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The psychology of event sponsorship

by Adrian Segar

The following story by Vaughn Bell on a recent change to the DSM “psychiatric bible” shines light on a fundamental but little known reason why smart companies sponsor events that have a bearing on the products or services they supply. Event sponsorship is usually marketed as a way for a sponsor to increase visibility, image, prestige and credibility with a target audience, differentiate the company from competitors, help to develop closer and better relationships with customers, and showcase sponsor offerings and capabilities. Yet we’ve known for over five decades that gift-giving activities like sponsorship change recipients behavior in ways that they’re not aware of. Read on:

angelgriefOne of the most controversial changes to the recently finalised DSM-5 diagnostic manual was the removal of the ‘bereavement exclusion’ from the diagnosis of depression – meaning that someone could be diagnosed as depressed even if they’ve just lost a loved one.

The Washington Post has been investigating the financial ties of those on the committee and, yes, you guessed it:

Eight of 11 members of the APA committee that spearheaded the change reported financial connections to pharmaceutical companies — either receiving speaking fees, consultant pay, research grants or holding stock, according to the disclosures filed with the association. Six of the 11 panelists reported financial ties during the time that the committee met, and two more reported financial ties in the five years leading up to the committee assignment, according to APA records.

A key adviser to the committee — he wrote the scientific justification for the change — was the lead author of the 2001 study on Wellbutrin, sponsored by GlaxoWellcome, showing that its antidepressant Wellbutrin could be used to treat bereavement…

The association also appointed an oversight panel that declared that the recommendations had been free of bias, but most of the members of the “independent review panel” had previous financial ties to the industry.

Actually, it’s kind of sad that this isn’t a surprise, but perhaps more worrying is the fact that the chairman of the mood disorders panel that made the change, Jan Fawcett, doesn’t seem to understand bias.

“I don’t think these connections create any bias at all,” Fawcett said. “People can say we were biased. But it assumes we have no intelligence of our own.”

Fawcett is assuming that bias means ‘dishonesty’ where people deliberately make choices for their own advantage against what they know to be a better course of action, or ‘sloppiness’ where people don’t fully think through the issue.

But bias, as you can find out from picking up any social psychology paper from the past century, is where incentives change our behaviour usually without us having insight into the presence or effect of the influencer.

This is exemplified in the work of Dan Ariely or the work that won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize.

So when someone says, “I don’t think these connections create any bias” it means – ‘I’m not willing to think about the bias that these connections create’ which is a red flag that they won’t be recognised or addressed.
A depressing financial justification by Vaughn Bell

From the Middle East merchant who invites you into his shop for coffee before a sale is even discussed, to the Italian winemaker who plies you with her wines to taste before she graciously shows you what a dozen bottles would cost to be shipped back home (yes, this happened to me recently), most cultures learned long ago the power of giving gifts to change behavior.

What is interesting to me is that Western cultures, believing in the supremacy of our minds over our emotions—”the rider over the elephant” as Daniel Kahneman puts it—discount the effects that sponsorship can have on our hearts and subsequent decisions. I sincerely thank the myriads of event sponsors who have often made my time at events easier and more pleasant, while acknowledging their influence on my future consulting recommendations and purchasing choices. As Bell points out, people who believe their intelligence will protect them against the ways our brains actually work are fooling themselves. Meanwhile, the smart sponsor smiles and continues to be generous.

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  • http://twitter.com/williamevents William Thomson

    Hi Adrian, I read thinking fast and slow this month. there are a lot of great insights for organisers and a great connection to sponsorship. It’s a must read.

    • http://www.segar.com Adrian Segar

      I agree William – I recommend everyone read it. You’ll never think the same way again about your ability to make “rational” choices.

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