In the hot intellectual world of behavioral economics, one of the key terms bandied about is that of anchoring. This refers to a phenomenon where if one hears a certain number beforehand, any further thoughts, even if unrelated, will be related to that number as well. The common example is to tell one person the number 50 and tell a second person the number 75. Then ask them both for the average cost of a vacuum cleaner. The one who was told 75 will generally give a higher estimate than the one who was told 50. The initial number provides the anchor for all thoughts that occur in the near future.
Two recent examples show the PR relevance of this idea. Tumblr was a hot social media website for teenagers and those of an artistic bent, but if you were outside those demographics, then chances are you never heard of it. Of course that all changed when Yahoo bought it. Suddenly Tumblr became the biggest thing ever and Yahoo’s most important purchase. The truth is that Yahoo actually acquired a number of web companies, but only Tumblr received that kind of popular recognition. Why? Because Yahoo paid a billion dollars for it. Even though Tumblr was losing money, and was not any more profitable than Yahoo’s other acquisitions, the billion dollar price tag made it an item of worth in the public eye. Maybe not a billion dollars, but certainly something close. Certainly more than those companies (whatever they were) that Yahoo paid significantly less for. The public fell for the real time anchor, and in the process made both Tumblr and Yahoo forces to be reckoned with.
An even more egregious example of anchoring is currently taking place with the PR push for Oscar nominations. A24 Films are pushing the anchor envelope by using language promoting James Franco in a way that goes beyond even standard Hollywood hyperbole. Presumably, the thought is that by pushing Franco into the ethereal world of historically meaningful performances (if such things even exist), Academy judges will balk but not too much. If the anchor of historical significance is properly played, maybe that will be just enough to push Franco past the other “worthy” contenders.
In the PR world we often hear a lot about being truthful and sticking to simplicity. Anchoring disagrees and can definitely be employed occasionally to provide meaningful results.