The Sneaky Psychology Of Advertising

So what is the psychology of advertising, that is what we discuss today. The mission of advertising, at the end of the day, is to get you to do something. Whether it’s to purchase something, sign up for something, or take some form of action, advertising works to invoke something within ourselves to take that course of action.

In recent years, the landscape for advertising has taken a more digital approach, to add to a large number of strategies at the disposal of a modern-day digital marketer. Things such as digital advertising (for example, Google Adwords), or developing content to invoke those feelings of authenticity, such as videos on YouTube or TikTok, all come with the same purpose, just being utilised in a different medium.

Yet a lot of the tried and true methods come from more base psychology that still holds true today, whether you are posting your latest travel tips, or reviewing the latest tech, everything happening in the background is all there to get us to take that action That is the intriguing psychology of advertising!

The Color of Advertising

This is a pretty common one discussed, how each colour triggers some emotion that the advertiser is going for. Maybe you are looking to promote security and health. So you go with the cool colour group, which are your purples, greens and blues. Or maybe you simply want to grab the attention of the intended user and decide to use the all-powerful colour, red. Don’t think it works? Why’d you think that subscribe button on YouTube is red? It’s all to be able to catch your eye and attention.

It’s also another reason why many restaurants use the colour red. Since it actually triggers hunger in people, and you’ll see nearly all fast-food chains using it. Maybe the advertiser is going for a sophisticated and refined look. Which is where your blacks, whites and golds come in, to showcase that refinement in their branding towards you.

Consider colour the entry point in the advertiser’s arsenal as they set up their overall blueprint.

The Power of Visual Advertising

We consume a lot visually more so nowadays in the past when we really only had print media via flyers, newspapers, signs and billboards. Visual branding is still extremely important and relevant today. These are the foundation of the company’s look and feel, and works in parallel when developing brand guidelines. You want to make sure that your branding comes across as consistent and attractive, while at the same time is so unique it becomes memorable. The idea is to have people recognise you by your logo alone.

It doesn’t stop at the logo, as the other elements help you get to that point in your branding. Everything matters, from your colour choices (see above), to the font utilised, and how they’re paired with imagery and digital graphics.

This cocktail is essentially the cornerstone of your visual branding, which lets people know who you are and has them remember you. This also works for those that have been around for a lot longer, and use their memorable logo to instil nostalgia on their customer base, getting them to come back and return as spenders.

Yellow cab speeds through Times Square
NEW YORK – Yellow cab speeds through Times Square the busy tourist intersection of neon art and billboards

This Sounds Quite Complex – Who Can Handle all This?

Enter the digital marketer – part artist/part scientist. They understand the combination of colour selection, visual advertising and brand guidelines, and bring it online, the largest advertising platform on the planet, simply because you can reach nearly everyone on it. It is for that specific reason that digital marketers also need to add some data management and budgeting skills to their repertoire. This is due to exactly how vast their reach can be. Sure you can try to make everyone your target market, but in the end, that will get quite expensive, with minimal results.

Digital marketers have an array of tools they can utilise to actually track their performance, and adjust their budgets and operations to increase the metrics they are tracking and are responsible for. It’s no longer enough for a marketer to simply come up with some great sounding idea with the best visuals attached to it, without having the other side of the equation, the actual performance, being a factor in their strategy.

This role continues to get even more scientific, with many experienced digital marketers able to prove their skills through these data points, and not just through influential conversation.

Content is King, Digital Content is Emperor

Content output has only become more important, and the medium has drastically shifted from the printed word to images and now video content. Due to the overwhelming amount of content that people absorb nowadays, it’s important to be eye-catching now more than ever, and that means visuals to a scale never seen before.

We’re not just talking about images of a product and some quirky how-to video. Now it’s nearly expected to have images, graphics, presentations, video content, blogs, infographics and data visualisation. This is the bare minimum required to make an impact.

There needs to be enough content used to make sure that it’s going out to all the social media channels as well out there. These social media channels themselves are where the digital community villages are all interconnected and built, and where advertisers spend a significant amount of time.

This builds authenticity which is one of the six major ways of persuasion that is used in the psychology of advertising. Once you are able to allow for customers to connect with founders and visionaries, then we can move on towards the subscription and liking of their platform. The more people liking or following leads to social proofing, verifying the need for the product, service or message.

Finally, digital advertisers use consistency and reciprocity to keep new members joining these digital circles, and combine it with scarcity to keep them there, such as community only promotions, giveaways, raffles etc. This is all to invoke and cause overstimulation. A persuasive technique, commonly used in advertising.

Some Things Remain, Some Change in the Psychology of Advertising

The messaging within all these different channels is also critical in the mind of an advertiser. It’s that blend of emotional appeal, the right amount of data and facts presented or specific language that is used to grab the attention of the customer. The truth is that a lot of these tactics haven’t changed. Maybe the names have, or there’s a different approach focused on the more digital arena, but in the end, it’s all about getting above all the noise that is out there, making you feel happy about the purchase, and sometimes even feel better than others through your purchase. 

Currency is quite interesting in this arena today. Originally advertising was a mechanic used to simply convince someone to buy a product. Today it has expanded into a much more data-driven arena. It’s still important that the purchase of the goods eventually occurs, but now it’s more about influence and social wealth. Being an influencer on the digital scale has literally opened up a new career path, where their sole purpose is actually eliminating the digital advertising noise, and providing their own insights and recommendations to millions of their followers.

That social currency is what advertisers for large corporations are also actively trying to accomplish. The interesting part is, that both parties understand the necessary tactics that are needed to invoke the desired emotions from their audience.

How Sneaky is the Psychology of Advertising?

We’re confronted with thousands of brand exposures every single day. Everywhere you turn there’s another logo or advertisement for a product or service. In order to get their message heard, marketers have turned to the latest psychological research.

Find out how they target your subconscious in the infographic below.

The Early Days (History of Advertising)

Businesses are now finding different ways to apply elements of behavioral psychology in their advertising and marketing campaigns. However, this isn’t a new field. Several people played key roles in the early marriage between psychology and advertising.

1895 – Harlow Gale

One of the earliest psychologists to work in advertising. Gale sent a questionnaire to Minnesota businesses to study how people process ads. Only 10% of businesses responded, but firms would later change their tune.

1903 – Walter Dill Scott

Published “The Theory and Practice Of Advertising.” people are highly suggestible and obedient. He is credited with giving scientific which he argues that credibility to psychology’s involvement in advertising.

1920 – John B. Watson

Said that effective advertising appeals to three innate emotions: love, fear, and rage. He also believed in celebrity endorsements and market research, using demographic data to target certain consumers.

How Marketers Target You Today

With all the advertisements consumers are exposed to daily, a few trends emerge. Today, consumers are bombarded by buzz words, pop-up sales, celeb endorsements, and other advertising techniques that have become commonplace.

Buzzwords like “Sizzling Hot Products”

Brands use buzz words, powerful marketing words to sweet talk consumers into taking action. As with most advertising, buzz words solicit an emotional response from consumers, creating associations with the product.

Discounts “Get 10% Off Now”

People are always looking for good deals. Advertisements will offer a percentage discount, dollar discount, or a buy one-get-one discount to get consumers to take action.

The “No Risk, Free Trial” Approach

The “Try Before You Buy risk reversal approach is proven to be extremely effective. “Free” is one of the most powerful words in advertising, enticing consumers to try new products every day.

The Limited Time Offer

Giving consumers a deadline, short time frame, or limited supply prompts action. Research shows time- pressured advertising is most effective for expensive products like electronics.

Testimonials “It Worked For Me”

Testimonials in ads are aimed at giving consumers proof that they aren’t wasting their time. Most effective testimonial ads counter an objection or answer a question the consumer may have.

Testimonials: We Love It

Result Driven Ads: Stronger, Better, Faster

Ads that give a clear benefit target the results-driven part of the consumer brain. Citing the results of a product (the homemade tree house, not the drill) can help the consumer picture how they’ll use it. 

The “Be Like Me” Ads

A well-known celebrity representing a product increases a brand’s credibility. People are more likely to trust a celebrity with a positive reputation over the company they don’t know much about. 

Social Selling “People You Know Like This Product”

Social selling makes for powerful advertising. More than a testimonial or celebrity endorsement, people trust their friends. Ads may suggest that a consumer’s friends already use and love a product.

How Brands Tap Into Your Subconscious

By now, many people have become desensitized to the buzzwords and endorsement tactics. But at the same time, marketers are using persuasive techniques to target your subconscious.

Make Their Logos Speak To You

Researchers have discovered that brand logo exposure can have a big impact on everything from a consumer’s honesty to creativity. When we are exposed to logos, they activate a set of associations we have with that brand. Leading us to exhibit behaviors that are consistent with the brand’s image.

Apple Makes You More Creative

Experiment: Subjects were shown either a subtly displayed Apple or IBM logo, then asked to name as many uses for a brick as they could think of. 

Results: Researchers found that people who’d seen the Apple logo were more creative in their responses.

Make You Happy With Their Product

Not all advertising is designed to tell you the properties of a product. Research suggests repeatedly showing a product (laundry detergent, for example) surrounded by things we feel good about (flowers and sunshine) makes us feel good about the product, a process called affective conditioning.

The Feel-Good Pen

Experiment: Subjects were told about two brands of pens, one of which had better properties than the other. Before picking a pen, a group of subjects was shown pictures that paired the brand name of the worse pen with positive things. 

Results: The group that did not see pictures of the pen with positive things chose the pen with the best qualities most of the time. The group that underwent affective conditioning picked the worse pen 70-80% of the time.

Make you want to pay more

Advertisers want to make a sale. Recent research suggests they can tap into your subconscious for an even bigger buy. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests repeated exposure to luxury brands can actually help induce big spending.

Feeling Richer

Experiment: Subjects saw words flash on a screen for 60 milliseconds. Some saw words for luxury brands like “Tiffany” “Neiman Marcus,” and “Nordstrom”. While others saw discount brands like “Walmart,” “Kmart,” or “Dollar Store.” 

Results: Those who saw the luxury brands were more likely than those who saw the discount brands to prefer a $6 pair of Nike socks over a $5.25 double pack of Hanes socks.

Make You Revise Your Memories

Research has shown that some advertising has the power to distort a person’s memories. In the same way eyewitnesses to a crime can be lead to believe they saw something they didn’t, consumers can have their memories revised. Since memory is malleable, advertisers could win back consumers who thought they’d had bad experiences with a product.

Meeting Mickey

Experiment: Researchers showed fake “Remember the Magic Disney theme park ads to a group of subjects after removing subjects who reported they’d met a character at a theme park before. The ads reminded readers of the park’s sights and attractions. 

Results: Of the subjects who were shown ads featuring happy memories of meeting Mickey, 90% later reported increased confidence that this event had or might have happened to them.

Make You Overstimulated

You’re not going crazy-stores really are getting louder. Research shows that shoppers make more impulsive purchases when they’re overstimulated. The club-like music blaring in stores like Abercrombie & Fitch leads to sensory overload, which weakens self-control. Different kinds of music can solicit different responses from customers.

Music to Buy To

Tempo: In restaurants, slow music urges diners to linger, prompting them to splurge on dessert or an extra drink. 

Country Of Origin: According to a University of Leicester study, when a wine store played French music, most patrons purchased French wines. German music boosted sales of German wines. 

Lyrics: A French study revealed that playing songs with “prosocial” lyrics about empathy and helping others can increase tips – good news for servers everywhere. 

Next read: The Mandela Effect: Do You Remember Correctly?

Original infographic via in 2011, content updated November 2021.

Psychology of Advertising Infographic

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