Advertising, Persuasion, Seduction and Noise

In Seducing the Subconscious, Robert Heath argues that existing models of how advertising works are misguided, mistaken and misleading, especially about the role that attention, liking and persuasion play in influencing customer behaviour. Seducing the Subconscious draws on many well known examples of advertising as well as the work of Robert Zajonc, Herb Krugman, Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux and others.

Advertising campaigns such as those by (with Aleksandr the meerkat), Go Compare (with Gio Compario) and O2 in the UK show that advertising does not need to be liked or to be memorable to be effective. Go Compare’s use of the opera singer Gio Compario was named as the UK’s most irritating ad in 2009 for the second year running, in contrast to Aleksandr the meerkat who was at the top of the same poll. The evidence from one year later was that Gio Compario had built Go Compare into a leadership position in their category, despite the strong dislike for the character and the advertising.

Likewise, through the last decade O2’s advertising was considered unassuming, with does taking off, people dancing and lots of blue water and bubbles, with a tagline “O2. See what you can do.” The ads had high awareness, but nobody could recall what they were meant to communicate about the brand, as the tagline didn’t make much sense and the ads made no claims about product features, price initiatives or special deals and calls to action.The advertising turned a dying phone network into the UK’s largest telecommunications company with 17 million customers (2005 numbers). This extraordinary growth was not based on special features, lower pricing, promotions or any other activities apart from advertising with blue bubbles.

Robert Heath argues that ┬áthis shows that advertising does not work because we like it or because it contains new and interesting information, but often works through subconscious priming. Typical models of advertising, and most especially St Elmo Lewis’ AIDA model (standing for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) which was the basis of the first advertising model and is still often invoked, cannot explain the impact of the Gio Compario and O2 campaigns.

AIDA and other related models were first seriously challenged by Andrew Ehrenberg in the 1970s, who argued that advertising was not necessarily about changing attitudes and persuading consumers, and that “advertising’s main role is to reinforce feelings of satisfaction with brands already being used”. Ehrenberg identified a number of weaknesses in models of advertising, including:

  • Lack of empirical evidence linking sales increases to advertising
  • Persistence of smaller brands in a climate of massive spending by brand leaders
  • Survival of brands even after advertising is stopped
  • Catastrophic failure rate of new products

Ehrenberg used a consumer panel to show that most markets have few 100% loyal buyers and that most people buy more than one brand. He determined that brand users did hold different attitudes to non-users, but there was no evidence of how attitudes were changed, and Ehrenberg concluded that behaviour was driving attitudes and not the other (traditional and intuitive) model that awareness leads to attitudes which leads to behaviour. He developed an alternative ATR model (awareness, trial, reinforcement), suggesting that advertising could create, reawaken or strengthen brand awareness and that the main purpose of repetitive advertising is to reinforce habits.

This thinking is dangerous for research agencies as it suggests that typical measures of advertising performance have no real basis in how advertising actually works. Take the example of Telma Noodles, cited by Robert Heath, whose ad agency developed a commercial involving a pop song with meaningless lyrics and a series of surrealistic scenes including people consuming the product. Unsurprisingly, research showed that the ad had dreadful scores for “ease of understanding”, “believability”, “relevance”, “branding” and “persuasion”, and also indicated that the song was widely disliked and was detracting from the product. The research agency recommended that the company find “a more simplistic route … which emphasises the brand name and benefits”.

The advertiser ignored the advice and ran the ad, which became the most liked ad among teenagers (93% liked the ad very much) and the brand took a substantial share of the market. The ad was liked, although this was not necessarily clear from the research, but there was no message. Another example of “trivial and silly” TV advertising that works.

Robert Heath argues that we simply do not pay attention to advertising, and that learning from nearly all advertising is passive with little or no cognitive resource deployed. So how can advertising work? Robert Zajonc coined the term “mere exposure” in 1968 based on research showing that being exposed to any stimulus changed attitudes towards the stimulus even at subliminal levels. For example, liking for something increases even when we are unaware of seeing it, meaning that processing of the stimulus is outside conscious attention and awareness. This is a priming effect. Peripheral exposure, where the priming happens through our peripheral vision has also been demonstrated.

We are influenced by many things that we are not aware of. This does not mean that we buy popcorn at the cinema because of a subliminal message on the screen (as suggested by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders), but it does mean that over time our exposure to brands does subtly influence our behaviour by making things more familiar and more salient in our minds.

Robert Heath points out that leveraging more senses can strengthen the influence of advertising, as in British Airways used of music from the opera Lakme by Delibes. Robert Heath calls this “emotionally competent brand association” and mentions that even the advertising agency seemed unaware of the impact of the music track on the effectiveness of this advertising campaign.

The work of Robert Zajonc and also that of Antonio Damasio shows that emotions do not follow our thoughts but rather that they prime our thoughts and are the first aspect of a memory or experience to emerge, before we begin to reflect on what we are experiencing. Robert Zajonc further argued that emotions are unavoidable. In his words, “One might be able to control the expression of emotion, but not the experience of it”. Emotions are also very hard to verbalise and rely on non-verbal communication. We know immediately we meet someone new whether we like them, but we don’t know why. In the work of Joseph LeDoux, and the language of Daniel Kahneman, these are the differences between fast thinking and slow thinking.

Emotions are vital for our survival, directing our attention to those things around us which are important to achieving our goals. They are also socially important, with facial expressions and body language helping us to understand the feelings of others and react appropriately.Emotions have an adaptive evolutionary purpose, directing us to behave in ways that will maximise our outcomes.

Mirror neurons help us to ’empathise’ with others and to experience, at least in part, what they are experiencing – they help us understand another person’s point of view.When we see advertising, without paying attention to it, our brain can simulate the experience that the advertising shows, building associations in the mind. When we see Papa and Nicole flirting next to their Renault Clio’s, we are quite literally experiencing the emotions that they portray.

Andrex’s claim to be “soft, strong and very long” (and noticeably not softer, stronger or longer), had strong emotional saliency, associating the Andrex brand with the experience of stroking the soft hair of a Labrador puppy, a popular pet for young families. As Robert Heath points out, no one would ever admit that they buy Andrex because of the puppy, but the brand outsold Kleenex by 3 to 1 at one time.

Emotions build salience, but they do not necessarily drive engagement, and Robert Heath discusses evidence of the opposite. That is, we actually pay less attention to emotional advertising and not more, and this is why it is so effective. When we pay less attention, we are less able to counter the messages with reasoning and simply soak it up. Emotions in advertising might work precisely because we do not think such messages are important. Although we look at the screen, we are not paying active attention, and this helps the message to get through uncontested.

Emotions are important markers for the brain, but are processed at an unconscious level, using implicit knowledge to tell us the relevance and importance of information. Put another way, our brains are prediction machines seeking information in our environment which can be used as an emotional ‘marker’ for something that is useful for optimising predictions. Colours, shapes, sounds, smells (among other stimuli) all help us to reference relevant memories from which we can extract emotional markers of salience. These are used to direct our behaviour using our highly efficient ‘fast thinking’.

When BBH launched a new Audi advertising campaign in the UK in the early 80s they decided, against everyone’s advice, to go with the slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” rather than an English translation (“advancement through technology”). Thirty years later, everyone can remember the slogan and nobody remembers the ads. And Audi is a highly prestigious brand in the UK. Nobody understands what “Vorsprung durch Technik” Means, although they may make the link between Technik and technology, but everyone knows that Audi is a German brand, and everyone also knows implicitly that Germany is rated than higher than almost every other country for engineering. Therefore, Audi is German and benefits from a high quality of engineering and technology.

Robert Heath argues that “emotionally competent stimuli” are the drivers of advertising effectiveness, explaining the success of campaigns as diverse as Audi, Andrex, Renault Clio, British Airways, Telma Noodles, O2 and Go Compare, as well as other famous examples such as the Cadbury Dairy Milk “Gorilla” ad, Michelin’s “Baby in a tire”, Dove’s “Campaign for real beauty”, John West Salmon’s “Fighting bears” and much of Coca-Cola’s advertising. All of these work because they portray emotions that are relevant to customer goals (they show the right archetype to match the consumer “job to be done”.

One of the final examples in Seducing the Subconscious is the textbook example of Marlboro’s use of cowboy imagery to build the emotional salience of their cigarette brand to male consumers. The example demonstrates all the main lessons of this fascinating, well argued book which is supported by many examples and case studies.

So what are the main lessons for advertisers?

  1. Advertising does not work by being liked or by persuading watchers
  2. Advertising is most effective when it builds implicit emotional associations
  3. Advertisers do not need to be understood or believed in order to be effective
  4. Rational processing of advertising often works against effectiveness
  5. Effectiveness is highest when emotions are consistent with the goals of the audience

The key to effective advertising is to trigger emotional associations which are relevant to the motivations and goals of the audience. As we have often argued, the most successful brands have clear and consistent archetypal stories that connect emotionally with their customers.


Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising by Robert Heath

Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio

The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

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