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Ads just work. No matter what you think

Our sensitivity to ads is a major public issue.


We’re surrounded by advertising. Every single day, no matter where we are, thousands of auditive & visual stimuli are force-fed to our brains.

  • On the internet
    Banners, pop-ups, sponsored articles, video pre-rolls, audio interruptions, spam emails, website background takeovers, push-notifications, entry overlays, chat-bubbles, product placements, …
  • In real life
    Subway billboards, bus panels, stadium names, street flyers, sprayed sidewalk ads, human signs, branded goodies and storefronts, toilet ads, car stickers, blinking signs, audio announcements…

The list goes on and on as the space dedicated to advertising seems to have continuously increased whilst means of avoidance were getting weaker.

Surprised by how little I knew about the effects of this continuous unsolicited stimulation, I decided to look into available research.

We’re drowning in ads

Anywhere the eye can see, it’s likely to see an ad.

There’s no scientific consensus on the number of ads we’re exposed to daily, as estimates vary from a few hundreds to thousands. Why is it so hard to get a reasonable figure? Because it depends on a variety of factors that greatly affect the final result (sorted by level of importance):

  1. What is considered an ad?
    Including brand labels and logos can increase 10x the final result.
    Think about every time you pass by a brand name in a supermarket, the label on everything you wear, the condiments in your fridge, the cars on the highway…
  2. Where does the subject live?
    The denser your living environment, the more ads you’re exposed to as companies fiercely compete for your attention (and, ultimately, your wallet). Visual pollution is one of the drawbacks of living in big city…
  3. What is the subject’s job?
    During work hours, a hotel receptionist sees a lot less ads than a truck driver which is less exposed than a social media manager.

Moreover, being in proximity to an ad doesn’t mean actually seeing it. Because our brain can’t process the hundreds of signals sent at us every hour; we learned to unconsciously ignore most advertising messages. That’s precisely why cognitive experts have developed a “scale of impact” for ads:

  • Brand exposure | ~5000 per day
    A brand name or logo is within viewing or hearing distance from the subject (i.e. it could have been seen or heard).
  • Ad Exposure | ~350 per day
    An ad is within viewing or hearing distance from the subject.
  • Ad Perception | ~150 per day
    An ad attracted full attention for a few seconds or more.
  • Ad Awareness | ~90 per day
    An ad was interpreted by the subject who mentally processed its content.
  • Ad Engagement | ~10 per day
    An ad made an impression on the subject, which is now emotionally motivated to investigate the product or service.

So we’re exposed to hundreds of ads per day. But at the same time, we developed an unconscious screening process that’s very efficient at reducing both the intensity and duration of the attention we dedicate to commercials.

Each day, less than 25% of ads we’re exposed to make it past our brain’s “attention wall”: so where’s the problem?

We’re not perfectly rational beings

Our decisions suffer from multiple cognitive biases.

As an individual, I like to think of myself as “generally rational”: most of the time I manage to stay calm, think before acting, and try to step back before making impactful decisions.

In terms of buying behavior, aside from the exceptional splurge, I always try to get quality goods at a reasonable price. When I buy luxury or high-end stuff, I rationalize by saying quality is always pricey. An economist would say that I attempt to maximise the utility I get from every purchase.

The thing is, recent advances in psychology, social science & cognitive research have demonstrated that humans’ decisions are far less conscious that we thought they were. There is increasing experimental evidence for the effectiveness of advertising in influencing people’s choices without their conscious awareness.

The most famous illustration of that is the Pepsi paradox: in blind tastings, Pepsi is quasi-systematically preferred, but Coke continues to be the absolute bestseller. It’s the triumph of branding over taste, as the mere presence of brand labels leads people to switch their opinion.

But how does that work?

Most of our thoughts are uncontrollable

Everyday, we generate and make use of millions of unconscious associations.

Think of what happens when you enter a room you’ve never been in before: in a glance, you instantly identify what the different items are. Without thinking, you know that the glass container on the table is a cup meant to help you drink, that the table is a level surface to put things on, that the plastic switch near the door will turn the lights on, that the black flat square on the wall is an LCD TV and that the other small screen on the desk is a personal computer. This process is implicit: it’s automatic, uncontrollable, and operates non-consciously.

Here’s another example: “please, don’t think of a basketball game”. There you go: instantly and without perceivable effort, you thought about tall black players, an orange spherical ball with black ribs, a red hoop with a net, big foam hands, a transparent backboard, a rectangular floor made of wood, the “Kiss cam”, sneakers with high tops, Lebron James, etc.

Our ability to quickly and effortlessly form associations and categorize items is a truly remarkable skill. Because it’s innate and shared among humans, we fail to notice or realize how exceptional it is. On the contrary, AI developers and robotic engineers — because they’re struggling to teach this aptitude to machines — know how singular it is. We’re actually not that good at solving complex math equations or intricate logic problems: what really sets us appart is our capacity to efficiently generate and make use of a seemingly infinite number of associations.

Each of these unconscious associations is tied to positive or negative emotions, depending on your personal experience. This is called valence: the intrinsic attractiveness or averseness of an event, object or situation. For instance, some people consider Halloween a cheerful event, while others find it rather depressing or annoying. Same goes for birthdays, clowns, thanksgivings, etc.

What does that have to do with advertising? Well, ads are designed to create those associations in our mind.

Not all ads are created equal

Some of them provide valuable information.

Marketing practitioners often say that the role of advertising is to provide information that enables people to make better choices. This is indeed the case for a certain proportion of ads that serve the purpose of:

  • Raising awareness
    “Hey! My product exists, here’s how it works and where to buy it.”
Mariah just released a new single, it’s modestly called “Infinity” and it’s available on iTunes
  • Persuading the audience
    “Hey! My product is great because it has these awesome characteristics/rating/appraisals.”
Dentists apparently prefer to use Oral-B over its competitors.
  • Making promises
    “Hey! My product will help you achieve this/experience that.”
Use Slack, and you’ll be “32% more productive”. Whatever that means.

These types of ads convey valuable information that is helpful to the consumer’s decision-making process. The problem is a lot of ads don’t work that way. In fact, the majority of commercials are meant to influence people through unconscious processes about which they’re unaware.

Resistance is futile

Ads are efficient because they rely on implicit mechanisms.

“Most advertising influences behaviour not through the conscious processing of verbal or factual messages, but by mediating relationships between the consumer and the brand — and it does this using types of communication that are not necessarily processed with conscious attention.”
— Paul Feldwick, former Executive Planning Director BMP DDB agency

Think about alcoholic drinks, perfumes, watches, jewellery, cigarettes, sodas, haute couture or energy drinks: their ads rarely tell you about the quality of ingredients, the resistance of materials, the reliability of mechanics or the outcome they’ll produce. Exposing product features or making rational arguments is not needed here as something else is at play.

1. Evaluative conditioning

Generate strong positive associations with a product.

Coke = good times

Evaluative Conditioning (EC) is one of the simplest and most known conditioning mechanism: pair things in hopes that the positive or negative associations of one will rub off onto the other. It is the reason why so many brands rely on cute animals (Coca-Cola’s polar bears), celebrity endorsements (Pepsi’s Beyonce spots), jaw-dropping landscapes (nearly all car commercials) or hot girls (think beer or perfume) in their ads.

The premise is that your product will become more attractive if it’s positioned alongside something or someone people love. I’ve personally always doubted this theory as it seems way too “dumb” to be true. I really can’t get around the fact that rational, educated adults could be influenced simply by repeatedly placing cute bunnies or muscular man alongside wet wipes or protein shakes. The thing is, research proves me wrong.

In 2012, a team from INSEAD & Tübingen university decided to investigate whether the enduring success of EC could be caused by automatic response.
They ran 6 experiments in which a neutral image — human faces or product logos — was paired with something either pleasant (beautiful scenery, people having a fun day out) or unpleasant (graveyards, cockroaches).

Then, they asked participants their opinion about the face or logo they’ve just seen. For a response to be considered uncontrollable, it should appear even when the mind is occupied with something totally different or when the subject made a strongly motivated attempt to repress his natural impulse.

That is why, before the experiment began, some participants were explicitly asked to contradict the visual cues (by liking images paired with nasty stuff and disliking those paired with cool things) and/or to memorize four-digit numbers. A group was even promised a €20 payout for participants who succeeded best at contradicting the visual nudges.

Overall, the studies unveiled strong statistical evidence of automaticity: even with a conscious, motivated effort to resist, participants’ opinions were still skewed by the visual associations presented to them. As obvious and unsubtle the ads may seem, they still manage to overcome our attempts at rational thinking.

2. Cultural imprinting

Advertise products as an extension of ourselves.

Be iconic: buy an industrially made scented liquid that’s sold everywhere, at 100 times the production costs.

When buying something, we integrate the brand’s associations into our perception of ourselves. In other words, the act of buying is not solely about functional utility but also about what we think of ourselves and how we want to be perceived.

Because products we use and experiences we live form an important part of our identity and self esteem, our buying preferences are largely influenced by “irrational” messages conveyed through ads. A few examples:

  • Wristwatches
    Why would you wear a 10 000$ Rolex instead of a 20$ Swatch or Casio? They’re all durable, waterproof and accurate watches. The Casio even has additional features such as backlight and alarm…
  • Wine, Vodka or Champagne bottles
    Can you taste the difference between a 100$ vintage Moët and a 20$ Mumm sparkling wine? Or between Grey Goose and Absolut vodkas? A recent macro-study of 6000+ blind tastings showed that on average, people enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.
  • Handbags
    A Hermes leather bag costs roughly 6000$, a Michel Kors 500$ and a Zara one 100$. Is 1 Hermes bag really worth 60 Zara ones?
  • Diamond rings
    Moissanite is an excellent substitute to diamond: a highly durable, flawless stone with an intense sparkle. To the untrained eye, the only distinguishable characteristic is the 10x price difference. Would you buy a Moissanite ring to your lover?
  • Perfumes
    An old women would never buy a Guess perfume while young girls rarely put on Lancôme or Chanel. Why is that?
  • Sunglasses (Prada vs Warby Parker), Vacuum cleaners (Dyson vs Hoover), Deodorants (Dove vs Axe), Clothes (Abercombie vs Gap), …

Products are instrumental to our sense of self: because we have a certain ideal about ourselves and we care about what people think, we choose to buy stuff that convey our values and aspirations. When brands carry associations, buying preferences deliver a message about the consumer: “Because I consider myself a virile male, I won’t buy a Dove deodorant” / “I want to be an intellectual, so I’ll buy a Moleskine notebook” / “I’m a classy guy who wears Hugo Boss suits”, etc.

We need to reduce our exposure to ads

Ads, being both pervasive and abundant, are a serious threat to our well-being.

© Steve Cutts

Starting from the 1950’s, industry professionals have been very efficient at reducing regulatory pressure and increasing ads’ public imprint: advertisement, they say, is a harmless “mirror of cultural values” that simply “redistributes consumption” by “promoting choice”. The result? Today, it’s virtually impossible to opt-out from exposure.

The problem is, you don’t have to dig a long time to find consistent evidence that ads increase overall spending and normalise certain behaviours by influencing individuals on a subconscious level. Do you really think that 550 billions of dollars are spent each year on something that doesn’t work?

“Today’s best and brightest graduates in psychology and cognitive science are snapped up by the advertising industry because they want to know how best to manipulate us. The truth none of us wants to admit is that advertisers know our minds better than we do.”
— Clive Hamilton, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics

Advertising has an access-all-areas pass in today’s society, a pass of which the industry is taking full advantage to seed superficial needs and consumerist thoughts in our minds. Because of its omnipresence and effectiveness, advertising should be considered a public issue as it constrains our ability to solve social and environmental problems.

How can we imagine a better world when selfish, unnecessary cravings are planted in our brains by a constant influx of highly engineered marketing messages? How can we fight anxiety, when everything’s pushing us into social competition? How can we stop over-consumption and reduce waste when we’re told hundreds of times per day to buy stuff?

It’s time for a change.


Dig deeper

Most facts presented in this article are sourced from these reports & websites.
If you wish to learn more or make your own opinion, they might be a good starting point.


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