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  • Writer's pictureGladwyn Lewis

Ads are so wrong!

Updated: May 19, 2023

Inception - Spinning Top
Inception - Spinning Top

Generations of Ad men, from the time of Ogilvy, commonly known as the ‘father of advertising’, have fed us this narrative on how advertising gently seduces us, eventually leading to a purchase.

We’ve been told:

Ads prey on our emotions. They work by creating positive associations between the advertised product and feelings like love, happiness, safety, and confidence. These associations grow and deepen over time, making us feel favorably disposed toward the product and, ultimately, more likely to buy it.

And this mechanism, of how ads influence human behaviour is more inception than just a plain suggestive tactic. It’s coined like an implantation of an idea in people’s minds, subvertly influencing or outright manipulating their motivations in a deeply intrusive manner. This phenomenon, and I call it phenomenon, because there is no outright word that can adequately describe such subversive, and possibly psychopathic behaviour. These suggestions or dreams aren’t the inception vector, instead it's just the ideas, stories and images, especially those with potent emotions that crack even the most hardened shells of men.

“Why Good Advertising Works (Even When You Think It Doesn’t), says that.

Advertising rarely succeeds through argument or calls to action. Instead, it creates positive memories and feelings that influence our behaviour over time to encourage us to buy something at a later date.
The objective [of advertising], is to seed positive ideas and memories that will attract you to the brand.
Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke
Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke

Dr. Anna Lembke’s new book, “Dopamine Nation”, emphasizes that we are now all addicts to a degree. She calls the smartphone the “modern-day hypodermic needle”, where we turn to for quick highs, an endless cycle of seeking attention, validation and distraction, with each swipe, like, tweet and snap. But this endless rush of dopamine chasing, has left us bereft and empty. Researchers now have found an inverse connection between the two. The higher a country’s ad spend was in one year, the less satisfied its citizens were a year or two later. Basically, Advertising makes us unhappy.

Whoa, hold up, this goes against every grain, morsel, food for thought, that we have been taught about. What happened to that visceral emotional response? Shouldn’t the opposite be true? Or maybe, we are just looking at things in a wrong way.

Remember the Pavlov experiment with the dogs? So, Pavlov first discovered what we call today, classical conditioning, when he was experimenting with his dog, ‘Circa’, who over a period of time started associating food delivery with the ringing of the bell, hence would salivate in expectance of an eventual food delivery. Pavlov hypothesized that humans too could be trained to make more-or-less arbitrary associations, and if you think about it, this is a precursor to much of what we have been trained about advertising.

Think about it. We’ve been told, show emotion, positive if you want it reinforced. Let’s use grit for this example. Nike is infamous for showing grit, determination, and perseverance in its ads, you’d think by now that model would have lost its lustre, only it hasn’t. But the underlying principle of every Nike ad is, you see a story of grit and perseverance, you connect it with a story of your life, the vibes attract you to purchasing Nike shoes or products, because it deludes you into thinking you’re a part of that ‘perseverance against all odds’ culture that Nike promotes.

Great. Sound logical? Perhaps not. Let me explain why...

How ads should work...

This model, of how ads should work, is so ingrained in modern culture, I doubt any of us have actually thought about it. And I mean really thought about it. To suggest that an intelligent, rational, thinking creature like a human could change his view, perspective, thought with nothing more than a few images is inherently illogical to me.

Hear me out. At least Pavlov’s dogs received the food, following the stimulus. Meaning an action led to a reward. Hence, they weren’t easily manipulated. Now if you’re going through a difficult time and a Nike representative gave you a pep talk, pumped you up and then gave you a shoe for free, of course the natural association would happen.

But ads today are shells of its former counterparts. Yes, there are some that do stand out. But hear me out, ads can’t feed you, hurt you, or comfort you in any way possible. So, if we are talking about emotional manipulation (and the fact that it is not argued against), we should of course subject it to a high burden of proof.

Realistically it boils down to a number of things. Can an ad be that memorable that you watch it once, and it is forever inked in your memory? Or is it that we need to see it multiple times before our desires are so ‘cheaply’ written over? Regardless the point still stands, we can be easily influenced, and external agents can, without our explicit permission, change the content of our minds and hence our desires. This means that if inception does work on us, then our goals, ambitions, and preferences can not only be manipulated, but way too easily manipulated. All we as advertisers need to do is show a pretty face next to Product X, and suddenly we are filled with the desire to acquire that product.

I firmly believe that the inception theory of advertising does our human mind a terrible disservice. It makes us look like impulsive buffoons that are manipulated as easily as the Three Sisters of Fate, who change human destiny by simply playing with the strings that bind us.

Nope, I refuse to accept that, we aren’t that easily manipulated. Well then begs the question, how does advertising really work?

Advertising and the Fine Line that is Truth.

Advertising is a collection of various techniques that collectively work with each other to succeed. And they are not mutually exclusive, in fact, one ad might employ a couple of techniques all coupled at once. The pillar is that these techniques impart legitimate, valuable information. Let’s take a crack at a few:

Raising awareness

Most ads, technically fall in this category. “Hey, Product X exists. Here’s how it works. It’s available for purchase here, here, and here. Almost all ads work, in at least some part by being informative and telling customers that hey, there is a product that solves a particular problem, or fulfils a particular need. And if that makes an impression through presentation, edits, animation, visual, motion, sonic, then even better.

Measures of Persuasion

More Doctors Smoke Camel
More Doctors Smoke Camel

Occasionally an ad will employ some measures of persuasion. But remember, contrary to popular opinion, this is not the most common or most powerful mechanism. Often, this backfires repeatedly on several brands. In the older, let’s call it legal cigarette days, “4/5 doctors prefer Camels”, was used quite often. You’ll tend to notice; older ads were very fond of this technique. Thankfully, its lost is appeal as modern advertising has taken over.

Now this leads us to the most important, and arguably strongest proponent technique of advertising.

Making Promises.

This is arguably where branding and advertising merge cohesively together, creating a compelling technique that given the test of time and consistency works on customers. BMW does this very well, “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. As a promise, this is cemented in your expectation when you purchase a BMW (Apologies in advance to the Mercedes’ fans, you know who you are 😊), customers come to rely on that BMW is going to provide just that. And when BMW does fail to deliver on this promise (enter the BMW X6), consumers get angry, and feel betrayed.

BMW - X6 (Hated or Not?)
BMW - X6 (Hated or Not?)

So, no matter how this promise is conveyed to the customer, be it explicitly or implicitly, the brand is always incentivized to deliver on that promise. You the customer respond in kind by buying more of the product, and allying yourself closely to that brand because you believe firmly that they will deliver in their promise to you.

Honest Signalling

Now there’s another piece of the puzzle. Another technique widely adopted in recent days. It’s called “Honest Signalling”. Here an ad conveys a message, simply by existing. Or to pin it down, existing in a very expensive location. The perception is that the brand is willing to spend a lot of money, it shows commitment, and they are putting money where their mouths are, a lot of it!

This can also be used deceptively. Think FTX and their very expensive Superbowl ads, but for the more honest companies, it does create a perception of stability. I mean after all only a big, stable company can afford to spend that much on such a prime location without such support. This leads the customer to believe that the products are of higher quality and perhaps a higher calibre. The same way an engagement ring (with a very expensive diamond), is considered an honest commitment between a man and his future spouse.

So that’s for the ads that choose to stay above board. But as we all know, unfortunately, not every ad is so straightforward and clear-cut.

The Sneaky Advertising

Corona - Find your beach
Corona - Find your beach

Whatever seems to be going on here, at a first glance, you know it is not about awareness, persuasion, promises or honest signalling. I mean, at the end of the day, there is no information that can be deciphered at all. The image is so conceptual, so arbitrary, that it doesn’t convey any information about Corona, neither does it distinguish Corona from its competitors. After all you could replace the Corona bottle with a Kilkenny or a Bira, and it wouldn’t make a damn difference!

This ad employs a sort of Pavlovian association between the idea of Corona and relaxing on a beach. The goal is to seed us with imaginary associations that when we see a Corona we think of past times at the beach, or we associate a Corona with good memories. Basically warm, fuzzy feelings, then: purchase!

But remember my tirade about emotional inception? Well, I do not think that’s what’s going on here. I think there’s another technique at play. I think this is more cultural inception, a term used by Kevin Simler, where while similar to the theories surrounding emotional inception, the effect of cultural inception is far, far larger.

Cultural inception is a technique where an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural associations. This is turn, changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Drinking a Bira, Kilkenny, or a Corona, says something about you. You could be a discerning beer connoisseur, or you are fussy for the taste of that independent brewery, or you’re just a ‘chill’ person. But, and here’s the important thing, you are never in control of that message, it just is adopted by the world, and is imprinted in urban culture to associate brands with such characteristics. You the customer, only have a choice in belonging in that club, or that association. This is where the success of this ad campaign doesn’t need to work on anyone, it just needs to work on X, turning the product into a more cultural association with a membership through purchase.

Now of course, some products work better at this than others. Think Apple. But see, the class of products can be massive in terms of this particular technique’s usage. Beer, soft drinks, chocolate bars, energy drinks (in fact any kind of food), restaurants, bars, coffee shops, airlines, cars, computers, clothing, music, movies, and even TV shows (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, anything Star Wars related – recently the Mandalorian). Even household product carries these signals, because you eventually hope that people you invite to your home notice it.

For this type of a campaign to succeed, an ad campaign that is targeted and relatable seeds everyone with this imprint, or message, or association. Then it steps back and just waits, as its tendrils crawls into popular culture and takes hold and root in your brain. Your choice is simple, do you like and want to associate yourself with such signals that the brand allows you to send? If yes, welcome…

Advertisements in Time Square
Advertisements in Time Square

So, for an ad to work in cultural inception, it is not enough to be seen by one person. This is a mass audience, loud and obnoxious type of advertising. It has to be broadcast publicly and acquire as many eyeballs as possible over a longer period of time. You need to imprint in stadiums, billboards, bus stops, subways, stations, social media, websites. But the internet here is always a reinforcing mechanism (the annoying little ad that follows you till it's done its job), it’s the offline that does the true cultural inception, imprinting, and then finally reinforcement.

The beauty of this type of inception, is that it stays, it has longevity. This ad doesn’t need to incept deep into our emotional cortex, it just merely needs to suggest that other people’s brains are privy to its inception and adoption – and then regardless of whatever evidence that our logical centres might require, it will slowly work its way into the fabric of our social reality, to become an enduring part of our cultural landscape. It leaves our goals fully intact, without any modification (unlike emotional inception), and it ends up with more of those products being advertised, by just changing the subtle pathways of influence.

If you’re one of those bold, daring brands that wants to achieve cultural inception, get in touch, we’d love to work with you!

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