Why Homing Pigeons, Anchor Bias And Nostalgia Are Important For Your Marketing Plans

Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen
5 min readNov 29, 2021

Why marketing experts should care that messenger pigeons are not a thing of the past

The cartoon on David Ostow’s Twitter account

This brilliant cartoon, by David Ostow and Dan Salomon, made me laugh out loud. It’s sharp, witty and empathic at the same time.

With its true comedic sense, it connects two different eras, the Middle Ages when post pigeons were a popular mean of communication (we’ll come back to that), and our digital life, where email is the new pigeon, and reply all is a corporate sin no one wants to commit.

The cartoon masterfully taps the fear of embarrassment and the sense of loss standing at a tall tower and realizing you unleashed an unstoppable reply, and you lost control.

How I learned that pigeons are not a thing of the past, why anchor bias is relevant and what marketing experts need to know

I love this cartoon so much because it represents something nostalgic. It is a kind of imagined nostalgia since I did not live in an era when post pigeons were common. Instead, it seems connected to the Middle Ages fantasy that popular culture enjoys exploring. I posted the image on my social media accounts and added some info about post pigeons, and how I’m amazed to find it’s not really a thing of the past. At least, not the past I imagined.

Boy was I wrong.

Well, not entirely wrong.

Messenger pigeons are not really a thing of the past

See, it depends what you call “past.”

Messenger pigeons were used in World War I and still exist in many places. They are sometimes a last resort kind of communication in the event of radio or digital failure. Pigeons were still employed earlier this century by certain remote police departments in eastern India to provide emergency communication services following natural disasters. In March 2002, it was announced that India’s Police Pigeon Service messenger system in Odisha was to be retired, due to the expanded use of the Internet.

In a way, this is a captivating communication phenomenon. In the peak of the digital revolution, when our lives are documented with Google footprints, this classic means of communication is still being considered.

But is it truly amazing? Half of my respondents on social media argued otherwise. Some of them even scolded me lovingly, surprised at my surprise. Why? Because some of my older audience members used messenger pigeons as children.

For those respondents, the post pigeon is not a romanticized historical artifact from the Middle Ages, but a nostalgic, vivid memory from their childhood.

They were amazed by me, and how the digital revolution shaped my perception of the world as they knew it.

Why anchor bias

My perception of homing pigeon communication as an “ancient method” was an example of anchor bias. The anchoring bias, a cognitive effect that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given about a topic. It is a cognitive bias that refers to the way the humans tend to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered. Anchoring is a way to identify markers to which other information can be compared, and decisions and judgments can be made at the speed and frequency life requires.

During decision-making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor.

In the marketing world, anchoring is connected to pricing. Price anchoring refers to the practice of establishing a price point that customers can reference when making decisions.

For example, every time you see a discount with “$100 marked down to $75,” the $100 is the price anchor for the $75 sales price. When buying a car, for example, an individual may be more likely to purchase a car if it is placed alongside a more expensive model (the anchor). During negotiations, prices that are lower than the anchor may seem reasonable, perhaps even cheap to the buyer, even if those prices are still relatively higher than the actual market value of the car.

Anchoring is also the key to ways that brands can “own” experiences. Because the human brain upweights the beginning and end of an experience, creating actual anchors has huge implications for brands. Signaling clear marks of a beginning and an end help the brain identify a distinctive experience and avoid any negative anchoring effects. This process creates a coherent memory that is attached to a brand.

A small experiment found that the emotional peak of a flight experience wasn’t the take-off, or turbulence; instead, it was waiting in the line for a cab — and that emotional peak was attributed back to the airline. This is one (anecdotal) example that demonstrates why the brain needs clearer anchors for the end of one experience and the start of the next. The human brain needs clearer anchors for the end of one experience and the start of the next.

Attention marketers: Connecting homing pigeons and the anchor bias

Based on our age, experience, knowledge, etc., we determine what is past based on our anchoring point. Our perception of messenger pigeons is impacted by our individual psychological anchoring bias.

As a Gen Xer, when I talk about messenger pigeons, I think of a fantasized past. For me, the Middle Ages and knights standing in a castle’s tower were a faraway era that existed long before I was born. And that became my anchoring point. In marketing, you constantly speak to audiences and want to grab their attention. This means understanding the audiences’ anchor bias should be your first priority when communicating to them.

This means asking questions such as:

· What is the audience’s first experience with this topic?

· What is the target audience’s true experience before and after using your product?

· What would the audience remember after using the product or service?

· What will the audience compare your product or service to?

· What experience is your true competitor?

Answering these questions enable you to understand your audience’s original anchoring point, perception, expectations and experience with your product or service.

Understanding your audience’s perception is vital. Every marketer should remember that the marketing is not about your product, but about the audience’s experience, which is framed and impacted by their anchor bias.

In this sense, the cartoon is funny for both audiences: the knowing homing pigeon fans who enjoy the cultural reference to the digital world, and me, enjoying the ha-ha moment of combining a fantasy and current digital behaviors.

May we never press an unintentional reply all pigeon. Sorry, key.

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Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen

Helping companies and executives tell their stories and focus their messages. Framing is everything