It’s fair to assume that the chances of dying of a shark attack are greater than dying from a coconut hitting you on the head, but the truth of the matter is that the latter is 30 times more likely to kill you. Not surprisingly, there is far more news coverage of shark attacks, so, voila, we think they’re more common. This is called “the availability heuristic.”
The true power of news coverage is how it impacts the way humans process information and make judgments; it’s a mental shortcut that our brains naturally take where we assume that when a brand is mentioned frequently, it’s automatically more important, more “valuable”, just because it’s been included.
The “availability heuristic” shortcut trades on the idea that when someone easily recalls a brand’s attributes, then it must be important or more worthy than others that are not as readily recalled or discussed. In short, people will assign more value to a brand “everyone is talking about,” with no real understanding or proof of its inherent value.
Not only do we assign greater value to higher quantities of press mentions, but the availability heuristic can significantly tilt people’s opinions of brands based on the most recent information in the press, even if this runs counter to earlier perceptions. This means new discoveries and opinions about a brand can outweigh a person’s historical perception of that brand.
You’ve surely heard the famous Will Rogers line, “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.” This is true, at least in part, due to the power of the availability heuristic.
Another aspect of the availability heuristic is “recall,” which presumes the brand that is easiest to recall or that’s there in front of you at a given moment, is in fact the best, even when that brand is not exactly what we want or need. It’s like that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the car salesman tries to convince Clark Griswald (Chevy Chase) that because the “Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon” he ordered wasn’t in yet, that maybe the “Wagon Queen Family Truckster” they already have in stock is really the car for him. Why? Because it’s there, ready to drive off the lot. Even when it’s not the car we ordered, our brains (or in this case the salesman) actually try to convince us that the one that is available is more valuable.
While people believe they are making impartial judgments about brands, their unconscious perceptions take over.
Given this human tendency, media coverage can make or break a brand simply by appealing to our unconscious mind. The reality is that each media ‘hit’ isn’t a standalone occurrence, it’s actually a jumping off point for a broader social amplification strategy that can achieve true ubiquity. Since availability is the active ingredient that makes media placements powerful, strategic communications practitioners worth their salt should realize that the social psychology of ubiquity is what actually impacts your business. Happy pitching!