Please read this blog because kittens

A social psychologist at Harvard, Ellen Langer, neatly demonstrated a form of human automatic action with a library-based experiment.

It’s well-known that when we ask someone for a favour, we’ll be more successful if we give a reason. What’s less well-known is that reason can be anything: from the perfectly reasonable to the utterly ridiculous.

People simply like to have reasons for what they do.

Ellen Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact thusly:

She used two different methods of asking a line of people waiting to use a library photocopier if she could cut in.

  1. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?
  2. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?

94% of people acquiesced to her request when she used method 1, compared to only 60% when she gave no reason.

On the surface, it seems that it was the additional information, “because I’m in a rush”, that made the difference. But no! Langer tried something else that showed it was just one word that made the difference.


She demonstrated this by using the following request:

Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?

In this case, 93% of people complied, even though she gave no real reason or new information.

I’ve no idea how silly you could get… perhaps you could try it yourself. Next time you’re in a line and you don’t want to wait, ask if you can cut in and add “because kittens” or something. Let me know how it goes.

Cuddling kittens

You should buy my book here, because kittens…

How do we use this in marketing? Always give your reasons. Not just your reason why, although that’s obviously important. But for smaller things too.

For example, humans are cynical creatures and we know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Some years ago, a chap was giving away £5 notes on the streets, and virtually nobody accepted one because they thought there must have been some kind of catch.

It’s the same if you’re running a sale.

Give the reason for the sale.

“Closing down sale” is much more believable than simply “50% off”. The second statement just makes people wonder what’s wrong with the goods. As always, test. Try running two sets of AdWords. One simply saying “sale: 25% off” or whatever, the other saying something like “clearance sale – new stock coming”. See if it makes a difference.

Speaking of marketing – I had a sitting-bolt-upright-in-bed-thinking-ohmygod-I’ve-forgotten-something-fundamental a little while ago.

Do you know what marketing is? When it comes right down to it?

I only ask because most people don’t. When I’ve given seminars and training courses, most people really struggle to define marketing. And if you don’t know what marketing is, you can’t do it.

The CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) defines marketing like this:

Marketing is the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.

All due respect to the CIM, but that’s utter bobbins. Apart from being hideous jargon, it’s just ridiculously overcomplicated and it doesn’t mean anything. Drayton Bird calls it “quasi-academic bullshit” and he’s dead right.

The best definition of marketing I’ve ever seen is this:

Find out what people want and need and give it to them.

That’s it. Simple.

What do your customers want and need?



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.


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