The Tyranny Of Choice

Back in the good old days, advertising agencies were able to offer their clients a single solution to the brief they had been given. This was in fact the case when I worked at AMV in the late nineties: one brief, one team, one solution presented to the client because that was considered to be the agency’s recommendation over lesser ideas which should be discarded (I believe Bill Bernbach summed this up with the question, ‘Why would we show them our wastepaper basket?).

However, as the years went on, AMV’s clients were able to demand multiple solutions. I remember that one actually had a contractual agreement to expect three routes per brief, but this rapidly dissolved when the three routes were rejected and another three routes provided and so on until the client was satisfied.

The reason a client wants and demands multiple answers is obvious: several choices must be better than a single one as it gives the chooser a variety of solutions to select from, and he/she gets more work for their money.

But is that an improvement on a single choice? Not according to scientific research. If you were presented with 950 toothbrushes every morning you’d actually find your bathroom time a paralysing disaster. You’d have the luxury of selection, but it would waste your time and vex you. Then, when you had made your choice, the unchosen alternatives would nag at you forever, leaving you with the residual thoughts of what might have been.

You also end up with an escalation of expectation. With a thousand choices, one of them must surely be perfect? And if it isn’t, we tend to blame ourselves. ‘How could I not find the right ad/puppy/religion out of so many alternatives? I am indeed an arsebrained idiot.’

Humans actually prefer to have less choice. It leaves them happier, and the outcome is usually just as successful.

But is this the case in modern day advertising? Of course not. Many clients will always want and expect more routes because it means their agencies are working even harder for the money they pay them, and that makes Johnny Q. Client feel all warm inside.

And now agencies are so scared of losing accounts that they will do whatever it takes to keep the business, no matter how many vertebrae they put out by bending over so far.

So we have a a vicious circle of more routes, less satisfaction and attempt to cure that dissatisfaction with still more routes.

If anyone fancies jumping off the merry-go-round, science will back you up.