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This Crime Scene Teaches Advertisers an Important Lesson on Psychology


Advertising is all about understanding psychology.


Every great advertising campaign is not just words doing the work. It’s the combination of words and psychology that makes such things happen.


This blog is about how advertisers come up with an understanding of psychology and apply it with their campaign, yours truly included.


On 13th March 1964, Kitty Genovese began walking from her car towards the entrance of her apartment in Kew Gardens, New York.


She was spotted by a serial killer, Winston Moseley. Winston followed her for a few yards and stabbed a knife into her back.


What makes this crime scene weird is not the stabbing.

37–38 people were watching this happen for more than half an hour. But, no one intervened.


Here’s what the New York Times reported:


For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.


Twice the sound of their voice and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.


Yes. This happened. And, I was shocked as much as you are.


Why Didn’t Anyone Intervene?

This story caught the attention of two psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley. They looked at the problem from a different angle.


People didn’t intervene because there were so many bystanders. Not the other way round.


If simply put, They didn’t because they assumed someone else would.


They tested this hypothesis and figured, the broader the appeal for help, the less likely any individual is to intervene.


Psychologists tested by faking some emergencies to individuals and groups. They were testing who would be inclined to help: individuals or groups. They found 85% of the individuals went to help and just 31% came forward when they were in groups of four or more.


They termed this the bystander effect, sometimes referred to as Genovese syndrome.


How Did Advertisers Use This?

Richard Shotton, author of the book the choice factory writes about how he used this psychological finding to solve a problem.


He was working on a Give Blood campaign. They ran appeals asking for blood donations across the country. The response wasn’t any good. He figured this campaign suffering from the bystander effect.


Richard thought of running specific appeals. The campaign was led by Charlie Snow, who agreed to test the ad copy as per regions. They changed the copy from saying “blood stocks are low across the UK, please help”, to “blood stocks are low in Basildon (or whichever the city was), please help”.


Within two weeks, there was a 10% improvement in cost per donation.


Charity appeals must create a sense that people are being asked personally.


Advertisers used this to promote other products too. They localized the ad copies. And, it worked.


IPSOS Mori surveyed why personalizing with localization worked. They had 2000 consumers talk about this, and found 38% never trusted advertising. They said they ignored ads and suspect claims and feel like being misled.


When the copy is localized — there is less room for doubt and worries.


That’s how copywriters keep an eye on psychology and implement it in advertising. Even a weird crime scene teaches them a lesson.