Tuesday 14 May 2013

Buyhaviour 1: Availability Bias

Are you more afraid for your life when boarding a plane or jumping in a car? In Australia do you think sharks or kangaroos are responsible for more deaths

Rationally we know there's less fatalities in the sky than on our roads, and that shark attacks only happen a handful of times a year. But, because we have such well developed and vivid memory structures of plane crashes and shark attacks (Thanks to the nightly news), which makes them more available to recall, we instinctively think they're more significant. 

This is the Availability Bias.

According to Tversky and Kahneman (1973), "the availability bias is an unconscious process that operates on the notion that, if you can think of it, it must be important." 

In other words, the easier something comes to mind (how available it is to recall) the higher you rate its importance.

The advertising implications are enormous. 

It means when your consumer is shopping, they aren't rationally remembering whatever unique hard sell (USP) you tried to persuade them with in your advert. They certainly aren't thinking of which position your brand occupies on a venn diagram, and they definitely aren't ticking off a checklist in their minds about which brand has the most promoted features.

They're being guided by their memory, on autopilot, and simply grabbing the brand they remember most. 

Because that brand, according to their irrational mind affected by the availability bias, is the best brand there is. 

This is big news for creatives, because when you're conceiving ideas for ads, you can forget about the hard sell, and focus on being witty, intelligent and memorable. And that's what you do best!

Also, once you understand the bias, you can use it to your advantage. It's a really nice way to tap into the 'unexpected' territory. Below are a recent series of executions that have manipulated the bias to create some powerful print ads. 

Keep an eye out for the next Buyhaviour installment 'Buyhaviour 2: Status Quo Bias', where we explore the tendency to favour the current state of affairs, and the implications this has on advertising. 

Discover more of the Buyhaviour series:

Buyhaviour Series: An Introduction 
Buyhaviour 1: Availability Bias 
Buyhaviour 2: Status Quo Bias 
Buyhaviour 3: Confirmation Bias 
Buyhaviour 4: Conjunction Fallacy 
Buyhaviour 5: The Spotlight Effect
Buyhaviour 6: The Matthew Effect  
Buyhaviour 7: Fight or Flight Heuristic
Buyhaviour 8: Imposter Phenomenon 
Buyhaviour 9: Red Queen Hypothesis 

Tversky, A; Kahneman (1973). "Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability". Cognitive Psychology 5 (1): 207–233.

Christopher Ott


  1. So availability bias leads to brand salience, which leads to sales???

  2. Hi Jack, thanks for your reply. I would say that knowing the availability bias exists, means we should be placing greater importance on achieving brand salience (the ability to recall a brand's distinct assets), instead of a specific 'sales' message. And that will lead to more sales, yes.

    What's your take on it?

  3. I agree and disagree. Yes consumer aren't remember the USP you tried to sell them but they are in fact 'grabbing the brand they remember most'. But the USP can often lead to that result. Are you saying we simply focus on execution rather than the product or brand message? Because surely without something to communicate, an execution or ad wouldn't exist at all.

  4. Good question. I agree you need a 'message' to hang your hat on most of the time, but it certainly doesn't need to be a unique one.