"US tax rebate could be pointless, says behavioral study," yesterday’s headline declared.
It sure looked pointless long ago. There were many other reasons to think that giving people money wasn’t anything more than a spurious prompt. First off, it's their money, so it was never really the same thing as a rebate.
Then, the macro-economic concept’s legitimacy always lurked just shy of nonsense: did anybody really think that $600 checks would somehow trigger a chain-reaction orgy of rampant spending on all of the useless items that power the consumer economy?
And how did the government just find those many billions of extra money laying around? There's something worth exploring here.
But the cash-givers could afford to overlook these concerns, perhaps because they involved ideas and required thoughtful debate, which meant that nobody would ever pay much attention anyway, whether as critics or would-be spenders.
Turns out that the policy might fail even if nobody thinks about it.
Two researchers at Texas A&M have discovered that most recipients will do the shockingly right thing with the rebate. They'll save it.
The unconscious triggers of innate human behavior will move recipients to view the windfall as, well, a windfall, which means that they'll skip thinking about where the money came from, or what it's supposed to accomplish, and see it as an extraordinary event that requires an extraordinary response.
Like putting the check in savings.
The government could talk itself silly telling people that it’s their patriotic duty to buy stuff that they don't need and can't afford, It won't matter. The behavioral researchers, Valrie Chambers and Marilyn Spencer, point out that the how people get the cash...in a tangibly visible lump sum, versus easily missed smaller portions...will determine how it's used.
You know what I'm talking about. If consumers had to pay Starbuck's a lump sum for the half-caff-double-espresso-latte-whatevers they buy annually, they wouldn't.
Worse, the researchers suggest that people might actually use the tax rebate to pay off debt, like credit cards or mortgages. Doesn't this turn the rebate program into an attack on the very institutions of usury that it's trying to save?
Think about how this might be relevant to your brand and marketing.
This behavioral research seems to suggest that the government could have threatened "spend the check, or the puppy dies," and it still wouldn't have done any good. There are instinctual, perceptual, and other non-actively-conscious responses that affect how consumers internalize...and act upon...external prompts.
I wonder how many branding attributes get trumped by genetics and habit.
P.S. I still don't have my check. Talk about bad branding.