The advertising industry is thinking about motivation the wrong way

The advertising industry is thinking about motivation the wrong way

Deep geek alert: we’re about to dive headlong into motivation theory, so for those who have weak constitutions, you may want to click over to for some lighter fare.

But, if you’re motivated to read this instead, well, I’m honored. After all, I don’t even know who Blake Lively is and why she’s famous.

What I do know is that our industry has some serious thinking to do about motivation. We’re thinking about it in the wrong way – as something that happens to consumers as a result of our campaigns. And while that’s partially true, it’s not the kind of motivation that produces lasting change.

Here’s the Motivation Theory Cliff Notes for you: there are two basic kinds of behaviors – autonomous and controlled. Autonomous behaviors are the kind that are undertaken freely and with full commitment and deep interest. They’re the kind that are most authentic and true to one’s deeper self. Controlled behaviors are caused by external pressures – they’re actions that aren’t an expression of one’s self. They’re behaviors you do because you have little other choice.

If you dig into controlled behaviors a little more, there are two sub-expressions – there’s compliance and defiance. Compliance means that you do something simply because you’ve been told to do it. Sometimes it’s expressed as conformity. Defiance is, well, flat out doing the opposite of what you’ve been asked to do just to fight those expectations. It’s rebellion.

We now know that controlled behaviors – or those behaviors that come from external sources like rewards, incentives, etc. – lead to short term behavior change through compliance, but also run the risk of inciting defiance.

Autonomous behaviors – or those that come from intrinsic motivation – are the ones that lead to long-term behavior change.

Many of us in the advertising industry, myself included, have been guilty of asking the motivation question this way – “How can I/my client/this ad campaign motivate people to do something?” But according to the recent research, motivation isn’t something you can foist on people. It’s not something that happens to people. It’s something that people have to find within themselves if there’s to be long-term change.

Renowned social psychologist Edward Deci says we should be asking the question this way instead – “How can I/my client/this ad campaign create conditions that will cause people to motivate themselves?”

That’s an entirely different question.

One of the conditions that creates intrinsic motivation is authenticity. Oh sure, the branding pundits have been talking about this for years now. You have to be an authentic brand, blah, blah, blah. But when you overlay psychology into the equation, it takes on a deeper meaning. Authentic brands are in touch with their inner selves, act with volition and honest commitment. Those brands will attract people who are also in touch with their inner selves. Authenticity breeds success. It breeds honest happiness. It breeds sustainable, long-term behavior change.

So how do we take a medium – advertising – that has encouraged conformity, stroked the ego and pushed the idea of happiness through consumption for decades into this new era of authenticity?

More than ever it’s true that great advertising won’t be able to make up for a mediocre — or inauthentic — product.  We must start with something real –a real product with a real message — then the advertising can simply tell the story and connect the consumer to the product.  And then the motivation will commence.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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