Over the course of its long history, Guinness has put toucans, penguins, whales, and mudskippers in its legendary ads. In its latest campaign, the brewer enlists an additional exotic creature: the evolutionary psychologist.
Late last month, Robin Dunbar, an Oxford professor whose ideas about human sociality are influential in Silicon Valley, appeared in a series of special prime time spots in the U.K. The ads rely on a cultural trope that is familiar to viewers of American beer commercials: the happiness and bonding that come with beer-soaked male fraternizing. These ads don’t set out to evoke that phenomenon. They set out to prove it, with Dunbar as the voice of scientific authority.
The “Round Up Your Mates” ads seek to protect the age-old practice of communal drinking from the atomizing menace of texting, tweeting, and other forms of electronic communication. Comedian and actor Danny Wallace, in one of the spots, puts it succinctly: “Science says: Have more fun together, do more stuff.”
In another of the spots, Dunbar designs a “social experiment” to prove the point. He and Wallace get a group of friends to play video-game soccer with one another, each sitting at home communicating by headset. Then the group plays in a real five-per-side soccer match, which they win in dramatic fashion. The mates fill out surveys after both the video and real matches to report on how bonded they feel.
While this project does yield an official-looking data graph, it doesn’t qualify as an experiment in any scientific sense of the word. The sample size is tiny, and there’s no control group to prove that the difference in self-reported chumminess wasn’t due to any number of confounding variables. It could be that playing on a real in-person team brings people closer than sitting at home yelling into a headset—that wouldn’t be a shock—but Dunbar and Wallace’s experiment doesn’t really rule out the possibility that simply winning the game accounts for the effect. Or being outside, rather than inside. Or running around and getting those endorphins pumping, instead of sitting on a couch. As experiments go, this is not the sort of thing Dunbar would ever try to publish.
The Round Up Your Mates campaign isn’t the first in recent history to hire a prominent psychologist to design an “experiment” to sell something. In a commercial that aired during the last Super Bowl, Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor and best-selling author who has done groundbreaking work on happiness, ran something called “the Stickers Experiment” for Prudential (PRU). On a 1100-square-foot wall with a scale of numbers along the top, he had people affix a large, round sticker next to the age of the oldest person they’d known. The point was to show how much longer people are living today, past the official retirement age, and how much retirement savings they would therefore need. Despite the fact that—as with an experiment—a graph results, this isn’t an experiment, either. It’s just the graph part.
There’s nothing new about ads that enlist medical and scientific authorities. Dramatic commercial stunts that borrow from the methods of science are at least as old as the Pepsi Challenge. Still, these new scientificish ads seem very of the moment. Ever since Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point began its long and continuing reign atop the bestseller lists, social science has exploded out of academe and into popular culture. And plenty of working behavioral scientists, Gilbert and Dunbar among them, have gotten into the pop-science game themselves. The fact that we’re now seeing ads structured as social experiments only drives home the fact that the experiment has become a narrative trope, one that now extends far beyond books.
Even Gladwell’s critics, who point out all the ways he simplifies or stretches findings, concede that he is a master of deploying the social science experiment as a storytelling device. He has essentially invented a new form the way Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story. As Gladwell has admitted, the point is as much to entertain people as to inform them. The approach has sold millions of books and helped launch such franchises as TED, whose talks are like Malcolm Gladwell books—only shorter and with laser pointers.
In Gladwell’s work and that of his many imitators, studies don’t just generate data, they have messages about how to be happier, less error-prone, and more creative. In other words, they are like advertisements. Corporations pay tens of thousands of dollars a pop to get bestselling authors to come tell them what science can do to help their bottom line; enlisting social scientists to sell products directly is simply cutting out a step. Rather than mining the behavioral science literature for tips on how to increase beer consumption or retirement savings, companies simply get the researchers to show people they need to engage in Guinness-friendly socializing or buy the sort of financial products Prudential provides. Simplified behavioral science sells lots and lots of books. Why not beer?