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Ads should help folks have fun

Opinion, 08 September 2010

Fun and happiness, partly because of their scarcity, are hot topics. Today life is hard, in new ways. In addition to the economic downturn, people experience life as TOO fast, TOO complex, and TOO competitive. Everyone is rushed. Everyone is pulled in many directions.

This hardness of life can all too often push away the experience of fun and happiness. But people want some fun in their lives. And, of course, Americans are always in the pursuit of happiness.

When folks are having fun they feel they can let their hair down and put aside their inhibitions. Marketers rarely talk about fun directly, but in designing digital offerings that promise an “experience,” or when focused on building customer relationships, the covert subtext of most advertising should be aimed at creating the feeling of fun.

As a cognitive anthropologist working in marketing and consumer decision making, I recently completed three projects – for a cruise line, for a sporting goods line, and for a refreshment beverage - that uncovered some key aspects about peoples’ experience of fun.


  1. NEW

    A key word in the experience of fun is “new.” People often have fun when having new experiences, learning new things, meeting new people.


    To have fun requires going beyond the routine or familiar, to meet what people call, “something extra.” Surprise (something new) and the unexpected (something not habitual) contribute to a feeling of the non-ordinary.


    To have fun people need a sense of “becoming,” wherein nothing is pre-scripted and the end is unknown at the beginning; here there is an unfolding and an exploration.

  4. NO

    Fun often requires the absence of things. In this case, NO analyzing, doubting, pressure to conform, pretense, restrictions, judgment.


    Choice and independence are undercurrents of fun. People interpret this as doing what one wants, when one wants, and doing it at one’s own pace (“finding your own rhythm”), without any external demands. This is often called “Me-Time,” which people now deem a luxury.



Relief (minimizing loss) and satisfaction (maximizing gain) are experienced differently and are, in fact, represented by different neurological activity patterns.

If I like a product or an activity and buy (or pursue) it because its attributes meet my interests, I can be relieved to have it. However, if I feel that having a product or engaging in an activity reflects my identity and expands my latent expressions of self, a certain relationship develops with that product/brand or activity. It is that relationship that makes me happy and that I experience as fun.

People feel happy not when a product or a store demonstrates an understanding of the consumer as a purchasing process, but when the marketer authentically displays an understanding of who the consumer is as a person.

Understanding a person as an identity is different than explaining them as a consumer, as a demographic unit. At best the former generates “liking” while the latter establishes “attachment.” While I can like a transaction, I am happiest in a relationship when having fun.

In a relationship, people talk about feeling “truly alive,” of “turning on a different brain.” This can only occur when marketers seek not only to make magic, but to make magic fun.

Fun is a magical thing. You can find the “YOU” in fun. People are intrinsically drawn to such an experience.

So come on marketers, think “fun”, and people will follow your brand more often.

About the author

From contributing to Military Review ("The Droning of Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy", Sept/Oct 2009), Joint Force Quarterly magazines ("Ambassadors to the World", Jan 2010), to speaking to the USG Intragency Committee of Strategic Communications (published in Vital Speeches of the Day, December 2009) to portraying a college professor in a McDonald's commercial, cognitive anthropologist Dr. Bob Deutsch breaks the mould.

The founder and president of consulting firm Brain Sells (, Boston, MA, Bob has worked in the primeval forest and on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues.  His focus, since the mid-'70s, when he was living with pre-literate tribes and chimpanzees, has been to understand how leading ideas take hold in cultures.

Since opening Brain Sells, in 1990, he has applied this understanding to how people attach to products, persons and performances.  He is fond of saying, "Reasoned judgment about attributes is not the issue.  The brain evolved to act, NOT to think." Brain Sells' retail clients include: TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Home Goods, Radio Shack, Sephora, Verizon stores, McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, and Toyota.

You can count on the good Dr. for one to two posts monthly.

You can link to his website He should soon have a blog to link to as well.