In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the psychology of advertising.
A University of Southern California blog says that we see an average of 5000 ads a day and 2 million 30-second commercials a year. And all of that is carefully composed to take as much advantage as possible of the way our minds work. It was in the 1950s that psychologists became very actively involved in the world of advertising.
What the researchers say
Ads with emotional content tend to be more effective than ads with rational content. In particular, ads that trigger empathy and ads demonstrating a lot of creativity tend to be most compelling.
Because of how the left and right side of the brain work, it’s more effective to place images on the left side of an ad and accompanying text on the right.
Kind of like repetition of a message increases our belief that it’s true (the illusory truth effect), repetition increases how much we like something.
One experiment found that when people were primed with a split-second visual outline and then shown a complete image, if the primed outline matched the image, people processed the image more quickly and tended to like it more.
We spend more time looking at print ads with pictures than those without. We’re also more likely to fixate on colour images than black and white. Ads at the end of a page are most likely to get skipped over.
What the marketers say
The marketing site Hubspot offers a few more psychology tricks for marketers:
- Reciprocity: giving something away free makes people more likely to do something in return
- Social proof: we tend to like things that other people like, so advertisers might find a way to show that people we like (in a broad sense of the word) like the product/brand
- Decoy effect: give a decoy price for something that makes your expensive option look like a good deal, so if you advertised that people could buy 2 widgets for $20 (the decoy price) or 3 widgets for $23, no one’s going to buy the 2 widgets
- Scarcity : the COVID toilet paper crisis is a perfect example of this; as soon as people started thinking TP was in short supply, they went batshit crazy and started buying up enough to last for the next decade
- Anchoring: highlight contrast between regular and sale price, to make cheap folks like me to think woohoo, that’s a good deal!
- Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon: once something is brought to your attention, all of a sudden you start seeing it everywhere, so if you see a commercial brand X, you’re more likely to notice it when you see it out and about in the world
- Loss aversion: people don’t like to give up things they already have, so I guess with all those free trials available, they’re not just hoping you’ll forget to cancel by the end of the trial period
Think you can beat it?
Evaluative conditioning means that if you pair something that people like with the item/brand that’s being promoted, some of those good vibes will rub off onto what’s being advertised. This occurs on an automatic level, even when people consciously try not to be impacted by it. That automaticity is highest with logos.
In an article on Insead, a researcher was quoted as saying, “If you see 20 commercials, and are trying not to be influenced, for four or five of them, you are going to fail and your attitudes are going to be changed despite your best efforts.”
Is the psychology of advertising old news?
As I was researching this topic, I noticed something rather interesting. A lot of the info I was coming across was old, including a couple of papers from the early 1900s. That seemed odd so I looked a little closer.
Google Scholar shows quite a bit of research has been done on this topic, with 2.5 million hits. A lot of the search results looked pretty old, so I tried limiting the search to articles since 2016. That yielded 126,000 results. Since 2019, Google Scholar shows 17,000 results. Those numbers aren’t an exact representation of anything, but they do suggest that academic research on this subject has really tapered off.
My guess, and it’s really just a stab in the dark, is that there’s enough of an information base out there that marketers and advertisers have taken the bull by the horns, and so the academic research side of it has ridden off into the sunset.
How should we deal with it?
I think most of us are aware that advertising tries to manipulate us. Still, the specifics are interesting to hear about. As a cheap and fairly minimalist person, I don’t think I’m caving in to pressure to buy in the short term. However, I’m sure my feelings about different brands have been skewed to some extent by advertising. I have no interest in wasting money on an expensive car, so luxury car ads probably aren’t going to do much to change my purchasing behaviour. Ads for lower-end brands probably do have an impact, though.
To what extent do you think you’re influenced by the psychology of advertising?
- American Psychological Association: Advertising as a Science
- Higgins, E., Leinenger, M., & Rayner, K. (2014). Eye movements when viewing advertisements. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 210.
- Hubspot: Marketing Psychology: 10 Revealing Principles of Human Behavior
- Insead Knowledge: Think You’re Immune to Advertising? Think Again
- University of Southern California: Thinking vs. feeling: The psychology of advertising
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.