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Episode Transcript

Hello, my friends. I don’t always watch TV. But when I do, I see a lot of terrible commercials. Sometimes they’re sophomoric.

Clip from DORITOS 2015 COMMERCIAL : Hey, Ralph, can I have a Dorito? Sure, when pigs fly.

Sometimes they’re earnest.

Clip from LEXUS 2015 COMMERCIAL: It’s a golden opportunity to turn every ride into a thrill ride. This is the pursuit of perfection.

Sometimes the ads are just delusional.

Clip from OLD SPICE 2010 COMMERCIAL: Look again! The tickets are now diamond. Anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady. I’m on a horse.

Occasionally, you will catch a truly clever TV ad.

ACTOR 1 from APPLE 2010 COMMERCIAL: Hello, I’m a Mac.

ACTOR 2: And I’m a PC. [Sneezes.]

ACTOR 1: Gesundheit. You okay?

ACTOR 2: No. Last year there were 114,000 known viruses for PCs.

ACTOR 1: PCs — not Macs, so …

ACTOR 2: I think I gotta crash.

But almost never do you see one that’s actually interesting.

Daniel GILBERT: 65 years old. When that became the official retirement age back when my dad was a kid, life expectancy was about 61.

Almost never, I said. But not never never:

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Stickers Experiment Advertisement: Luckily, things have changed. To see how, we went out and asked people a simple question: How old is the oldest person you’ve known?

The ads I’m talking about feature a Harvard psychology professor named Dan Gilbert.

DUBNER: Hi, Dan Gilbert?

GILBERT: Dan Gilbert here, Stephen.

DUBNER: It’s very nice to make your acquaintance on the telephone line. I feel like I know you because I see you on TV like every 5 minutes.

The ads are interesting in part because they drop miniature bombs of academic research.

GILBERT: Psychologists would usually refer to “unrealistic optimism.”

And also because they feel weirdly authentic — I say “weirdly” because they are, after all, TV ads.

GILBERT: In these commercials, I’ve utterly been allowed to be myself. There’s not a single word in them that I don’t write.

And they’ve helped make Dan Gilbert famous — although for what, people aren’t always sure.

GILBERT: Yes. I get recognized on the street all the time. The most common recognition is, “Aren’t you some guy?” Next, it’s, “Aren’t you the guy who does the commercials for Fidelity? United Airlines?” Eventually, “Don’t you do those ads for Prudential?”

*      *      *

Dan Gilbert first got on my radar — and a lot of other people’s radar — with his book Stumbling on Happiness. Here are the first few sentences: “What would you do right now if you learned that you were going to die in ten minutes? Would you race upstairs and light that Marlboro you’ve been hiding in your sock drawer since the Ford administration? Would you waltz into your boss’s office and present him with a detailed description of his personal defects? Would you drive out to that steakhouse near the new mall and order a T-bone, medium rare, with an extra side of the really bad cholesterol?” Stumbling on Happiness was a plainspoken but potent blend of psychological insight and common sense. Gilbert went on to give some hugely popular TED Talks and do some stuff on TV — including a short PBS series called This Emotional Life. And he’s done all this despite having dropped out of high school.

GILBERT: I might even say because, rather than despite.

DUBNER: Do tell.

GILBERT: Yes, a checkered history. I have all the degrees except the high school diploma.

DUBNER: Why’d you drop out? Where were you living?

GILBERT: I grew up in Evanston, Illinois. My dad was a professor at Northwestern University. Somewhere around the age of 16, I had the epiphany that adults had very little to teach me that I wanted to know. My high school thought that was a pretty bad attitude. We had a parting of the ways. I left. I went hitchhiking around the country, playing my guitar, writing poetry, teaching myself philosophy. Ended up living in Denver, Colorado. I was a science-fiction writer as a matter of fact. I was starting to write and publish my science fiction. It occurred to me that without a high-school diploma I’d never learned about spelling or logical progression or other things a writer might want to know. I wandered down to the local community college to take a course in creative writing. By the time I got there, they said the course was full. It had been a very long bus ride. I said, “What’s open?” The nice lady looked down the list of open courses and said, “Psychology.” I thought, “Psychology’s not a bad thing for a writer, why don’t I try that?” The rest is dominoes falling. I got interested in the subject, and here I am.

DUBNER: Do you think that many, most, any of your psych students that you’ve taught at Harvard knew that you were a high school dropout?

GILBERT: They’re quicker with the Internet than I am. That’s probably out there on Wikipedia or someplace. If they have any interest in me whatsoever, they know all about my sordid past.

DUBNER: You’re the second person we’ve spoken with on this program in the last few months who taught for many years at Harvard and is also a high school dropout. Can you guess who the other one was?

GILBERT: I’m going to guess: Al Roth.

DUBNER: There you go, Al Roth. Very good.

GILBERT: I know that because when you get to Harvard, they do a little puff piece on you in the Gazette.

DUBNER: I thought you were going to say when you get to Harvard, they post a list of all the high school dropouts among the faculty.

GILBERT: No, but I said something in my first interview like, “I’m probably the only full professor at Harvard who dropped out of high school.” I got emails from the others and Al was one of them.

Stumbling on Happiness was published in 2006.

DUBNER: You write, quite explicitly, in the beginning of the book that Stumbling on Happiness is not a self-help book. This is not a guide to being happy, right? But I’m curious: do many people still read it looking for some a happiness formula?

GILBERT: I assume they do. That’s probably the source of any bad reviews, people who are horribly disappointed because they expected one thing and got the other. On the other hand, I get a lot of email from people who say, “I know this wasn’t meant to be a guide about happiness, but by understanding more about how my mind works, it indeed has helped me achieve greater happiness and fulfillment in my life.” I’m delighted that happens even though that wasn’t my intention.

DUBNER: Okay, ignoring that the book is not meant to be any prescription for happiness, if someone does want to learn a shortcut or two for being happy, I’m curious what you tell people. Surely you get asked that.

GILBERT: Look, the answer to your question — “What are the shortcuts?” — could fill many books. It does. But if you asked me to stand on one leg and say in just a sentence what’s the single —

DUBNER: Like Hillel.

GILBERT: Like Rabbi Hillel. What’s the single, dominating factor in human happiness? I would pull up my leg and say, “We’re a social creature: care about and be interactive with other human beings.”

DUBNER: A common theme throughout the book is how bad we are at predicting our own future selves, what will make our future selves happy and secure and confident and so on. It strikes me that that’s the idea that gave way eventually to this set of commercials that we want to talk about. Would one be right to commit to that being the central theme of the book, essentially?

GILBERT: Yes it is. In fact, it’s the central theme of my research. I never was and still am not a happiness researcher. My interest has always been in errors of prospection, or in English, why we look into our futures and make mistakes about what will happen and how we’ll feel when it does. It turns out that if you’re interested in prospection, you immediately become interested in happiness. Because happiness is the reason that people prospect at all.

DUBNER: I want you to unpack that a little bit more.

GILBERT: If I asked you, “Why should an animal have evolved all of the extra neural machinery it takes to think about, and look into, and plan for the future?” Surely the answer is that it can make better decisions in the present when it can envision different futures and figure out which one it would rather be in than not. That’s really just a fancy way of saying we can look into the future and figure out which things will make us more or less happy and then take one road rather than the other. It’s what prospection is for. It’s to optimize our happiness, because happiness is a signal that the brain gives us that we are on track to doing the things that evolution wants us to do, namely surviving and reproducing. It’s no accident that if you take all the things that make human beings happy, almost all of them are conducive to survival and reproduction. The opposite for those that make us unhappy. That’s not a coincidence. That tells you what prospection is for.

Hearing Gilbert talk, you can probably imagine why it might have seemed like a good idea to cast him as the pitchman for, say, a financial-services firm. Someone that makes their money selling life insurance, investment products for retirement plans.

GILBERT: When that became the official retirement age back when my dad was a kid, life expectancy was about 61.

The ads feature Gilbert — identified as Professor Daniel Gilbert — looking professorial indeed: wire-rimmed glasses, a trimmed beard, button-down shirt.

GILBERT in a clip from The Prudential Stickers Experiment Advertisement: We went out and asked people a simple question: How old is the oldest person you’ve known?

And the ads are shot in documentary style — Gilbert, being himself. Average people, being themselves.

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Stickers Experiment Advertisement: The oldest person I really know is probably my grandfather. He’s 93.

KID in a clip from the Prudential Stickers Experiment Advertisement: 94.

WOMAN in a clip from the Prudential Stickers Experiment Advertisement: 104 years old.

But each of the ads also has a visual trick — data visualization, in fact, writ very large. In this case, a huge white wall, set up in a beautiful grassy park in Austin, Texas, with some skyscrapers in the distance. The wall is marked with age brackets – 60 years old, 70, 80, 90, 100. And the people come to place on that white wall these beautiful blue stickers to represent the oldest people they know. You see the stickers reaching their peak well past the 90-year mark.

GILBERT: Soon we learned a lot of us have known someone who has lived well into their 90’s. That’s a great thing. But even though we’re living longer, one thing that hasn’t changed: the official retirement age. The question is, “How do you make sure you have the money you need to enjoy all of these years?”

You know you’re being sold to, but the experience still feels very real:

GILBERT: Almost every line there was dubbed in the studio after because there was death metal playing during filming.

Okay, the experience feels relatively real. It is a TV ad, after all. Here’s another one. This one is called “Magnets.” This time, there are two big walls — one labeled “past,” the other “future”:

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: We asked people all over the country: What’s something significant that’s happened to you in the last five years?

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: I bought a house.

WOMAN in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: My mom passed away.

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: My first really serious relationship.

WOMAN in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: I graduated college.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: Then we asked them what might happen in the next five years. The good things were put on yellow magnets, and the bad ones on blue. The results showed us something interesting. It turns out, the past was a pretty even mix of good and bad. Yet the future was almost all good things. Now that you’ve seen the results of this experiment, what does it mean to you?

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: We all want to think about positive stuff.

WOMAN in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: Realistically, there will be down times.

WOMAN in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: Definitely prepare myself for anything that could happen in life, not just the good things.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: It’s great to think optimistically but let’s plan for whatever the future might bring.

DUBNER in a clip from the Prudential Magnets Experiment Advertisement: “It’s great to think optimistically, but let’s plan for whatever the future may bring.” So Dan, what is the psychological concept, or what are the concepts that that is getting at?

GILBERT: We know that people are wildly optimistic about the future. When you ask them, “Don’t you think that’s a little over optimistic?” They say, “No, I think all these good things are going to happen.” The best way to disabuse them of that optimism is simply to point to the past, to remind them that their past has been a fairly even mix of good and bad events. There’s really no reason to believe that tomorrow will be remarkably different than today. When you put that up in color on two walls, it’s a truth that’s pretty hard to evade.

DUBNER: When you show them, what is the common response to that? Is it that well those were accidents, or those were mistakes that other people made, or those were things that I’ve learned and won’t do again. In other words, why do we not square the future with the past?

GILBERT: Well, I think there are certainly those reactions, but a very common reaction is, “Crap, you’re right.” That’s really the point. The reason we don’t square the future with the past is nobody puts our future and our past on two walls that are within one foot of each other and says, “Hey look!” This exercise that we’re doing in the commercial is one that people don’t do. But it’s one that, as soon as it’s done in front of you, you immediately grasp the logic and understand the lesson.

DUBNER: I can see how, as a research scholar, you would like to disabuse people of a fallacy like that. On the other hand, as a research scholar who is a psychologist, I could also see how you might want to say, “You know, life is tough for a lot of people, and if their optimism is unduly pronounced, let them have it. Let people have that kind of rosier than realistic view of the future, because for a lot of people, maybe that’s what it takes to get moving forward.”

GILBERT: Yes, that’s true. You’re pointing out an age-old tension in psychology between seeing the world as it is and seeing it as we wish it were. Which of these things should we do? The answer is neither. The answer is neither. When we see the world utterly realistically, we can be depressed about it. It’s a hard place. But when we see the world utterly fantastically, we don’t take the actions we need to take in the present to ensure ourselves a good future. I love the metaphor of rose-colored glasses. That’s the way to view the world. They’re rose-colored, meaning there is a tint. You are seeing a rosier future than we will really experience. But they’re glasses. They’re not opaque, right? They’re not blinders. You actually are seeing the world. If there’s a train coming, it’s a little bit rose-tinted, but it’s a train.

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: how did Dan Gilbert get put in these ads anyway?

Ray DEL SAVIO: It first started from our fascination with behavioral science.

Colin McCONNELL: We can’t have another actor from Law and Order come in and pitch these commercials.

And: how does an ad agency triangulate between its financial-services client and its Harvard professor spokesman?

DEL SAVIO: It’s funny you call it a triangle. I might call it a rock and a hard place.

And one more thing: this podcast now gets more than 6 million downloads a month, which is a lot, and for which I thank you very much. But here’s the thing: I’ve never really liked the number 6 very much. Don’t know why, just never had a feel for it. But I do like 7! So do me a favor, will you? Help us get to 7 million downloads a month. Tell your friends, your co-workers — hell, tell your in-laws if you have to. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio at iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Lucky 7! Thank you.

*      *      *

I never thought I’d make an episode of Freakonomics Radio extolling the virtues of a series of TV ads for a financial-services firm. But the ads are, to me at least, tiny behavioralist masterpieces.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Ribbons Experiment Advertisement: We asked people a question: how much money do you think you’ll need when you retire?

Each one of them takes a psychological insight, distills it to its core, and matches it with a visual stunt.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Ribbons Experiment Advertisement: Then we gave each person a ribbon to show how many years that amount might last.

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Ribbons Experiment Advertisement: I was trying to like pull it a little further. Then I was trying to stretch it a bit more.

The presenter is Dan Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Ribbons Experiment Advertisement: It’s human nature to focus on the here and now, so it’s hard to imagine how much we’ll need for a retirement that could last 30 years or more.

DUBNER: I want to know first about the process. How did it happen? Who came to whom? What were those early conversations like? Were you reluctant? Were you eager?

GILBERT: I got a phone call from someone at Droga5 who said, “I wonder if you would have any interest in doing a television commercial.”

DEL SAVIO: My name is Ray Del Savio. I am a group creative director at Droga5, here in New York City.

GILBERT: Since I’d been asked that question many times before from other agencies about other products my answer was, “Of course not. Why would I want to do something like that?”

DEL SAVIO: He was not gonna be a shill for Prudential. I could actually put quotes on that and Dan could agree to having said that multiple times.

McCONNELL: I’m Colin McConnell. I’m the chief branding officer for Prudential Financial. We chose to go with someone from academia for several reasons. We can’t just have another actor from Law and Order come in and pitch these commercials. Actually having an employee of the company, I don’t think would have been our first choice either.

DEL SAVIO: We broke down our behavioral challenges into five challenges ranging from procrastination to instant gratification. All these different things that are getting in the way of us planning for our financial future. We put this huge packet together. We had to be ready if we’re going to talk to a Harvard professor. We want to have all of our ducks in a row.

GILBERT: They said, “Wait a minute, this is a different kind of offer. We’re really interested in producing a set of think pieces.”

DEL SAVIO: Then we went up to Harvard and sat down with Dan and shared a bunch of the work with him. In true professor fashion, he was critical of some things but then championed other things. He really was in line with a lot of our messaging.

GILBERT: They said, “We’re interested in doing data visualization and bringing to life the very thing you’ve been thinking about for most of your career, namely errors of prospection. Why can’t people think well enough about the future to provide for themselves in it?” That got my attention.

All these ads — there are five so far, with more on the way — they all point to something we’ve talked about on this show repeatedly: most of us are pretty bad at forecasting the future, and planning for the future, especially when it comes to money.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Dominoes Experiment Advertisement: We asked people a question: how much money do you have in your pocket right now?

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Dominoes Experiment Advertisement: I have 40 dollars.

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Dominoes Experiment Advertisement: 53.

WOMAN in a clip from the Prudential Dominoes Experiment Advertisement: 21.

GILBERT: Do you think the money in your pocket could make an impact on something as big as your retirement?

MAN in a clip from the Prudential Dominoes Experiment Advertisement: Not a chance.

WOMAN in a clip from the Prudential Dominoes Experiment Advertisement: Probably not.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Dominoes Experiment Advertisement: It’s hard to imagine how something so small can help with something so big. But if you start putting that toward your retirement every week and let it grow over time, for 20 to 30 years, that retirement challenge might not seem so big after all.

GILBERT: Human beings have a lot of trouble imagining in or about time, particularly the power of time. You may remember being a child and being told that over time a drop of water could wear away a mountain. You find it hard to believe. You may remember learning about the theory of evolution. Somehow amoebas became people? It’s all the power of time. But it’s something that’s very hard for us to simulate in our imagination. We underestimate the power that time has.

DUBNER: We should say that those big booms that you’re hearing and you can’t see are these big dominos that are made of, I don’t know, Styrofoam? What are they made of?

GILBERT: Oh no, they’re made of steel and wood.

DEL SAVIO: Yeah, this was by far my favorite shoot. This was maybe three months before we shot this thing, we were sitting with one of the CMOs of Prudential and I half-wittingly said, “We’re planning on breaking a Guinness Book of World Records for the largest domino topple.” That last domino was over thirty feet tall and weighed over two or three tons.

DUBNER: The crowd that we’re hearing then is …

DEL SAVIO: The crowd, that is legit.

DUBNER: That’s for real?

DEL SAVIO: That is for real. Even the noise of that last domino falling. You can almost feel it in your chest. It was like a small building toppling over. Actually, a guy from Guinness was there to make sure everything was legit. Because there was ways we could have faked it, but we got the trophy to prove it.

The ads are so interesting that you almost forget that, of course, they’re trying to sell you something. In my interviews with them, both Gilbert and Del Savio said the ads feel more like public-service announcements than anything, with a Prudential title card stuck at the end. And that’s the way Dan Gilbert likes it. Here’s Del Savio:

DEL SAVIO: When it comes to Dan giving financial advice, that’s not his realm. He would occasionally bring that up in some of our scripts. I’m more than happy to talk about how we can’t picture our future selves, but I’m not going to tell you that you need to put such and such amount of money away in order to pay for that future self.

DUBNER: You’ve got Prudential, which pays a lot of money to an agency like you and need to sell their product. Then you’ve got Dan, who’s devoutly not selling. Then there’s you guys as the third point of the triangle, who need to make that bridge happen. I’m just curious, how does it work between you and your client and your messenger — in this case with a message that you’re obviously shaping, but he’s got some input in.

DEL SAVIO: It’s funny you call it a triangle. I might call it a rock and a hard place.


DEL SAVIO: But I think it actually makes for better work because Dan has — I don’t want to call it an agenda — things that he’s comfortable saying and things he’s not. Then the client has things that they really want to push. Then, as an agency, we say, “Maybe it’s not great that we just come out and say, ‘Hey, buy life insurance!’” There’s a fine balance that we try to find where we convey the message that the client wants to convey while, at the same time, making Dan comfortable with what he’s saying. It’s tricky. When we write scripts for say, for “Dominoes” or for “Ribbons” or for “Magnets.” Those scripts are changed up until quite literally they say action. I sit with Dan in the morning with one of our clients. We go through scripts pushing words and making sure everybody’s comfortable with what we’re saying.

GILBERT in a clip from the Prudential Ribbons Experiment Advertisement: We asked people a question: how much money do you think you’ll need when you retire? Then we gave each person a ribbon to show how many years that amount might last.

DUBNER: It’s because you, Dan, are such a kindly, professorial presence that this doesn’t feel like it’s saying, “Hey, you’re gonna be eating cat food in your retirement if you’re lucky.” Somehow, you’re able to convey the fear factor without being fear-mongering at all. But let me not put words in your mouth. What concept are you illustrating here?

GILBERT: What we’re trying to get people to understand with this ad is that the amount of money that they think they’re going to need for retirement is almost surely an underestimate. Now, you can tell them that by asking them to generate a number and then telling them which number is actually accurate. They’ll understand the difference. But by seeing two ribbons that don’t line up, that’s very powerful. The part of your brain that does subtraction and looks at the difference between two numbers is not the part that does perception and sees that length of two different ribbons.

The final question of course is: do the ads work? As compelling and inviting as I may find them, do they make TV viewers do what Prudential wants them to do? Colin McConnell from Prudential says the ads are certainly popular.

MCCONNELL: I can say now that based on syndicated studies from third-party research that each of the commercials in this campaign has at one point gone to number one in our competitor set. Most of them have gone to number one and stayed there for quite some time. They’re all very strong performers.

And you can see why a firm like Prudential needs to be thinking up new ways to sell life insurance. In just a decade, the number of individual life policies sold has fallen nearly 30 percent. That said, the average face value of these policies is up — it’s above $150,000 — which suggests that fewer, but richer people are buying life insurance. We did find out that at least one person was inspired to buy life insurance based on the Prudential ads — Droga5’s Ray Del Savio, who was intimately involved in making them.

DUBNER: I’m curious if it changed the way you think about your own life? How old are you, Ray?

DEL SAVIO: I’m thirty-five.

DUBNER: Yeah. Did it change the way you think about your past versus your future and whether you’re assessing the future wrong or underestimating the likelihood of bad things?

DEL SAVIO: Working on this stuff over the past couple of years has changed a lot of what I think about.

DUBNER: Right. Have you bought life insurance in the past couple years?

DEL SAVIO: In the past couple months, actually.

DUBNER: Really?

DEL SAVIO: What’s funny is that I think your recent podcast about the economics of sleep, I have a baby coming in about a month, so I think between the life insurance and what is gonna be a sleep-deprived dad, seems pretty relevant.

DUBNER: Did you buy your life insurance from Prudential?

DEL SAVIO: I did not, no.

DUBNER: Why not? I would think…

DEL SAVIO: I went through just a good friend who works for Northwestern Mutual. I went through them because it was a comfortable decision.

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