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How’dja Hear About Us? Advertising’s Chinese Finger Trap

Johnny Molson


Surely you can identify “how you first heard about them.” Except… you can’t.


“Thank you for calling Snapnpop Chiropractic”
“I’m in pain. I need an appointment.”
“I’ll be happy to help you, sir. But first, I need you to take our marketing survey. Where did you hear about us?”
“I need an appointment. Now!”
“Facebook, billboard, Google, or radio?”
“It hurts!”
“TV, Yellow Pages, bus bench sign, or word of mouth?”


You are fortunate enough to have a customer ready to give you money, but you refuse to let them do that until they take your pathetic attempt at a marketing survey. Should they capitulate, they will answer wrong.

It’s a reasonable assumption. Ask people how they heard about you, and it will determine whether your ads are working. Except… it won’t. There are several reasons why this method is flawed. First, our decisions are not made in a silo. Our decisions are made up of multiple factors. A friend’s recommendation, plus your sign by the road, plus a post card in the mail, plus the cleanliness of your office, plus the manners of your receptionist… and about 178,241 other unseen forces.

In the Nisbett and Wilson study from The University of Michigan, they reviewed multitudes of “Why did you decide…” surveys spanning several decades. Surveys like “Why did you choose a detergent,” “Why did you choose to move to a new home,” “Why did you choose a candidate,” or “Why did you get married/divorced?” The findings were profound. “Subjects are sometimes (a) unaware of a stimulus that importantly influenced a response, (b) unaware of the existence of the response, and (c) unaware that the stimulus has affected the response.”

In other words, people didn’t know there was a stimulus (your ad), they didn’t realize they acted in a certain way (became your customer), and had no idea your ad caused them to choose your product or service.

The last time you went to Target, bought a Coke, or purchased a Toyota… how did you hear about them? What ad on what day in what medium finally tripped your trigger? They spend hundreds of millions of dollars more in marketing than you ever will. Surely you can identify “how you first heard about them.” Except… you can’t.

I have seen dozens of those marketing surveys saying they saw an ad on TV, when not a dime was spent on TV. I have received job applications only advertised on radio, and the applicant would swear on a Bible he applied through

The greatest danger is stopping a campaign that is just starting to work. The campaign is just starting to get its hooks in and you pull it because you didn’t like the answers on the survey. Incredibly foolish and incredibly inefficient.

Choose something to measure (profits, web hits, phone calls, etc) and measure it. If they are going up, you are probably doing many things right, including your advertising. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to pinpoint whether an ad caused a purchase. Top psychologists cannot do it. Neither can you.

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