Two years ago I got a different cell phone, with a new number. I had trouble remembering it until my wife pointed out that it’s composed of the month and year that I turned twelve, the year I graduated high school, and the year I was born. Since then, I’ve never forgotten it.

This is an excellent example of how memory works. In order for any new information to stick when it hits our minds, we associate the new with something we already know. All successful memorization is associative.

So is all decision making, which is an important point for advertisers. Each person’s opinion is built upon what she’s already accepted as fact, and can retrieve from memory.

Sometimes she will accept new information and come to a new conclusion, which appears to contradict the earlier opinion. It doesn’t. The old opinion was based on the old information. The new opinion is based on additional information that complements the old.

And when she is presented with new information that contradicts the old? She refuses to accept it. This does not compute. It must be a lie. As marketing guru Al Ries said in his recent Advertising Age article, The Sad And Unnecessary Decline Of Saturn:

When you believe in something, what you generally do when faced with facts that seem to contradict your beliefs is to fault the execution, not the strategy.

Conventional wisdom dies hard. You can defend any strategy by pointing out flaws in its execution.

In other words, I choose not to believe what you’re telling me.

This is the primary reason it becomes pointless to argue politics, religion, or new advertising campaigns.

As advertising practitioners, the key point is: people refuse to accept any new information that contradicts their existing beliefs. Those beliefs become a big filter for new ideas.

We call this big filter the Personal Experience Factor. When the new advertising campaign didn’t work, did the ad fail because people don’t know about Mr. Advertiser? Or because they do?

Every contact Miss Customer has with Mr. Advertiser builds her Personal Experience Factor. Every new bit of information is filtered through that Personal Experience Factor. A lot of new information never makes it thorough the filter.

Mr. Advertiser makes claim of great customer service. Miss Customer hears claim, remembers her last visit to Mr. Advertiser’s business, and thinks bull stuff.

From that point on, not only will Mr. Advertiser’s claims fall on the deaf ears of Miss Customer, but she may well start sharing with her friends her personal experiences at the hands of Mr. Advertiser.

When I worked at a News/Talk radio station in Columbia, South Carolina, we had a staff of about 30, pretty much evenly divided between the genders. In the space of a few short months through three major news stories I saw first-hand how perception of the news was affected by people’s previous experiences.

  • The Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings had opinions divided according to gender. Without exception men believed him, women believed her.
  • Lorena Bobbit’s trial, and her subsequent acquittal, had all of the women in our office standing and cheering. Our female news director shouted “There IS justice.”
  • The O.J. Simpson verdict split the bias along racial lines. Whites believed him guilty. Blacks believed him to have been set up.

We all saw the same evidence. We came to different conclusions. Why? We all drew from different Personal Experiences as we weighed the evidence and made our conclusions.

When new evidence contradicts your Personal Experience, then the evidence must be a lie. When it reinforces your Personal Experience, it’s likely true.

Most women have had experiences with unwanted sexual advances. It’s easier for women to draw upon those experiences and say “That’s happened to me, just the way she described it. Most men have had, shall we say, more limited experiences in these areas. It’s harder for them to say “Could be true, because they’ve never shared that particular experience.

A great many black Americans have had the experience of being stopped for “driving while black,” or know someone who has. It’s not out of their realm of experience to imagine someone being profiled.

Most whites have never experienced the police automatically assuming them to be suspects. It’s harder for them to imagine the police pulling anyone over to ask what they’re doing in this neighborhood.

What experiences has your customer had in dealing with you? Should it surprise you that her perceptions are not yours?

Does she listen to you brag about your incredible selection while finding you don’t have anything in her size?

Does she drive all the way across town for your advertised special to find that limited to quantity in stock means you only had three at this price?

Does she hear all about your commitment to customer service while listing to the recorded on hold message as she waits 22 minutes for someone to help solve her problem?

Is your advertising failing because Miss Customer doesn’t know about you, Mr. Advertiser, or because she does?

One thing for sure, she won’t change her opinions about you until she starts having different personal experiences.

People not only won’t accept that which contradicts what they already believe, but they will also find reinforcement all around them for things they do choose to believe.

Here’s a quick non-scientific poll you can conduct among your friends.

First question: Who’s responsible for the mess in New Orleans?

Second question: How did you feel about this President before the hurricane?

Here’s my prediction: People who were fans of Mr. Bush prior to the advent of Hurricane Katrina will blame local authorities. They will be angry that New Orleans’ Mayor and Louisiana’s Governor have both criticized the President.

Those who were not fans of Mr. Bush before the disaster will use the apparent disorganization on a lack of planning at the Federal Level, and on the general ineptness of the Bush Administration. None of them will change their minds as more facts become available.