Advertising is about action. Sure, hammering home brand names and convincing people they’re missing something in their life is important, but to the company’s bottom line only one thing that matters: Did the customer decide to buy? The answer is a simple yes or no, but the factors that contribute to our purchasing decisions, the “why” behind this yes or no, has spawned some of the stranger and most interesting research in sociology and psychology. Attempts to explain what makes us open our wallets are as varied as the explanations for human behaviors in general, with degrees of proof and disproof for many competing theories. Perhaps we only spend money when we believe we are getting a good deal (or that deals will only get worse in the future), maybe we spend unconsciously because the spending of money is associated with new things, progress, and difference, and those are what we really want. Often, studies find that we buy simply what we are told to buy over and over again. In fact, most studies find the most certain indicator of what type/brand of item someone will purchase is how often and how recently they’ve heard about or seen the item.
Carl I. Hovland’s ‘Message Learning Theory’ is one of the earlier and more famous frameworks in which to think about advertising effectiveness. For Hovland, the ultimate measure of success for a message was if that message was remembered. The #1 way for increasing someone’s recall is simple repetition. Even if its a message the person doesn’t like, they will eventually come to believe it if it is repeated often enough in enough channels. This even includes things which are patently untrue, so long as there’s not too much conflicting information available. Dictatorships with tight control over the mass media, such as Nazi Germany or North Korea, have been able to use repetition and repression of conflicting information to convince entire populations of the most outlandish and self-contradictory things. Hovland theorized that the most successful messages 1) came from a trusted expert, 2) were targeted at certain susceptible groups (children, elderly, those with low education, etc), and 3) were presented on the right medium (video tends to beat audio and photo for example). Dialing in these factors, plus repeating a message as often as possible, was the formula to massive growth in adverting throughout the mid 20th century.
Later, other theories were elaborated that tried to be more person-focused. So instead of looking at what the advertiser or company was putting out, the focus became on what the consumer perceived. These ‘self-persuasion’ theories are behind much of the lifestyle and attitude focused advertising we see today. One popular version of the theory posits that while we sometimes understand and make choices based on understood logic and benefits, such as choosing a car with high gas mileage, we also make choices in situations where we can’t figure out the real costs and benefits to a purchase. This category seem to be much larger, especially with complex and non-essential purchases. In these cases, we throw logic to the wind and decide based on things as insubstantial as the humor, originality, or polish with which a product is presented to us. Commercials for things like fast food and beer often use these persuasion tools, where the less the consumer thinks about the cost/benefit of the product, the better.
Try seeing for yourself how many ads fall into just the two categories we covered above. Some industries and products use experts, claim product benefits, or only show their products in certain media that fit with their image. Contrast this to companies that seem to have their logo simply everywhere, appeal more to your feelings than to their product, and almost never make concrete product claims. Both are trying to persuade you, and maybe now you know a little more about the reasons why.