May 2017 Special Section

The Psychology of Ads


Written By: Lauren Castillo

What makes an advertisement successful? Is it the platform it’s promoted on? The amount of money spent in producing it? The product it is selling? Or is it something much more? In a sea of commercials, trailers, billboards, posters and endless popups — ads that stand out among the rest are those that utilize the science of psychology.

As the field of advertising has grown and research into the human subconscious has increased, the science of advertising has evolved. In today’s world of advertising, it is often the psychology of the ad that is more important that the actual value of the product that is being sold.

According to Dr. Jane Douglas, an Associate Professor of Management Communication in the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida “You can get away with [a product] that doesn’t work for a long time, you can get tens of millions or hundreds of million of dollars out of something before people realize it doesn’t work.”

Instead of focusing on the product being sold, advertising companies spend a lot of money and time researching what makes people tick.

In 1957, popular American journalist and social critic Vance Packard published a book, which quickly became very influential among the American public, called “The Hidden Persuaders.” In his book, Packard explored the psychological methods and techniques that advertisers used in an effort to try and subliminally convince viewers to buy their products.

Sixty years later, many advertising companies still rely on the use of techniques covered in Packard’s book to create successful ad campaigns. Many people may believe that the ability to decide whether or not to purchase a product is a rational choice, however, “irrationality dominates virtually all of our buying behavior,” said Douglas. While the concepts may seem complex, there are a variety of simple tools that advertising companies employ time and time again.

Reciprocity
One of the main tactics advertisers use is the idea of reciprocity. Simply put, the concept of reciprocity is the feeling of owing someone after they have done something for you. Due to this, when prompted you will feel more likely to return the favor. This notion has been tested countless times in the world of psychology.

According to Robert Cialdini, a psychology Professor at Arizona State University, if a server brings the customer his or her check with nothing else alongside it, the customer will tip according to however he or she feels is appropriate. However, if the server brings a mint or candy with the check, Cialdini says the price of tips increases by 3.3 percent.

In practice, this same concept can be seen with ads that offer a free gift with purchase. This is reciprocity at work in the world of advertising, and it is one of the most powerful tools for advertisers to employ.

Scarcity
Another psychological tactic commonly used in advertising is scarcity. “Scarcity is one of the strongest drivers of irrational behavior,” said Douglas.

The concept at play here is the idea that you are more likely to purchase a product if you feel pressured to do so due to limited availability and time constraints. Ads that flash the tagline “limited-time offer” or “get them before they’re gone” are utilizing this psychological tool.

A study conducted in 1975 by researchers Worchel, Lee and Adewole tested just how effective the perception of scarcity can be. In the study 200 female undergraduate students were asked to attribute value to two different jars filled with cookies. One jar was filled with ten cookies while the other only had two.

The researchers found that the students attributed significantly more value to the jar that only held two cookies in it. This is scarcity at work — the more rare you perceive the product to be the more likely you are to buy it.

Emotional Appeal
Emotional appeal may be one of the most important tactics an advertiser can employ. People are more than just consumers blindly staring at screens looking for products to purchase. We are defined by our experiences and, even though we may believe otherwise, many of our choices are not made through rational thought. It is the goal of a successful campaign to reach the subconscious and create a lasting emotional impression.

If a campaign can elicit the right type of emotion from its viewers whether that be happiness, sadness, fear or anger that ad will be successful regardless of the product it is selling.

For example, in 2012 Volkswagen released an ad that featured clips of people of all ages laughing. At the end of the ad, right before the Volkswagen logo appears, flashes the line “It’s not about the miles, it’s how you live them.”

If you have ever seen this commercial you may have found yourself smiling at the end, if so, you are not alone.

What makes this ad so interesting, however, is the fact that not a single car is shown throughout the entirety of the commercial. Yet, even without displaying the product Volkswagen creates a successful image for their brand.

As Douglas explains, “The most successful advertising doesn’t look like advertising, the biggest revolution that’s happened in advertisement is being less obvious to differentiate between advertisement and regular content.”

In cases such as these, the advertisement is successful because it reaches to the subconscious of the viewer and creates an emotional appeal that causes them to associate feelings of positivity with the company. When comparing different car brands these emotions will ultimately have an effect on the consumer’s choice.

The business of advertising is so much more than just selling a product. Advertisers put an immense amount of work to create brands that tailor to the human subconscious, and while you may believe that your feelings about a product are completely up to your discretion — years of psychological research says differently. 

LAUREN CASTILLO is a second year Journalism and Criminology major at the University of Florida. With a passion for writing, traveling, criminal justice and Chipotle, Lauren hopes to one day attend law school to become a legal affairs correspondent while also exploring the globe and receiving as much extra guac as the world has to offer.

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