He stands in the shopping mall, watching with amusement as the herd of brainwashed sheep mill around him carrying their shopping bags.
Overweight couples sit on benches eating Big Mac’s together in synchronised fashion. Pretty girls strut past with heavy makeup on their faces, wearing the latest fashion and carrying another new pair of shoes. Business men pace by talking on cellphones and wearing Armani suits.
Look at these gullible people, he thinks. Slaves to advertising…
He’s feeling thirsty, so he heads into the nearest convenience store. He stands in front of the drinks fridge and looks at his options. The fridge is lined with a multitude of different bottled and canned beverages.
He takes a bottle of Coca-Cola and heads to the checkout.
How people think advertising works
Nobody thinks advertising works on them. Yet advertising works on everybody.
Oh, you disagree?
Oh, you’re a smart individual and you don’t listen to advertising?
Ok you’re right. You’re smarter than everyone else. Enjoy your misplaced feeling of superiority.
Misplaced, because you think you understand advertising and yet you don’t understand it at all. And your sense of superiority makes you easy to influence.
There is a large gap between way most people think advertising works and the way it actually works
Because people think that advertising uses rational persuasion.
Joe sits at home watching TV and drinking beer with his belly hanging over his crotch. An advertisement for a new Harleys Supersuck XX vacuum cleaner appears on screen. He’s told it will pick up every last piece of dirt in his house. “Wow!” he shouts. “I have to go and buy this right now!”. He grabs his wallet and runs straight out the door.
Yeah. This rarely happens.
Direct marketing is real. Infomercials want you to pick up the phone right away. Door to door salesmen want you to hand over your credit card details on the spot. Online marketing uses strongly worded sales letters to get you to click “Buy now” on their website.
But this is for the small fish. The unknown brands.
As for the big fish? Coca-Cola. Mercedes. Mcdonalds. American Express. They play a much bigger game. A game being played inside your head right now. And something that you probably don’t really understand.
They play the game of feathers.
a game of feathers
We live in a world of countless options. There are very few unique products. For almost every single thing you buy, there are hundreds of potential brands to choose from.
Just think of the supermarket isle. Lined with 7 brands of baked beans. 24 brands of cereals. 9 brands of milk.
How do you make your choice?
All it takes is a feather to tip the scales.
A feather placed in your subconscious mind.
Especially when it comes to low-involvement decisions. Deciding where to eat lunch, for example.
You head out of work for your lunchtime break. There aren’t many places to eat around your work. But there is a Subway. “I guess I’ll grab a sub” you think to yourself.
And that’s it. The decision is made. And Subway earns yet another consistent customer. And it’s in that split second, where you made your decision, that the advertising kicks in.
But how are these feathers placed in your mind? I mean, if I ask you to try to remember a Subway commercial you saw recently, I bet you can’t even remember it. What about the last Coca-Cola commercial? Or the last Mcdonalds commercial?
Well guess what, just because you cant remember them, it doesn’t mean they’re not affecting you.
Welcome to the mysterious world of the subconscious mind.
All advertising works on your subconscious mind. Because your subconscious mind records all of the information it is given. Even information you were barely paying attention to. Like a TV commercial for instance.
There are two main subconscious mechanisms that advertising works on. The first of which being artificial emotional links to the brand.
artificial emotional links to brands
This is the main pattern you can find throughout all advertising. Once you see it. You can’t unsee it. So I apologise for the irritation you will experience watching advertisements in the future.
Anyway. This is it:
Advertisements take the natural desires human beings have: Happiness, love, comfort, sex, health, status and artificially attach them to their brand.
That’s it. Pay attention to the commercials you see in the world and this pattern becomes annoyingly evident.
While Coca-cola is a drink that causes obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay, their advertisements will associate the drink with youth and happiness.
Abraham Maslow proposed his theory of a hierarchy of needs in 1943. The pyramid above includes all the needs and wants than a human being can have.
All advertising attempts to associate their brand with one of these needs.
Association works on everybody. And I mean everybody. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are. Because intelligence doesn’t defend against messages to the subconscious.
Because our brain was evolved to deal with an environment we lived in 20,000 years in the past. An environment that couldn’t be more different than our environment today.
There is no way human beings would have survived for millions of years by trying to understanding everything rationally. Our world is infinitely complex. There’s simply too much “information” in the world to hope to rationally and logically understand it all.
So we developed intuition. Which is the ability to unconsciously use all of our past experiences and “feel” which decision is the best for us.
Psychologists have discovered an incredible mechanism our brain seems to have. We call them somatic markers.
When you were younger your parents told you time and time again to look both ways before cross the street. But the truth is, these words probably didn'‘t change your behaviour.
The moment when you truly learned to look both ways before crossing the street is the time you walked into the road and were almost hit by a car. You may not remember this moment, but it probably happened.
It’s likely that on one occasion, you forgot to look before crossing and a car whizzed by dangerously close to you. Your heart jumped, your palms started sweating and your breathing quickened.
According to the theory, at this moment your brain and body created a “marker” in your memory. Nowadays, you always look both ways before you cross the street, even if you don’t remember the moment you learned the behaviour.
And we create these “markers” throughout our life. The markers provide us with a non-conscious shortcut to making decisions. And this is intuition.
Intuition helped us to avoid poisonous foods, know whether to trust other humans, to navigate through the world without a map and to generally keep us alive in a dangerous pre-technology world.
We survived through millennia using this intuition or these “gut feelings”.
The problem is..
These “gut feelings” can be manufactured by advertising.
Because when you watch Coca-Cola commercial and see young, healthy people having fun drinking Coke your brain creates a “marker”.
Your subconscious brain now has a marker that links the visual red and white logo of Coca-Cola to young, health and fun.
And at that moment, when you’re standing in front of that drinks fridge deciding what to buy, your brain picks up the very same red and white logo of Coca-Cola. In a split second, the “marker” that was placed in your subconscious during the commercial you watched reappears.
Buying a bottle of Coca-Cola just “feels” right. And you buy it without much thought about why you made the decision you did.
And there is is. The feather dropped onto the scales by the commercial changed your behaviour.
And that’s why Coca-Cola spends $565 Million on advertising every single year in the US alone.
Of course not all of these markers will land. Many of them will not have enough of an impact to be remembered. But some of them will.
If you live in the UK, you will remember this advertising campaign. (An incredibly successful advertising campaign I might add).
Meet The Andrex Puppy
Now the first question to ask is this: What the fuck does a Labrador retriever puppy have to do with toilet paper?
The real answer is this: Absolutely nothing.
And yet this series of advertisements can successfully pair two objects that have nothing to do with each other and create an association between them in your mind.
If you’ve stroked a Labrador puppy before you’ll know that their fur is incredibly soft. After watching some of these advertisements, you might find yourself paying extra to buy Andrex toilet paper with the subconscious idea that it must be softer.
Not only that, puppies are often given to children when they’re young, so you may have also found yourself buying Andrex toilet paper with the subconscious idea that this is a “family values toilet paper” While this makes no logical sense, it’s a “gut feeling” that arises within you when deciding which toilet paper to by. Logic doesn’t play a role.
The Mere-Exposure Effect
There is one other important effect that occurs simply through exposure to the commercial. It doesn’t matter whether it’s associated with a positive emotion or whether you even like the commercial.
Mere-exposure to advertising has two psychological effects:
In the 1960s, psychologist Robert Zajonc found that the more people are exposed to a particular stimuli, the more they demonstrate a positive preference for those stimuli and take them as truth.
Merely because we see something more, we like it more.
That’s why Coca-Cola continue to advertise, even if everybody already knows who they are. It allows them to defend their share of the market from the ever-looming Pepsi.
You might think that Coca-Cola is such an old, famous brand that they will always sell products. But if Coca-Cola decided to stop advertising, this would leave a space for Pepsi to ramp up their advertising.
And people would begin to feel more familiar with Pepsi than with Coca Cola and the feathers would begin to stack up in favour of Pepsi in many people’s minds. (And the younger generations would grow up in an environment dominated by Pepsi)
The brands you know will be noticed by you on the supermarket shelf. The brands you don’t know will go unnoticed.
The more we’re exposed to advertising of a certain brand, the more familiar we become. If a brand continues to make a claim about their product and nobody stops them from doing so, our brain begins to assume that it’s true.
Going further, Zajonc even demonstrated that the mere exposure effect doesn’t even require active attention. Which means that you don’t even need to be paying attention to the ad for you to be affected by it.
Familiarity is one more mechanism that advertising uses to place a feather on the scale.
When everything else is equal, the brand you are the most familiar with wins.
Asch conducted his famous experiments on conformity in 1951, in which he had participants estimate the length of lines. Of course, in the room with the participant was a number of Asch’s associates, who would all give the same incorrect answer.
With remarkable consistency, the participant would give the incorrect answer when everybody else in the room gave the same incorrect answer.
And advertising implicitly makes the brand appear popular, whether it is or not.
We as consumers infer that the product is popular simply because it’s being advertised.
And because we implicitly believe the brand is popular our conformity mechanism kicks in.
So conformity is another feather that can tip the scales in favour of the advertised brand when everything else is equal.
After understanding these 2 subconscious psychological mechanisms that are at play, can you still truly say “Advertising doesn’t work on me”?