THE CRAVING BRAIN – How to Create New Habits – Part 1

One day in the early 1900s, a prominent American executive named Claude C. Hopkins was approached by an old friend with a new business idea. The friend had discovered an amazing product, he explained, that he was convinced would be a hit. It was a toothpaste, a minty, frothy concoction he called “Pepsodent.” There were some dicey investors involved—one of them had a string of busted land deals; another, it was rumored, was connected to the mob—but this venture, the friend promised, was going to be huge. If, that is, Hopkins would consent to help design a national promotional campaign.

Hopkins, at the time, was at the top of a booming industry that had hardly existed a few decades earlier: advertising. Hopkins was the man who had convinced Americans to buy Schlitz beer by boasting that the company cleaned their bottles “with live steam,” while neglecting to mention that every other company used the exact same method. He had seduced millions of women into purchasing Palmolive soap by proclaiming that Cleopatra had washed with it, despite the sputtering protests of outraged historians. He had made Puffed Wheat famous by saying that it was “shot from guns” until the grains puffed “to eight times normal size.” He had turned dozens of previously unknown products—Quaker Oats, Goodyear tires, the Bissell carpet sweeper, Van Camp’s pork and beans—into household names. And in the process, he had made himself so rich that his best-selling autobiography, My Life in Advertising, devoted long passages to the difficulties of spending so much money.

Claude Hopkins was best known for a series of rules he coined explaining how to create new habits among consumers. These rules would transform industries and eventually became conventional wisdom among marketers, educational reformers, public health professionals, politicians, and CEOs. Even today, Hopkins’s rules influence everything from how we buy cleaning supplies to the tools governments use for eradicating disease. They are fundamental to creating any new routine.

However, when his old friend approached Hopkins about Pepsodent, the ad man expressed only mild interest. It was no secret that the health of Americans’ teeth was in steep decline. As the nation had become wealthier, people had started buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the government started drafting men for World War I, so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk.

Yet as Hopkins knew, selling toothpaste was financial suicide. There was already an army of door-to-door salesmen hawking dubious tooth powders and elixirs, most of them going broke.

The problem was that hardly anyone bought toothpaste because, despite the nation’s dental problems, hardly anyone brushed their teeth.

So Hopkins gave his friend’s proposal a bit of thought, and then declined. He’d stick with soaps and cereals, he said. “I did not see a way to educate the laity in technical tooth-paste theories,” Hopkins explained in his autobiography. The friend, however, was persistent. He came back again and again, appealing to Hopkins’s considerable ego until, eventually, the ad man gave in.

“I finally agreed to undertake the campaign if he gave me a six months’ option on a block of stock,” Hopkins wrote. The friend agreed.

It would be the wisest financial decision of Hopkins’s life.

Within five years of that partnership, Hopkins turned Pepsodent into one of the best-known products on earth and, in the process, helped create a toothbrushing habit that moved across America with startling speed. Soon, everyone from Shirley Temple to Clark Gable was bragging about their “Pepsodent smile.” By 1930, Pepsodent was sold in China, South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and almost anywhere else Hopkins could buy ads. A decade after the first Pepsodent campaign, pollsters found that toothbrushing had become a ritual for more than half the American population. Hopkins had helped establish toothbrushing as a daily activity.

The secret to his success, Hopkins would later boast, was that he had found a certain kind of cue and reward that fueled a particular habit. It’s an alchemy so powerful that even today the basic principles are still used video game designers, food companies, hospitals, and millions of salesmen around the world. Eugene Pauly taught us about the habit loop, but it was Claude Hopkins that showed how new habits can be cultivated and grown.

So what, exactly, did Hopkins do?

He created a craving. And that craving, it turns out, is what makes cues and rewards work. That craving is what powers the habit loop.

Throughout his career, one of Claude Hopkins’s signature tactics was to find simple triggers to convince consumers to use his products every day. He sold Quaker Oats, for instance, as a breakfast cereal that could provide energy for twenty-four hours—but only if you ate a bowl every morning. He hawked tonics that cured stomachaches, joint pain, bad skin, and “womanly problems”—but only if you drank the medicine at symptoms’ first appearance. Soon, people were devouring oatmeal at daybreak and chugging from little brown bottles whenever they felt a hint of fatigue, which, as luck would have it, often happened at least once a day.

To sell Pepsodent, then, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify the toothpaste’s daily use. He sat down with a pile of dental textbooks. “It was dry reading,” he later wrote. “But in the middle of one book I found a reference to the mucin plaques on teeth, which I afterward called ‘the film.’ That gave me an appealing idea. Iresolved to advertise this toothpaste as a creator of beauty. To deal with that cloudy film.”

In focusing on tooth film, Hopkins was ignoring the fact that this same film has always covered people’s teeth and hadn’t seemed to bother anyone. The film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush. People had never paid much attention to it, and there was little reason why they should: You can get rid of the film by eating an apple, running your finger over your teeth, brushing, or vigorously swirling liquid around your mouth. Toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film. In fact, one of the leading dental researchers of the time said that all toothpastes—particularly Pepsodent—were worthless.

That didn’t stop Hopkins from exploiting his discovery. Here, he decided, was a cue that could trigger a habit. Soon, cities were plastered with Pepsodent ads.

“Just run your tongue across your teeth,” read one. “You’ll feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.”

“Note how many pretty teeth are seen everywhere,” read another ad, featuring smiling beauties. “Millions are using a new method of teeth cleansing. Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Pepsodent removes the film!”

The brilliance of these appeals was that they relied upon a cue—tooth film—that was universal and impossible to ignore. Telling someone to run their tongue across their teeth, it turned out, was likely to cause them to run their tongue across their teeth. And when they did, they were likely to feel a film. Hopkins had found a cue that was simple, had existed for ages, and was so easy to trigger that an advertisement could cause people to comply automatically.

Moreover, the reward, as Hopkins envisioned it, was even more enticing. Who, after all, doesn’t want to be more beautiful? Who doesn’t want a prettier smile? Particularly when all it takes is a quick brush with Pepsodent?

After the campaign launched, a quiet week passed. Then two. In the third week, demand exploded. There were so many orders for Pepsodent that the company couldn’t keep up. In three years, the product went international, and Hopkins was crafting ads in Spanish, German, and Chinese. Within a decade, Pepsodent was one of the top-selling goods in the world, and remained America’s best-selling toothpaste for more than thirty years .

Before Pepsodent appeared, only 7 percent of Americans had a tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests. A decade after Hopkins’s ad campaign went nationwide, that number had jumped to 65 percent. By the end of World War II, the military downgraded concerns about recruits’ teeth because so many soldiers were brushing every day.

“I made for myself a million dollars on Pepsodent,” Hopkins wrote a few years after the product appeared on shelves. The key, he said, was that he had “learned the right human psychology.” That psychology was grounded in two basic rules:

First, find a simple and obvious cue.

Second, clearly define the rewards.

If you get those elements right, Hopkins promised, it was like magic. Look at Pepsodent: He had identified a cue—tooth film—and a reward—beautiful teeth—that had persuaded millions to start a daily ritual. Even today, Hopkins’s rules are a staple of marketing textbooks and the foundation of millions of ad campaigns.

And those same principles have been used to create thousands of other habits—often without people realizing how closely they are hewing to Hopkins’s formula. Studies of people who have successfully started new exercise routines, for instance, show they are more likely to stick with a workout plan if they choose a specific cue, such as running as soon as they get home from work, and a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt-free television. 2.13 Research on dieting says creating new food habits requires a predetermined cue—such as planning menus in advance—and simple rewards for dieters when they stick to their intentions.

“The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science,” Hopkins wrote. “Advertising, once a gamble, has thus become, under able direction, one of the safest of business ventures.”

It’s quite a boast. However, it turns out that Hopkins’s two rules aren’t enough. There’s also a third rule that must be satisfied to create a habit—a rule so subtle that Hopkins himself relied on it without knowing it existed. It explains everything from why it’s so hard to ignore a box of doughnuts to how a morning jog can become a nearly effortless routine.

-Charles Duhigg

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