Everywhere we go, we’re surrounded by ads. You see them every time you surf the Web, watch TV, read a magazine, or drive down the highway. A report by Media Dynamics estimates that the average American adult is exposed to more than 350 ad messages every day.
All these ads have the same purpose: to get you to buy whatever they’re selling. However, they use a wide variety of methods to achieve this goal. Some ads play on your fears, while others appeal to your needs and desires. A good ad hooks your emotions and bypasses your brain, encouraging you to shop impulsively rather than compare products to choose the best value.
However, you don’t have to fall for these tricks. You can outsmart the advertisers by learning to recognize their techniques and understand how they manipulate you. Being able to see through the smoke and mirrors can help you break the spell and become a sensible shopper.
Common Advertising Strategies
A successful ad has to do three things. First, it has to attract your attention, since you can’t respond to an ad you don’t watch. And in the modern world, with lots of different messages competing for attention all the time, this can be a tough barrier to get past. According to Media Dynamics, people generally don’t notice more than half the ads they see on a given day.
Second, an ad has to get the name of the product across in a way that sticks in your memory. A TV commercial can catch your eye and hold your attention all the way to the end, but it does no good if you forget what it was for the minute your show comes back on. The advertiser wants you to remember the product’s name later on when you see it in the store.
But it isn’t enough just to remember the product; the advertiser also wants you to see it in a positive light. That way, when you’re faced with an array of similar products on the shelf, you’ll be more likely to reach for Brand A instead of Brand X. That’s the third goal of advertising, and it’s the one that involves the most manipulation. Advertisers use several common techniques to put a positive spin on their products and convince you that this is something you truly want – or better yet, something you need.
One of the easiest ways to get people to buy something is to make them scared of what could happen to them without it. Humans are afraid of many things, including death, accidents, illness, aging, and emotional rejection. Advertisers play into all these fears to convince people to open up their wallets.
One of the most successful fear-based ad campaigns of all time was the series of 1920s Listerine ads that coined the term “halitosis.” Bad breath, which had previously been seen as merely an annoyance, suddenly became a medical condition that could doom victims to a lifetime of social isolation. One magazine ad, reprinted here in Smithsonian magazine, blared, “Halitosis makes you unpopular,” and warned that one out of three people have it – including those “from the wealthy classes.”
The campaign was a huge success: According to the popular economics book “Freakonomics,” sales of Listerine rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million over a seven-year period.
Why This Technique Works: Fear is a basic human instinct. In prehistoric times, it played a key role in human survival, teaching us to flee from fire, predators, and other dangers. When facing threats like these, there’s no time to analyze all the possible outcomes and carefully weigh your options. You have to react immediately to save yourself while you can.
However, this same instinctive reaction can work against us in the modern world. We’re still hardwired to perceive and respond to dangers, and when we do, we react on instinct, bypassing the logical parts of our brains.
This means that if advertisers can convince us there are dangers lurking around every corner, they can easily persuade us to consume whatever they offer us to defend ourselves. They terrify us with the specter of swine flu to convince us to stock up on hand sanitizer and encourage us to buy gas-guzzling SUVs to protect our families from the hazards of the road. Their message is, “It’s a dangerous world out there, but our product can save you. Don’t stop to think; just buy it, now, or face the consequences.”
How to Fight Back: Naturally, there’s no way you can reason yourself out of your fears in the space of a 30-second commercial slot. It takes years of therapy to do that. What you can do instead is try to break the link between your fear and the product in the ad.
When you see an ad that plays into your fears, ask yourself two questions:
- What am I afraid of?
- Will this product really protect me from it?
For example, suppose you see an ad for antibacterial soap warning about the dangers of diseases like swine flu and SARS. These are two perfectly reasonable things to be afraid of. However, if you step back and think about it, you’ll realize that these diseases are both caused by viruses, not bacteria. There’s no way an antibacterial soap can protect you from them. (In fact, the Food and Drug Administration passed a rule in 2016 removing most types of antibacterial soap from the market because the companies that make them couldn’t show that they were both safe and effective – even against bacteria.)
While some ads play into your fears, others work by appealing to your needs. One example is “bandwagon” ads, which appeal to people’s need to belong. The name comes from the phrase “hop on the bandwagon,” meaning to join in on a popular trend.
Bandwagon ads aim to convince you that you should do exactly that. Their basic message is that everyone else is already using this product, and if you don’t, you’ll be left out of the fun.
A classic bandwagon ad campaign is the “I’m a Pepper” ads for Dr Pepper soda in the 1970s and early 1980s. They feature a series of perky, good-looking stars drinking Dr Pepper and singing about all the other people who drink it too. The first ad in the series (shown here on YouTube) offers the blatant message: “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper…wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?”
Why This Technique Works: According to psychologists, all humans share certain basic needs – and the need to feel loved and accepted is one of the most important. Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that this need for love and belonging comes right behind basic physical needs – food, shelter, and the need for safety and security. People meet this need by seeking out social groups where they fit in, including clubs, churches, professional organizations, and sports teams. When it’s not met, they become lonely and can suffer from anxiety or depression.
“Bandwagon” ads work because they tap into this fundamental need. When you see a big group of people – usually young, attractive people – all using the same product, it sends the clear message that using this product is the way to get in with the cool kids.
How to Fight Back: Just like fear-based ads, bandwagon ads work at a deep psychological level. Wanting to be accepted is normal, and there’s no reason to fight against it. However, it is reasonable to ask yourself where you want to be accepted – and why.
The clear message behind bandwagon ads is that using the right product is the key to fitting in. But if you think about it, you probably don’t want to be part of a group that only accepts you because of the shoes you wear or the soda you drink. You’re much more likely to feel comfortable with people who actually have something meaningful in common with you. Shared interests, values, or goals are a much better basis for friendship than liking the same soft drink.
So, next time you see a TV ad urging you to join the crowd, ask yourself: Is this really a crowd I want to join?
3. Sex Appeal
The sex drive is one of the most basic human instincts – even more basic than the need for love and belonging. Advertisers take advantage of this fact, using erotic images to sell everything from cars to clothes.
Sometimes these ads imply that using the product will make you more attractive, or will get you noticed by attractive people. For instance, beer ads often feature lots of bikini-clad women, while perfume ads usually show an alluring woman as the center of attention. However, ads can also link a product to sex in more subtle ways; they make the product seem desirable by showing it alongside other images that get you hot and bothered.
One of the most famous ad campaigns that used sex to sell was the series of commercials for Calvin Klein jeans from 1980 and 1981, featuring the beautiful 16-year-old Brooke Shields. In one TV spot (shown here on YouTube), Shields sits with legs apart, dressed in skin-tight jeans, as the camera slowly pans up her legs and over her crotch. When it reaches her face, she murmurs, “You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”
Why This Technique Works: Like fear, sex is a primal instinct that can completely bypass the logical parts of our brains. This makes sexual messages very hard to ignore. A 2017 study at the University of Illinois found that people are more likely to notice, and remember, ads with “sexual appeals” in them.
However, that interest doesn’t always translate into better sales for the product. For one thing, sexy ads don’t appeal to everyone equally. Men tend to like them, but women often find them distasteful. That’s why you’re a lot more likely to see sexual images in ads aimed at men, such as magazine spreads featuring a beautiful woman draped over a sports car.
Sex-based ads can also backfire because the visuals distract people from the product – or because they make it come across as trashy or cheap. In general, sexy ads work best when they’re selling a product that fits well with the images. For instance, a gorgeous model in a swimsuit can work well in an ad for sunscreen – but in an ad for a laptop, people will remember the woman, not the computer.
How to Fight Back: As you can see, sexy images are good at getting you to notice an ad – but they’re not always good at getting you to buy. We can’t help looking because that’s the way our brains are wired, but breaking the mental link between the image and the product is actually pretty easy.
When you see an ad full of sexual imagery, all you have to do is ask yourself whether this product can really deliver on what it’s promising. For instance, when you see an attractive couple doing body shots with a particular brand of tequila, ask yourself, “Would I really be attracted to someone just because they were drinking this brand?” And if it wouldn’t work on you, what makes you think it would work for you?
If sex-based ads sometimes skew toward the cheap and tawdry, values-based ads swing in the opposite direction. These ads are designed to appeal to values like patriotism or family. For instance, an ad could show images of a perfect, happy family in a beautiful home, all wearing the same brand of sneakers, sending the message that these shoes are your ticket to a beautiful, happy family of your own. Another ad might depict a group of friends at a Fourth of July picnic, with Old Glory proudly flying above, drinking what the announcer describes as “a great American beer.”
Although the word “values” is most often used by social conservatives, ads can also promote more liberal values like peace and racial equality. The 1971 “Hilltop” ad for Coca-Cola (shown here on YouTube) is a perfect example. It shows young people of all nationalities gathered on a big, green hillside, singing about “teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony” – all while holding bottles of Coke labeled in different languages.
Why This Technique Works: Though values-based ads seem like the opposite of sexy ads, they work the same way – on a purely emotional level. You see the perfect family, or the Stars and Stripes, or people of all nations singing together, and it just makes you feel good. You want to be connected to whatever is behind it.
In most cases, though, the images in the ad have little or nothing to do with the product. What makes the “Hilltop” ad moving is the idea of unity and harmony – not the bottles of Coke. A soft drink can’t bring about world peace any more than a certain brand of sneakers can make your family happy and prosperous.
How to Fight Back: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to buy a product that supports your values. However, an ad that seems to promote those values isn’t the same thing as a product that does. So, when you see a values-based ad, think about whether the product really supports what it claims to.
For instance, when you see an ad full of patriotic imagery, don’t assume the product is all-American; find out whether it’s really made in the U.S. and supports American jobs. Similarly, if the ad shows a happy family, think about whether the product is actually useful for families. For instance, ads for baby formula typically show new mothers with happy, healthy babies – but they don’t always mention the fact that breastfeeding is both cheaper and healthier.
5. Celebrity Endorsements
Many ads feature celebrity sponsors, such as movie stars and sports figures to pitch a product. Rules set by the Federal Trade Commission require that celebrities must actually use the brands they promote – but in most cases, they’re paid generously to do so. An article at The Richest outlines some of the highest-paying celebrity endorsement deals of all time, including:
- McDonald’s. The fast-food giant paid $6 million to singer Justin Timberlake in 2003 to record the song “I’m lovin’ it,” based on the company’s slogan. The song continued to appear in McDonald’s ads for over 10 years.
- Nespresso. Since 2005, the coffee-machine manufacturer has paid actor George Clooney a reported $5 million per year to be the face of the company overseas. Most Americans aren’t aware of this sponsorship since these ads don’t air in the U.S.
- Pepsi. In 2012, pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles signed a 10-year contract with Pepsi for a whopping $50 million. She has done numerous print and TV ads for the soft drink, including a 2013 commercial featuring her song “Grown Woman.”
- Nike. Basketball legend Michael Jordan signed his first deal with Nike in 1984, earning $500,000 plus royalties to promote its Air Jordan sneakers for five years. Other endorsement deals followed. Today, Jordan is still bringing in a reported $60 million per year from the royalties alone.
Why This Technique Works: Celebrity ads work by linking the name of the product to a person you admire. You see a gorgeous model drinking a certain soft drink, or a talented sports star wearing a certain brand of shoes, and your brain makes the mental leap: Using this product is a way to be more like this person.
In some cases, this link isn’t just implied; it’s spelled out in the ad. For instance, Gatorade was another of the many brands Michael Jordan was sponsored by in his lengthy career. A 1991 commercial (shown in this article at ESPN) intersperses shots of Jordan shooting baskets with shots of kids and teens practicing their own moves while a song in the background describes their desire to “be like Mike.” The ad ends with the slogan “Be like Mike. Drink Gatorade.”
How to Fight Back: In most cases, the product a celebrity endorses has nothing to do with that person’s success. Drinking Gatorade won’t make you play basketball like Michael Jordan, just as drinking Pepsi won’t make you sing like Beyoncé. Recognizing this is the key to breaking the power of the ad.
Next time you see a celebrity in an ad, think about what you admire about this person, such as their looks, talent, wealth, or fame. Then ask yourself whether the product in the ad has anything to do with that quality. If not, an endorsement from that person has no more value than one from your next-door neighbor. In fact, it probably has less – at least you know your neighbor isn’t being paid for it!
The first goal of any ad is to attract attention. Scary, shocking images are one way to catch the eye, but using them in an ad tends to create negative feelings about the product. Using humor, by contrast, attracts attention and creates positive feelings – a win-win for advertisers.
One of the most famous uses of humor in an ad campaign was Apple’s “Get a Mac” series that ran from 2006 to 2009. These whimsical ads feature the characters of Mac, a young, cool guy in casual clothes, and PC, an older, stodgier guy in a suit and tie. Each brief scene between the two of them pokes gentle fun at PC for his difficulty handling basic tasks. You can view the entire series at Adweek, which called it the best advertising campaign of the decade.
Some humorous ads make fun of other, more conventional ads. For instance, a 1996 spot for Sprite, featuring basketball player Grant Hill (shown here on YouTube), parodied the “Be like Mike” ad and other commercials with sports stars. A teen boy, after seeing Hill drinking Sprite, does the same – but he still misses the basket. As he falls on his butt, a voice-over announces, “If you want to make it to the NBA…practice.”
Why This Technique Works: Try to remember one of the best ads you’ve seen lately. There’s a good chance the first one that came to your mind was a humorous ad. That goes to show that ads of this type do a good job meeting the first two goals of advertising: catching your attention and standing out in your memory.
Now, holding that ad in your mind, ask yourself how you feel about the product. If remembering the ad makes you smile or laugh out loud, that probably translates into a good feeling about the product – the final goal of advertising. Humor can make us like a product better, even when the joke has nothing to do with the product itself. An article in Psychology for Marketers puts it this way: “We buy from people we like, and humor is the easiest and fastest way to get there.”
How to Fight Back: There’s no denying that humorous ads can be fun to watch. The important thing is to remember that a funny ad doesn’t make a better product. It makes the most sense to treat these ads as a form of entertainment – not a serious guide to how you should shop. If you’re making a major financial investment, such as buying a computer or purchasing a car, you need to focus on the actual pros and cons of the product, not the cute characters in its ad.
Advertisements can be thrilling, touching, funny – even brilliant. A well-crafted ad can rise to the level of art, and it’s fine to appreciate it as you would any other piece. But there’s a difference between enjoying art and letting it control your buying decisions. You could go to a gallery and admire the Monets and van Goghs, but that doesn’t mean you’d feel compelled to buy a certain brand of soap that happened to be on sale in the museum gift shop.
When you understand how ads work, you can watch them with a critical eye. You can admire their craftsmanship and the way they appeal to your emotions without actually being sucked in by them. This gives you the best of both worlds: the ability to enjoy a good ad without letting it manipulate you.
What’s the best ad you’ve ever seen? Do you think it influenced your buying choices?