Why Advertising Falls Flat in Individuals With Autism

Individuals with autism may be impervious to misleading marketing.

 

Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Which one would you choose?

A new study has found that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be impervious to misleading marketing compared to the rest of us [1]. Rather than a disability, having ASD in this case may actually be a strength. With their greater focus on detail, people with autism are better able to tune out irrelevant context such as advertisements.

When we are bombarded by choices designed to influence our buying decisions, we can easily be tricked into making some pretty irrational decisions and impulse purchases. Advertising is now so scientific that it borders on creepy. From the orange color of Cheetos to the memorable Nike swoop, advertisers have perfected the way they create a visual image to manipulate us. The most compelling products rely on well-researched psychology to inform their design. The same goes for store layouts [2].

Psychologists are the experts on human perception and persuasion. Studies have shown repeatedly that most people are hugely influenced by presentation. The way we’re given choices matters a great deal for which one we ultimately choose.

The flaw in this psychological model is that not all minds work the same way.

For a synesthete, for example, an ad’s appeal may come from the chocolatey aroma of a deep brown background or the smooth rhythm of the word “silky.” This may be intentional on the advertiser’s part or not. But what advertisers certainly never intend is for an ad to fall flat. But that’s exactly what happens for those who can effectively choose the best product without resorting to packaging or product placement.

People with autism are better than the rest of us at filtering out extraneous contextual information in order to make rational economic decisions. For them, the package color and the products it is surrounded by are irrelevant to whether or not they put it in their basket. Instead, the autistic shopper focuses on what really matters: ingredients, price, and the necessity of even owning the product.Time and again they select the best product for their needs regardless of how it is displayed.

To test whether having autism affects rational decision-making, researchers offered participants with and without ASD three versions of the same objects, told them only two things about each, and asked them to choose which to buy. Two of the objects had legitimate advantages over the other. The third existed only to make one of those two products more appealing. Rationally, the inferior “decoy” should have been ignored.

For instance, imagine three USB drives: Drive A has a large capacity but a relatively short lifespan; drive B has a smaller capacity and a longer lifespan; the decoy drive C has a middling capacity and shorter lifespan than either A or B. Objectively, drive C should be ignored. But instead, the data revealed that people with neurotypical brains are typically distracted by the decoy object, and would switch which USB drive they preferred depending on whether or not the decoy was shown. Those with ASD made more rational and consistent choices.

Conventional economic theory considers consistency of choice normative. But the researchers’ most significant finding was that reduced context sensitivity demonstrates that autism is “not entirely a disability.” Autistic cognition might be more complex—and less defining of an individual—than previously thought.

Here’s another way to think about it: Human quirks abound. The more we study the human mind, the more fascinating ways we discover about how different people perceive the world.

1. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/adults-with-autism-make-more-consistent-choices.html

2. Lupton, E. and J.C. Phillips, Graphic design: the new basics. Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. ed. 2015, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, Maryland Institute College of Art

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