More Potent Marketing Messages and the IKEA Effect

In Predictably Irrational, author Dan Ariely describes the phenomenon whereby human beings naturally attach a lot more positive emotion to possessions that present a bit of challenge to obtain. He calls this The IKEA Effect.

Marketing messages can work the same way. Sometimes “Some Assembly Required” can be a very powerful thing.

A fairly recent example of this, and, in my opinion, one of the most effective works of advertising of the past five years, is the American Express “Don’t Take Chances, Take Charge” TV campaign in which everyday objects like clothing, furniture, a shower curtain and even a pair of closet doors (my favorite vignette) display sad faces while the voiceover describes how they might get stolen, lost or broken.

The faces turn happy as the copy tells us how Amex insures purchases against those very vicissitudes.

This happy yellow airplane proves I'm smart and helps American Express earn trust.

This happy yellow airplane proves I’m smart and helps American Express earn trust.

Aside from the fact that these are exquisitely crafted little films (the Bach cello music is a brilliant accompaniment), what I find particularly riveting about the ads is that you need to watch them for a few seconds to get the joke. It’s not immediately apparent that the wallet, mug of cappuccino and leather chair are “sad”.

But, by the time your brain can actually form the concept of “hey, what’s going on here?”, the coin drops, the light goes on, the synapses fire and your brain sighs with relief. You experience what I call the “aha high”. It’s the little endorphin squirt that makes you feel, without really even being aware of it,  “I get it. Thank you for proving how smart I am, American Express. I feel good about myself and I feel good about you, too.”

If you want me to trust you, don’t prove that you’re smart. Prove that I’m smart.

I don’t have any research here in my hands that demonstrates the efficacy of the American Express commercials, but I do know that I recently worked on a strategic development project for a big retailer in which we discovered the real, emotional components of the elusive thing called “trust.” One somewhat counter-intuitive insight was this:

if you want me to trust you, don’t try to prove how much smarter than me you are. Instead, make me feel smart for affiliating with you (Note: this has some pretty significant implications for any organization that sells “expertise”; whether that expertise is in home theater systems, enterprise resource planning or marketing strategy).

There are a lot of ways to make a customer feel smart. One real good one is to let them do some of the final assembly of your message all by themselves. This can be a scary proposition for some marketers. The comfortable approach would be, once you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of getting their attention with your ad or promotion or message, tell them everything. Spell it all out in clear, simple, short words. Don’t count on your audience to “get it”. And don’t dare omit anything, because you never know what part is going to connect.

But I believe sincerely (and so does Dan Ariely, who’s a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke University and a frequent TED speaker, so he must be right) that it’s our job as communicators to figure out what’s going to connect, and craft our work in a way that allows our audiences to “get it”. If we do that, they’ll value our messages more highly and we may just earn a little more of their trust in the process.



  1. Good grief you are sounding like Don Draper or whoever wrote for that episode.
    And the trust observation is a ‘duh’ .. at least for me ..
    I discovered that a long time ago .. Remember AppleTree’s Molly “I’m like you. Not a model just a Mom and these guys are working for us. I trust them. Why not give them a try?’
    It literally turned the chain around and sales went straight up and remember we had an 800 number and shoppers called not to complain as management thought they would they called to thank Molly .. think Dove.

    I tell people I market WITH women not to them which is same as at them. I learned that from Mary Lou Quinlan

    You are bound to trust people who want to talk with you not at you.

    Remember If it’s not right we will make it right for Lacks. Another factual statement that increased sales more than 25% and never relinquished its market share. Immediate trust!


    1. Thank you for the comment, Mr. Brown. I always value and enjoy the direct-from-your-brain-into-my-content verbifications. I appreciate the attention. Since I think Don Draper is a pretty smart ad guy, I’ll take that comment as a compliment (although I’m not sure what “that episode” is). As for Molly, of course I remember that campaign. I was there. I stood in her front yard with you and Jane and watched her water the shrubbery as the cameras rolled. And as for the trust thing being a “duh”, if it was a “duh” for everybody, you and I wouldn’t have jobs, because nobody would need us to counsel them about how to sell stuff beter. Fortunately, it’s not a “duh” for 96.42% of the marketers in the world.


      1. Boo Hoo no one needs me any more!
        Anyway I learned all, or at least most of, that trust stuff working on Foley’s and like most stuff I didn’t even know I knew it until someone else pointed it out to me.

        and ‘do you remember’ was rhetorical .. I know you were there .. nothing like a smart ass crack to put a little saliva in your cheek
        (I can’t remember .. have you outlawed the emoticons?

        Are you watching Outlander? Great T&A as well as being one of the dirtiest (as in dirt) movies I have seen in awhile and see Kill The Messenger but wear your angry man hat cause you WILL be pissed when you leave theater


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