Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Project Architeuthis was an online alternative reality game (ARG). Its players had to help a US Navy cryptographer; Maria, by solving puzzles and deciphering new codes almost every day for 18 days. What most people didn't realise, was that Project Architeuthis was also a job advert for the post of a US navy cryptologist. The advert was extremely successful, won two shorty awards, cost zero dollars, and tapped into a whole community.

Project Architeuthis is a fantastic example of a successful native ad i.e. an ad disguised to match the feel and format of its platform, in this case, an ARG interactive gameplay.  It is also  interactive and adopts a micro-targeted approach
Fig 1. Micro-targetting

The customised nature of micro-target ads (Agan 2007) is evident. It is aimed at a very niche audience: ARG players and delivered in their preferred medium: an online alternative reality game. Due to the specialist nature of the job, identifying and subsequently targeting  the psychographics of their desired audience not only helped to increase the effectiveness of the ad but also contributed to the recruitment process. Whilst the general effectiveness of micro-targeting is indisputable, its limitations include missing potential candidates. For, example this ad would have failed to reach experienced cryptographers who don't play ARG. 

Research shows that how information is presented affects  how people react to it (Loftus and palmer 1974) and delivering this ad through their targets audiences’ preferred medium increased the chances of them interacting with it. Fortunately, the preferred medium for ARG players - gaming, is also very interactive.

Fig 2: Producer scrounger dynamic:
 it is more rewarding to be a scrounger
 when there are many produces and 
vice versa 
Adopting a game format, was both novel and interactive. There were new puzzles and codes to decipher almost every day for 18 days.The idea of advertising for cryptographers through deciphering codes is not new e.g. cryptography jobs have been advertised as codes to be deciphered in newspapers. The decision to adopt an already existing method for advertising can actually serve as  an example of the scrounger producer dynamic (Barnard & Sibley, 1981) in real life. The scrounger producer dynamic is essentially the idea that it is more beneficial to be a producer when there are many scroungers and vice versa. In this case, producing will involve designing a new way to recruit cryptographers and scrounging will involve using an existing method as was the case in project Architeuthis. Due to the specialist nature and skill set associated with cryptography, many advertisers and recruiters do not use puzzles and codes to advertise their jobs. Thereby, implying that tthere are fewer scroungers in this system so, the payoff for being a scrounger and using an already existing advert idea as the basis of project Architeuthis is greater than the cost of developing a completely new way to advertise a cryptography job.   

Having the game available for only 18 days also played a role in the success of the ad. Evidence suggests that novel campaigns available for short periods of time are extremely effective (Cowpe, 1989) as they grab attention and avoid the negative effects of overexposure. So, by having the game available for a short period of time, gamers' interests were held and they continued to interact with the ad. 

The nature of the game also served multiple purposes:
  • One of the psychographics of ARG players was that they were very communal, 53.3% of female and 39.4 % of male gamers had better VRG friends than real world friends  according to a study by Yee (2006). This worked to the advertisers advantage and allowed them tap into a whole community of gamers.
  • Project Architeuthis also brought people together and created a whole new community of  project Architeuthis players. This had great implications for the US Navy brand as it was then known for bringing together Brains and not just brawn. Something it was not particularly known for.
  • The story line of the game imitated the job it was advertising and this allowed the advert to  serve as part of the recruitment process. Recruiters could see and assess the players’ cryptography skills and their approaches e.g. solving alone or in a group to determine how well they would fit the job requirements.
  • Playing the game was also an experience. It was about gamers having the experience of what its like to be a cryptographer, not just giving them information about the job opportunity. Experiences have been shown to make people happier than material things and enjoying the experience made the players more likely to keep interacting with the ad.
  • The tasks gradually got more difficult  and this created a “foot in door” phenomenon. The idea is that due to successive approximations people are more likely do more difficult tasks, if they complete easier tasks first. This phenomenon is supported by Stanley Milgrams (1963) electric shock experiment. In this case, the players kept interacting with the ad because the puzzles started of easy and gradually got more difficult and complex. Kind of, like candy crush.
  • For successful individuals it could also have served as a source of inoculation for when they started the job. Being able to complete increasingly difficult tasks might have increased their self-efficacy on the job (McGuire & Papageorgis, 1961).
  • The story line also involved them interacting with another cryptographer. Hence, creating the “chameleoneffect” where the people start imitating those they are interacting with (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Without realizing it, the gamers would have started to think like cryptographers and this would have increased their emotional investment in the game and ad (Yee, 2006).
  • The combined emotional, cognitive and temporal investments would then have increased the likelihood of the players continually interacting with the ad due to sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion.

Sunk Cost Fallacy, Loss aversion and Interactive Ads
The success of interactive ads,  can be linked to loss aversion and sunk cost fallacy. When people invest their time/energy in interacting with the ad, they are more likely to keep investing more time/money especially if there is a small increment (foot in door).

Loss aversion is people's predisposition to avoiding losses because losses are psychologically more powerful than the equivalent gains. It is a key part of the Prospect theory and was first shown by Kahneman & Tversky, 1979. In this Ad, the players will keep interacting by playing the game because the thought of loosing all their investment is too psychologically stressful.

Fig 3: Losses are psychologically more valuable
than gains and people will try toavoid them.
(Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) 
Sunk cost like emotional, cognitive or temporal investments, can not be refined so, the need to prevent loss creates a cognitive dissonance. This dissonance is relieved by the sunk cost fallacy, which is when people continue to invest in order to avoid the loss of the sunk cost. This effect was shown by Arkes and Blumer (1985). They found that 85% of students were likely to invest in a project that had prior investment but only 17% of them were likely to invest in the same project when it it lacked prior investment.

Fig 4: Sunk cost fallacy

In the case of project Architeuthis the sunk cost was the time, emotional and cognitive investments made by the gamer. Sunk Cost fallacy meant that they continued playing the game irrespective of how challenging it got because they wanted to avoid the time and emotions they had invested from feeling like a waste. 
The effects of Sunk cot fallacy and Lost aversion not only increased the likelihood of players continually interacting with the ad but also the probability of them accepting the Job that was being advertised.

Some research suggests that interactive advertising is not always as efficient as traditional methods (Bezjian-Avery, Calder & Iacobucci, 1998), this is not an issue for this interactive ad. The success of this ad saw it being covered by over 34 traditional and non-traditional media mediums. 
This ad can be considered successful in the sense that it created awareness of the job and encouraged interaction. However, its suitability as a job advert is questionable. Some gamers spend up to 40 hours a week gaming and many reported being addicted (Yee, 2006) and might not be interested in the job. Also, non successful gamers who could not afford to invest as much time gaming could have been lost. Arguably without the knowledge that it was for a job recruitment, there would have been no incentive for gamers or people interested in the job to keep playing. 
Yee (2006) findings, which is supported by the sunk cost fallacy and loss incentive explanations argue that ARG players, might not  require incentives to keep playing, as they develop their own self-based motivations for playing the game. Yee also suggest that ARG skills are quite transferable, hence supporting the appropriateness of Project Architeuthis as a cryptography advert.

They target the ideal individuals and encourage them to invest in the product. Background research into the demographics and suitability of the ad, is also very important the choosing and designing them but micro-target  and interactive adverts might definitely be the way forward for effective advertisement.

Agan, T. (2007). Silent Marketing: Micro-targeting. Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates.
Arkes, H. R., & Blumer, C. (1985). The psychology of sunk cost. Organizational behavior and human decision processes35(1), 124-140.
Barnard, C. J., & Sibly, R. M. (1981). Producers and scroungers: a general model and its application to captive flocks of house sparrows. Animal behaviour, 29(2), 543-550.
Bezjian-Avery, A., Calder, B., & Iacobucci, D. (1998). New media interactive advertising vs. traditional advertising. Journal of advertising research, 38, 23-32.
Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(6), 893.
Cowpe, C. (1989) ‘Chip pan fire prevention 1976–1988’, in C. Channer (ed.) Television Advertising Case Histories, 2nd edn, London: Cassell)
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica: Journal of the econometric society, 263-291.
Lee, A. E., Ounsley, J. P., Coulson, T., Rowcliffe, J. M., & Cowlishaw, G. (2016, February). Information use and resource competition: an integrative framework. In Proc. R. Soc. B (Vol. 283, No. 1825, p. 20152550). The Royal Society.
Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1996). Eyewitness testimony. In Introducing Psychological Research (pp. 305-309). Macmillan Education UK.
McGuire, W. J., & Papageorgis, D. (1961). The relative efficacy of various types of prior belief-defense in producing immunity against persuasion. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62(2), 327.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67(4), 371.
Yee, N. (2006). The psychology of massively multi-user online role-playing games: Motivations, emotional investment, relationships and problematic usage. In Avatars at work and play (pp. 187-207). Springer Netherlands.

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