Charles Duhigg, a reporter for the New York Times, is writing a book The Power of Habit. A recent excerpt appeared on Slate which twists the wonderful world of advertising into the realities of human habit. Duhigg talks of 1900s businessman Claude C. Hopkins, a man who could sell anything to anyone. Hopkins was an age removed from the beloved, but fictional, Don Draper. Nevertheless he drilled into human habits to sell Pepsodent toothpaste. Hopkins codified the cycle of habit (cue, routine, reward) which is the backbone of modern advertising.
Today, Hopkins is almost totally forgotten. He shouldn’t be. Hopkins was among the first to elucidate principles that even now influence how video games are designed, public health campaigns are managed and that explain why some people effortlessly exercise every morning, while others can’t pass a box of doughnuts without automatically grabbing a jelly-filled cruller.
All habits—no matter how large or small—have three components, according to neurological studies. There’s a cue—a trigger for a particular behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward, which is how your brain decides whether to remember a habit for the future. When Hopkins identified tooth film, he found a cue that had existed for eons. Moreover, the reward that Hopkins was promising was hard to resist. Who doesn’t want a prettier smile? Particularly when all it takes is a quick brush with Pepsodent?
Unlike other toothpastes of that period, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other relatively exotic chemicals. Pepsodent’s inventor had used those ingredients to make his toothpaste taste minty and to make sure the paste wouldn’t become gluey as it sat on shelves.
But those chemicals had another, unanticipated effect as well: They’re irritants that create a tingling sensation on the tongue and gums.
When researchers at competing companies started interviewing customers, they found that people said that if they forgot to use Pepsodent, they realized their mistake because they missed that cool, tingling sensation in their mouths. They expected—they craved—that slight irritation. If it wasn’t there, their mouths didn’t feel clean.
Claude Hopkins, it turns out, wasn’t selling beautiful teeth. He was selling a sensation. Once people craved that cool tingling—once they equated it with cleanliness—brushing became a habit.
Studies indicate that anyone can use this basic formula to create habits of her or his own. Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.
“Consumers need some kind of signal that a product is working,” Tracy Sinclair, who was a brand manager for Oral- B and Crest Kids Toothpaste, told me. “We can make toothpaste taste like anything—blueberries, green tea—and as long as it has a cool tingle, people feel like their mouth is clean. The tingling doesn’t make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people it’s doing the job.”
Sensation is an integral driving factor in human interaction. Whether the sensation is of sparkling clean teeth or filmy dirty ones it only takes a physical cue to either drive us to action, or soak in our rewards. We are delighted and disgusted beings.