The availability heuristic, sharks & your marketing

The Availability Heuristic, Sharks, and Your Marketing

Awareness advertising hacks the brain - and unless you have extremely deep pockets, it won’t work for you. 

What an opening line for a blog! Why would I say something so controversial and yet so brave? That’s because today we’re talking all things availability heuristic: 

  • What it is 

  • How it impacts you and your marketing 

  • How advertising companies use it 

  • What it has to do with sharks 

  • What to do about it 


Sharks? Yes, young padawan. Sharks. 

But first, What is the is the availability heuristic? 

The availability heuristic is an individual's likelihood to estimate the frequency of an event, or its occurrence “by the ease with which the instances or associations come to mind”. (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973). 

In other words, the brain labels information that is more easy to recall as being “more important”. 

A cognitive bias? Not quite. 

Here is a good example of how people conflate this in the pop psychology that trickles down to marketing. 

The availability heuristic is precisely that - a heuristic. A heuristic is a rule set the brain uses. This rule set can lead to mistakes. The mistakes themselves are the cognitive biases. But the rule set is not a bias. 

And herein lies the first bug bear - the availability heuristic is not a cognitive bias, it’s a mechanism that is used by the brain to recall and label information. It causes lots of different cognitive biases to happen! 

You may have heard me get on my little soapbox (I need it, I’m short) - more than once about the ethics of manipulating biases in marketing. This is a great case in point for why a little bit ofi information can be dangerous and lead to silly mistakes in marketing where you waste a lot of money. 

The availability heuristic means that easy to recall information is over indexed in importance. But what does that actually mean?

How the availability heuristic impacts marketing  

Another definition I enjoy is “The availability heuristic refers to the tendency to form a judgement on the basis of what is readily brought to mind” (Medin and Ross, 1997). 

This takes us down a really important path. Judgement. When we start to form a judgement and make a decision, we rarely pull all information we have from memory, instead we stop our internal search when we have ‘enough’ information to “make a judgement with subjective certainty” (Schwarz and Vaughn). 

When we think of options to choose from, how easily we pull examples of each influences what we choose. 

Big brands can take advantage of this. The likes of Nike, BMW, Mercedes and Apple are fantastic examples of this.

They put a billboard up with a beautiful picture, not much copy and make sure to have that all over a city. We see the images repeatedly, and because we see them more often we like them more. This use of the availability heuristic leads to a bias called the Mere Exposure Effect. 

Just being repeatedly exposed to something we form a liking (or diskling) to it (Zajonk, 1960 - 1990). The peak of liking a stimuli (or an ad) is seeing it 10 to 20 times (Bronstein 1989). 

This is awareness advertising in a nutshell. Awareness advertising is showing up and “making people aware”. So if you have deep pockets, and can afford to consistently show up - and secure that familiarity… you might win. 

But you might not! Because as hinted to earlier, your consumers might dislike it too. As Bornstein showed, repetitions can reduce favour. Just showing up isn’t enough. And for smaller brands (ie the rest of us), it’s a waste of time and money. 

Just ask sharks about their favourable opinion.

Sharks and the Availability Heuristic

Sharks have had a rough time. The impact of shark attacks has significantly skewed whether or not we think of sharks as dangerous. 

The fantastic illustration by Emily Roberts (verywell) sums it up perfectly. 

Credit - Emily Roberts, Verywell

You know what you should be more afraid of? Air freshener. In 1996 there were 13 shark attacks worldwide. But air freshener and its nefarious shenanigans injured 2600 people. 

The real killer lurks in your bathroom…

What should we do about the availability heuristic?  

 For more realistic marketing budgets, the opportunity lies in helping your audience. You might not have the budget to interrupt your audience on a day to day basis, but you do have the budget to show up when they need help. 

Meet your audience where they are. When they have a problem, they will turn to the internet for help. And that amigo, is your opportunity. 

Search intent will help you understand what your audience is interested in, and what’s a problem. Work to understand their awareness journey, and show up to help consistently along the way. 

That helps cement you in memory in very much the same way big brands do. And means you did it ethically.

Who knew that being good to audience could also be profitable 😉 

What to do next 

You might not have the big bucks that will allow you to campaign in the ways that the household name brands do. But, you do have a way to make an impact. And, even if you do have the money, does reaping the benefits by marketing in a way that is ethically correct make those benefits even better? Yes, I think so.

While money is a large part of the game we all have to play, it isn’t the be all and end all of your marketing efforts.

If you’re wanting to show up and help your audience, take a look at some of our resources below:

Creating a behavioural content plan

Awareness stages worksheet

How to create strategic lead magnets

The ugly truth about cognitive bias

If you have any questions about what you've read here today, or anything related to buyer psychology or nailing your marketing automation - click the button below to book a call with a Ninja and we'll get some marketing magic underway!  

Plan for desired behaviour with marketing automation
how to plan strategic content for your marketing automation
Behavioural progressive profiling - Drive demand generation