I don’t watch too much TV but when I do, I see a lot of terrible commercials. They range from sophomoric to earnest to delusional. Occasionally you’ll see a clever ad but almost never do you see one that’s actually interesting.
Almost never — but not never never.
Today’s podcast is about a series of interesting ads which sell Prudential financial products and feature as their pitchman the Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert. A few questions are in order:
Are the ads manipulative? Sure, but not grotesquely so (and they are TV ads, after all).
Do they try to frighten people into buying financial products that they might not need? Perhaps, but in the most gentle way imaginable.
Are they tiny behavioralist masterpieces that draw on academic research and data visualization to make points that are almost never made in public discourse (much less on TV)? Indeed they are — at least to my eye.
Gilbert is the author of the wonderful book Stumbling on Happiness
and has given several popular TED Talks: “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” “The Psychology of Your Future Self
,” and “Why We Make Bad Decisions
.” How did a guy like him end up as a pitchman for a financial-services firm? As Gilbert tells us: “They said, ‘we’re interested in doing data visualization and bringing to life the very thing you’ve been thinking about for most of your career, namely errors of prospection.’ … Well, that got my attention.’
In the podcast, you’ll hear extensively from Gilbert — as well as the ad man who approached him (Ray Del Savio at Droga5) and the Prudential executive who helped make it work (chief brand officer Colin McConnell).
I never thought we’d make an episode of Freakonomics Radio extolling the virtues of a series of TV ads for a financial-services firm. But I hope you’ll agree this was worth talking about — and I’m all in favor of raising the level of TV ads.