A day in the life of Vera Age: what can marketers learn from her trip to a casino?

Ms Vera Age: playing the slot machines at the casino
Ms Vera Age: playing the slot machines at the casino

Casinos are the masters of creating an environment that influences behaviour. Follow Ms Average on a casino outing to discover some of their effective techniques.

Meet Vera Age. She is 40, married, with 1.8 children, works as a middle manager and has a fondness for The X Factor and Tesco. In short, she is average.

Vera normally prefers the sofa for her Saturday night entertainment, but from time to time she and her friends head into town. She’s not a regular gambler, but this week they’ve decided to try the new casino.

We’re going to follow Vera on this Saturday night and see if we can pick up on – and learn from – the subtle nudges used to encourage gambling.

Making an entrance

Vera arrives at the casino and is struck by her opulent surroundings. There is a fountain in the reception, glittering chandeliers hang from the ceiling and the staff are all immaculately turned out.

Once inside Vera can’t help tapping her fingers along to the beat of the music as she waits to pick up her chips. She catches a glimpse of her reflection in a mirror – she likes how the flattering low light takes a few years off. She’s feeling good.

The psychological ploys begin once Vera enters the casino. The surroundings prime her to think luxuriously. Who wants to stake a small amount amid such glamour?

Other design cues, such as the music, are more subtle than the glitz. Jenny Spenwyn, Doug Barrett and Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University tested the impact of music on betting.

56 undergraduates gambled with either high or low tempo music in the background. High tempo beats generated high tempo betting. In fact, the gap between bets was 19% shorter than when slow-paced music was played.

Equally important are lighting levels. Red lights have been found to boost gambling rates by up to 10%.

The effect of sound and light are well known, but cutting edge venues go a step further to tap into the senses. Dr Alan Hirsch, a Chicago researcher, worked with the Las Vegas Hilton to measure whether pleasant aromas might impact betting behaviour.

Although his test was small scale, he found gamblers staked 45% more when he diffused pleasant smells around the slot machines.

Following the winners

Having bought more chips than she planned, Vera wanders into the casino, unsure where to start her evening. As she negotiates the tightly packed slot machines she sees two punters win in quick succession. She decides to try her luck at the slots.

Vera isn’t alone in being influenced by other people’s success, venues encourage betting by manipulating the perceived probability of winning.

Although the odds are stacked in the house’s favour, it doesn’t feel that way. Slot machines draw attention to every win. Coins clatter into metal trays, accompanied by sirens or flashing lights.

Many casinos take it further. Jackpots have to be collected in person and winners are made to wait in a prominent place. Winning stands out, failure is silent.

Nor do casinos simply focus on publicising wins to the rest of the floor, they also harness the power of the near miss. Dr Luke Clarke, from Cambridge University, told the BBC: "A near miss causes a gambler to overestimate their chances of winning.

"If two cherries come up on a slot machine and they see the third almost click into place, they’ll keep playing for longer".

And according to Kevin Harrigan, of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, slot machines are programmed to deliver up to 12 times more near misses than chance alone would suggest.

The predictable wheel of fortune

Vera heads to the roulette wheel to try and turn her luck around. But, as with many of the best-laid plans, her budget goes awry as she makes a knee-jerk decision to increase her chip stake per bet.

Again, this is predictable. People spend more when they pay by means other than cash. Credit cards, chips or pre-paid cards, they all cloak money’s true value and minimise the pain of paying.

Casinos have long tried to encourage other forms of payments, whether that’s in the well-established form of chips or more recent developments, such as slot machines in Las Vegas which accept pre-paid cards.

Drazen Prelec and Duncan Simester, two psychologists from MIT, ran an experiment which quantified the effect of not paying with cash.

They offered 64 students the chance to buy tickets to a popular basketball game which had sold out. In an ingenious twist they asked half the participants to pay with cash and the remainder to pay by credit card.

The results? Those offered the chance to pay by plastic were willing to spend twice as much.

Last chance saloon

Having used the last of her chips at the roulette wheel Vera decides to cut her losses and head for a drink in the bar. She has a great night with her friends and heads home happier, but poorer.

Why is all this of interest to marketers? First, it’s a plea to scour unusual places for inspiration. Every brand looks to Apple for inspiration. Perhaps looking further afield gives brands a better chance of differentiating?

Second, the attention to detail that casinos pay to their environment is an inspiration. If other brands paid as much attention to their design, whether that’s the smell, the sounds or the lights, then they could significantly boost their returns.

Richard Shotton (@rshotton) is head of insight at ZenithOptimedia, and Richard Clay is a strategist at ZenithOptimedia

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