In 1895, Gustave Le Bon published a book titled Psychologie des Foules (literally “The Psychology of Crowds”).
In it, he claimed that characteristics of crowds included: “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgement of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments, and others…“
Le Bon believed that once in a crowd, humans lost the ability to behave independently and became irrational, unthinking and often prone to violence.
A crowd, he thought, was essentially a homogenous collection of oafs with rather bad manners.
Yet, his writing was widely influential and even military dictators such as the delightful Benito Mussolini were said to be inspired by the book’s ideas. They became a handy aide-memoire for fascist ideology and shaping popular opinion with prejudice.
Over the years however, Le Bon’s ideas have been shown to be nonsense or at least questionable.
Far from being unthinking and irrational, crowds are made up of individuals whose behaviour and allegiances will very much depend on context.
A recent campus experiment (Levine et al, 2005) with small groups of football fans from famously rival clubs (in this case Manchester United and Liverpool) asked volunteers to take a short walk to another building in order to continue the experiment.
Of course this was just a ruse.
On the way, volunteers would encounter an actor pretending to fall and hurt themselves. In some cases the actor would be wearing a shirt from the ‘opposing’ team and in others they’d be in the same colours.
In a third scenario, the ‘fan’ wore a plain red t-shirt.
Predictably, fans would tend to help their ‘own’ and be less likely to help a seemingly rival fan. However, the most fascinating behaviour was toward the plain red t-shirt wearer.
Fans would be overwhelmingly more inclined to help opposing ‘fans’ in preference to the red t-shirt wearer i.e. a non-football fan.
The experimenters realised that the crowds in this case had conditional responses to the context. When making a decision to help, they favoured those who seemed to share a passion, overcoming any inter-club enmity that had existed only moments before.
In other words, their helping behaviour depended upon shared identity.
It’s striking then, how often marketing communications use the assumption that ‘audiences’ are simply defined by tired socio-economic and demographic profiles. The worst offender being the appalling shorthand “millennials”.
This has nothing to do with shared identity. Millennials, it’s assumed, will respond favourably because they’re under 37 and can use the internet.
Belvita’s Good Mornings campaign is a great example of a brand that has cleverly used shared identity. The brand’s agency employed a comic actor to be a substitute train guard on so called ‘Blue Monday’ – officially the most depressing day of the year.
His job was to gradually win over passengers. Passengers were at first almost silent on their miserable morning commute but one by one were united in sharing a welcome laugh.
The ad went on to be voted the most emotionally engaging ad of 2017:
Most who try to sell the benefits of a sugary cereal biscuit will default to some kind of sunny, breakfast room cliche few identify with. Thankfully, this creative approach showed a tough crowd having their mood lifted instead.
They were all very different people yet had one thing in common: commuting by train in the UK is miserable.
Football fans may hate each other’s clubs but their love of football unites them.
Parents may have very different approaches to parenting but they all understand the horror of sleep deprivation.
Don’t treat buyers as a homogenous mob.
Or else they may end up united in ways you don’t want.