What Is… the Psychology of Advertising

The psychology behind advertising, including social proof, reciprocity, decoy effect

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 the most compelling.

Because of how the left and right sides 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 the contrast between the regular and sale price, to make cheap folks like me 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.”

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?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

24 thoughts on “What Is… the Psychology of Advertising”

  1. I am not particularly a fan of advertising. At one point I noticed that the entire side and windows of buses in my community were covered with paid advertising. I guess it’s one way of funding public transportation. But my thought process of course ran to the extreme — what would happen if we covered every free roadway, walkway, transit car, etc. with advertisements? For me it would be sensory overload. It already is sensory overload. So let’s hope that advertisements do not increase in scope beyond public buses.

  2. I would think that I’m not that susceptible to it but I always fall for ‘free’ shipping. If I just need a small extra amount to order to receive ‘free’ shipping, I will look for some item to buy.

  3. I tend to think I’m not swayed by advertising but of course, like many others, I’ve been sucked in by the ‘special offer, only until…….’ kind of ads.

    One UK ad, “Go compare, go compare” drove me so mad, I never even knew what the ad was about or for — some years later, I still don’t. But I do know that the ad was successful because of the fact that so many people hated it.

  4. I don’t watch tv so I don’t see a lot of ads but I do hear them (my husband watches tv). The 6pm news here has loads of ads for prescription drugs aimed at old people and most of the commercial is used to list all the possible side affects, like “possible death”. I do remember one old commercial that annoyed me so much I refused to buy the product, it was a laundry detergent, which was actually a very good product, but their commercial offended me so much I vowed never to buy it.

  5. This got me thinking about commercials I remember because they were really good and memorable for the right reasons:

    -Jockey ‘Show ‘Em What’s Underneath ad campaign felt really authentic to me and I enjoyed hearing the stories.
    -Lume – all of their ads are so creative and hysterical. I could rewatch them over again because they are just that hilarious and entertaining
    -Budweiser Someone Is Waiting At Home with the Dog – really a Don’t Drink & Drive PSA, but it was so well done that even though I don’t particularly like the taste of Bud, I found it gave me a more positive impression of the brand.
    -Claritin ad with the puppy – I guess I can be easily influenced by cute puppies!
    -POP Fit – I actually bought their leggings after watching the video on Facebook and I am not into the athleisure trend at all.
    -No B.S. Skincare – Also loved their video on Facebook pointing out all the issues with traditional beauty product advertising.

    1. Dove’s “love your body” campaign was really good too. I don’t buy their products that often (so perhaps it wasn’t so effective i that sense), but I thought that was a really positive message done in a genuine way.

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