I hope it reignites a passion for behavioural economics: Review of Richard Shotton's 'The Illusion of Choice'

I hope it reignites passion for behavioural economics: Review of Shotton’s ‘The Illusion of Choice’

VCCP Media strategist Steve Taylor reviews Richard Shotton’s latest book on the overlap between behavioural psychology and marketing and economics.


Richard Shotton is back with another behavioural economics masterclass. In The Illusion of Choice: 16½ Psychological Biases That Influence What We Buy he repeats the formula that worked so well in his previous book The Choice Factory. In each of the eighteen highly accessible chapters an irrational bias in our behaviour is demonstrated against a real world context, the scientific research around the bias is covered and the bias explained, followed by some practical advice as to how marketers might apply the knowledge to their brand’s advantage.

Oh, did I say eighteen chapters? Well, there’s your bonus. And when you’ve read the book, you’ll be able to confidently quote the science around how the idea of a bonus works and whether it’s best to couch it as a proportion or an absolute number — here’s a clue: as with much in the marketing world, BIGGER is BETTER.

The book is a treasure trove of wonderfully articulated ideas which are very neatly linked to marketing. There’s never too much detail, and never not enough; rather just the right amount of scientific evidence is offered such that the points made are convincing yet comprehensible and not overly academic. It really is perfectly pitched. Full disclosure, my undergraduate degree was in Social Psychology (which is what Behavioural Economics used to be called when we still lived in caves) so I’ve probably got some biases of my own as to the relevance, importance and usefulness of this stuff. OK, I admit it. I’m a fan!

My biases aside, I am certain that you too will find The Illusion of Choice a page turner — if you can imagine a marketing book being such a thing.

The book follows an unnamed person through their working day and looks at some of the choices they make in that context. Really, very little is made of this literary device, it appears only briefly at the start of each chapter. And probably just as well, or I fear it would have become laboured.

Each chapter stands alone rather than building on the previous ones, so you could easily dip in and out of them in any order; picking and choosing the ones most relevant. And if you’re in a tearing hurry or just looking up a specific concept, you should. But at under 200 pages it’s a pithy, punchy book that doesn’t hang about or outstay its welcome and I’d heartily recommend simply reading it cover to cover in one or two sittings; as I did.

I hope The Illusion of Choice reignites a passion for behavioural economics in the industry. It was 2009 when Rory Sutherland was IPA president and every other person on the train was reading Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. Shotton’s book is more accessible than Nudge. The Illusion of Choice is peppered with examples, and even experiments, in advertising and marketing and, moreover, much of the work and research discussed is UK-based.

So the content is highly relevant and should appeal to any UK CMO or brand manager who’s just worked their way through Spare and is wondering what to read next. Let’s hope some not only read The Illusion of Choice, but also take heed of its advice.

Chapter 5, The Keats heuristic, discusses how communications can use rhetorical devices like rhyme to boost believability and make ads more memorable at the same time. It’s a tactic that was regularly employed in a bygone era of advertising that gave us “We all adore a Kia-Ora”, “You only get an oo with Typhoo” and “Beanz Meanz Heinz”.

Elsewhere the benefit of using humour in advertising is explained. Still elsewhere a robust case is made for using concrete concepts to persuade; “1000 songs in your pocket” rather than the abstract “Find your happy”.

And as Shotton explains, with oodles of evidence to support his point, clear and simple language is far more powerfully persuasive than language which is complex and flowery.

Yet much of our marketing today focuses on abstract purpose, with intelligent sounding and fancy but unconvincing, pretty meaningless language. No humour. No clever rhetorical device. Just a sea of increasingly ineffectual sameness.

The antidote to all that is laid bare in The Illusion of Choice. If your job is in marketing or advertising, you’d do well to read it and apply some of it.

But, of course, it’s your choice.


Steve Taylor is joint chief strategy officer at VCCP Media.

Be on the lookout for an upcoming interview with Richard Shotton in Series 2 of The Media Leader Podcast. The Illusion of Choice: 16½ psychological biases that influence what we buy, is due to publish on 28 March.

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