make decisions every day about everything from gambling to choosing tires to which grocery store to shop at or whether to call emergency medical responders. Although the marketing industry has experience in developing programs and messages to convince people to buy things or act in certain ways, there’s growing interest in approaching the problems differently.

First, the book “Freakonomics” popularized the concept of applying economic theory to all sorts of behaviors. In 2008, the book “Nudge” came along to talk about how the framing of choices can be used to help people make better decisions and the U.K. government began trying to apply those theories.

Carey K. Morewedge, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, described research that found individuals are more wary of losses than eager for gains, for example. Turns out most aren’t willing to take a risk that might lose $20 unless they simultaneously have a chance or winning $40 or $50.

In addition to teaching and conducting research, Mr. Morewedge has consulted for Marc. The agency might bring him questions that a client has and he’ll help develop suggestions. “They have a lot of really interesting problems they run into with clients,” he said.

Jessica Trybus, senior special faculty at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and CEO of “game-based” learning software developer Etcetera Edutainment, said Marc has brought in projects for its clients that give her students real-world challenges to tackle.

A few years ago, the agency asked her to set up a workshop to put its staff through the experience of creating games. The goal wasn’t to create the next “Mario Party” but to infuse that kind of thinking into the agency’s culture.

For their part, researchers at CMU are interested in the piles of data that many companies have collected in the digital age. Marc isn’t the only one looking for expertise in data mining, but it has been among those tapping the university’s resources in helping clients manipulate their information to find useful insights. The agency also has beefed up its own in-house expertise.

In the case of the American Heart Association’s problem, it turned out people with chest pains and other symptoms were doing their own sort of internal calculations and didn’t want to cause a fuss unnecessarily.

“They can’t be sure it’s a heart attack,” explained Karen Leitze, Marc’s executive vice president and director of research and strategy.

That’s a powerful disincentive to picking up the phone and calling for help. So are concerns about the financial costs of involving medical professionals and losing control of the situation, Mr. Kuhn said.

To change the behavior, the association and its agency had to recast the dilemma along the lines of: “Would you rather be embarrassed or would you rather die?”

Marc came up with a campaign including television ads and billboards — launched in the Erie area in November 2012 — that turned the heart into an action figure and a bit of a thug at that.

In one commercial, a man sitting on a bench starts being slugged by a character dressed as a heart as shocked onlookers watch. As the nasty heart walks away, a banner drops down that says: “Call 911. When hearts attack, it’s never nothing.”

The campaign was tested in Erie because that market represented a good demographic representation of Western Pennsylvania, said Mr. Kuhn. The marketing ran a year, ending in December 2013.

He said early indications were that there was as much as a 20 percent increase in the number of patients coming in by ambulance as opposed to driving themselves.

Now the association is looking at where to take the campaign next.


Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.

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