A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture
By Carrie McLaren, Jason Torchinsky
Faber and Faber, Inc. Copyright © 2009 Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky
All rights reserved.
How Advertising Works
The Evolution of Advertising
Ads are predatory. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as some of my favorite cats are predatory. But ads are not only predatory, they're mercenary: hired guns paid to hunt down our desires and bag them for dollars. Like any good predator, advertising evolves along with its prey. Ads in their primeval form merely needed to alert a potential buyer of what was being vended — a shoe or a dismembered pig, for instance. Just enough to get the idea across. As competition grew, so did the need to create demand; hence modern advertising was born. If we start the modern era of advertising around the late 1800s, an evolutionary path can be plotted and expressed as a series of broad caricatures.
The Polite Pedant (Late 1800s to 1900s)
Print ads from this early era have the tone of a helpful, avuncular acquaintance, someone who is humble about taking up your precious time but feels compelled to describe in great, tedious detail the relative benefits of a particular product. You can almost imagine him, dressed soberly but very dapper, hat in hand, earnestly and a touch apologetically enumerating every possible item of worth about face soap or bolts of cloth. You'd likely smile and nod, not offended, with every fiber of your soul fighting off the warm blanket of sleep.
The Expert (1920s to 1940s)
It didn't take advertisers long to realize that a well-reasoned argument was still just that: an argument. And arguments can be lost, which begs the question: Why do something unless you know you can win? Why bother presenting facts to make a case when you can neatly circumvent all that messy reason and appeal directly to emotion? With the popularization of Pavlov, Freud, and the nascent field of psychoanalysis, advertisers realized that you can give people reasons to do things that don't really make sense, as long as they play to a person's deep-seated drives and insecurities. It's kind of like being able to hack into brains: say the right thing, from a position of authority (perhaps wearing a white lab coat), and you can create an army of self-conscious zombies, ready to buy anything they can to get rid of their horrible breath or coarse hands.
Pretty as a Picture (1940s to 1950s)
People aren't that crazy about reading long blocks of text about products. Better to show them! Advertising, while never afraid of images, starts to realize their true power. Make them big and colorful. And don't focus on the product; focus on the consumer, who is by now enjoying the wild, unrestrained happiness that can come only with choosing a quality drain unclogger or a pair of insoles.
The Double Agent (1960s to 2000s)
Blatant advertising styles were becoming a joke, but where there's a joke, there's laughter; and where there's laughter, there's either a recording of laughter or, better yet, people — people who can be made to buy things! So why be laughed at when you can laugh with.
And so was born a new persona for ads: an intelligent friend, a pal who's a bit smarter, hipper, and more attractive than you but likes you anyway. He tells you, in a witty way, why you might want to buy a Volkswagen as both of you laugh at those ridiculous Chevy ads with their smitten bimbos and tailfins. The fools, you and your pal laugh, right before he suggests what kind of vodka a young, urbane sophisticate such as yourself may enjoy. The Double Agent is cunning. He's genuinely funny and engaging, but deep down he only wants you for one thing.
The Mystic (1990s to 2000s)
Recent changes have made ads the most effective consumer-consuming creations ever known. Building on over a century of experimentation, ads now work from deep within your mind. Ads no longer need to engage in such mundane activities as showing the product, telling what it does, or making any claims of value. Sellers catch more prey by blurring the boundaries between advertising and not-advertising. Product placement, viral marketing, and friend-to-friend shilling is all part of the new form — a being that has reduced itself down to a single cell that permeates the air you breathe, the sounds around you, the classrooms you endure, and the movies you watch. It's a fully ingrained part of the fabric of life.
The Psychology of Advertising WE'RE ALL APES
In order to understand how advertising works, we need to first realize how it doesn't work. Many people assume that commercials succeed or fail based on whether viewers rush out to buy the particular product. They assume that if they don't like an ad, can't remember the brand, or consider the whole affair inane, they're not affected by it. All of these assumptions are based on an outdated model of advertising as a form of persuasion. But advertisers discovered long ago that persuasion is terribly limited in its ability to push product. Persuasion engages rational thought. When your potential consumers start thinking, they're as likely to consider the bills they need to pay, the crap they can't fit in the closet, the calories they need to count, or the appointment they're going to miss. In other words, thinking consumers buy less. Persuasion is also a relatively slow process. In a sped-up world with zillions of ads competing for attention, there's no time for it.
The vast majority of consumer advertising today, then, isn't designed to convince anyone of anything. Rather, advertising relies primarily on the power of suggestion (or association) to create a psychological link between some favorable image and one's product. Nike = inspiring athletics; Lexus = luxury; Marlboro = manly. Unlike persuasion, suggestion doesn't require our active attention. If some guy in a suit said to you, "Wear these Nike shoes and you'll be like an athlete," you'd never take him seriously. Such a claim is verifiably true or false, and the question of whether something is true or false prompts that troublesome habit of thinking ("Is it true?" "What does that mean?").
Suggestion, however, inspires belief by not asking for it, by averting the questioning process. Nike's ad agency produces jawdroppingly beautiful images and emotionally rich, provocative commercials punctuated by contained moments of rebellion. Repeated often enough, the linking of Nike with inspiration and triumphant athleticism gets drilled into your brain, becoming more accessible than your father's birthday.
The basis for association is Pavlovian. We consumers are like dogs who dance excitedly when someone pulls the leash out. Advertisers take greatest advantage of us by capitalizing on our animal behaviors — and by "animal" I mean rooted in our biology, behaviors that are innate. Much of what we consider to be advertising clichés are strategies based in these biological drives: the human appetites for food and sex (not necessarily in that order). I'm talking phallic beer bottles, mouthwatering "money" shots of hamburgers, and big-breasted models pitching everything from skateboards to kitchen gadgets. Appeals using sex or food are among the most obvious tactics, yet people seldom recognize their unconscious effect. In a classic study, a group of men was shown a car ad featuring a sexy young woman and another group of men saw the same ad without the sultress. The men who saw the ad with the girl "rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model." Naturally, these men later denied that the presence of the young model had any influence on them.
Food and sex are just the tip of the iceberg. Advertisers aim to reach our inner animal through instincts more subtle than our appetites. For example, humans are much more likely to notice an object if it moves. A cockroach could remain on a wall in my office for hours if it stayed in place, but I will scream bloody murder when it crawls, even if it appears only out of the corner of my eye. Darwin tells us that this tendency is a holdover from our hunter-gatherer past, when we needed to spot prey and potential enemies alike. Alas, in the modern office or home, this inclination is decidedly less helpful, protecting us from cockroaches and falling light fixtures but not much else. Instead, it renders us vulnerable to marketers, who exploit it with flashing banner ads, gigantic video billboards, and TV "news" crawls.
Advertisers similarly exploit humans' animal instincts by taking advantage of our inner copycat. Humans — even some of the most rugged of individualists — look to others for clues on how to act. Our copying begins at infancy, when we acquire language, the ability to walk, and social skills from family members. Things aren't much different as adults: we yawn when someone around us yawns, look up at a building when we notice others doing so, and laugh more when others are laughing (whether live or canned for lousy TV sitcoms). More often than not, we're unconscious of our copying. Ever find yourself applauding a show and pausing to think, "Wait. That sucked"?
A Brief History of Advertising Suggestion
In the days before Pavlov, ad men didn't quite "get" how suggestion worked, as is demonstrated by this unappetizing visage (above left) of insects surrounding Royal Seal brand oats, from the 1890s. Apparently, the Great Western Cereal Company thought that nothing said breakfast like a roach infestation. Similarly, a misguided attempt to scare parents off of cow's milk (above right) had the unfortunate side effect of scaring them away from Nestlé's Food as well. As Charles Austin Bates pointed out in Good Advertising (1896), the copywriter would have been much better off with a headline such as "Save Babies." Consider, for example, how this ad must have appeared to a barely attentive newspaper reader who merely glimpsed the large headings.
By 1919, advertisers were taking note of developments in psychology and experimenting with suggestion. This ad illustrates an important advance: instead of associating the product with dead babies or vermin, it links toothpaste with something positive — happiness. Yet, its literary approach, requiring the audience to read a half page of uninspired copy, means that only active readers will make the connection. In other words, while giving a nod to Pavlov, the ad agents missed an essential point: suggestion works best when the audience isn't conscious of it.
This car ad (1926) one-ups the toothpaste with a crucial addition: a photo showing the car as the vehicle of choice for rich white people. Still, the photo remains dominated by cumbersome copy, including one phrase ("social asset") that reads as if ripped straight out of a psychologist's notebook.
Introducing naked association. Copy is now more or less superfluous: if you removed it all and left only the logo, the ad would convey essentially the same point. Unlike earlier copy, the text in this 1964 ad has a humorous, vaguely self-conscious tone, as if to apologize for assuming the reader is so base as to fall for a sexual appeal.
If people were not familiar with advertising, they might look at this 2007 ad and think the person here is Yves Saint Laurent — or, perhaps, a creature from the future. But modern consumers instantly identify this as a fashion ad. As advertisers have improved methods of suggestion, audiences have evolved to interpret them.
Marketers exploit such copycatting in a number of ways. Most noticeably, ads are loaded with images of people wearing things the sellers want you to wear, or doing things they want you to do. Other tactics are both more ambitious and subtle. Nike hires good-looking fans to wear its clothes and cheer at the Australian Open. Liquor companies hire foxy young trendsetters to prominently order their brands in popular bars. And new forms of word-of-mouth marketing ("buzz,"viral"), where companies enlist everyday people to model and promote products to their friends, are springing up like cancers.
Marketers often link copycatting with yet another animal drive: we're naturally drawn to good-looking people. Although the evolutionary basis of this instinct is arguably reproductive and therefore sexual, it carries over into a preference for attractive animals of all sorts: the handsome men and women working at Banana Republic, the adorable babies in the GAP Kids catalog, and the fluffy kittens in the animal shelter pamphlet. While this inclination in itself is no shocker, what is surprising is how powerful it is. We not only prefer attractive people, we unknowingly attribute to them all manner of positive traits. Study after study has shown that humans are more likely to vote for good-looking people, more likely to give them jobs, more likely to consider them intelligent and kind, more likely to deem them not guilty in a court of law, and on and on and on. There's even evidence that parents and teachers are nicer to kids who are cute.
These animal instincts — toward attractiveness, copycatting, flashy objects — are among the most universal and the most easily exploited by marketers, but they are far from the only examples. You could fill an entire library with the books and articles that have been written on consumer psychology.
Like birds and bees, humans are instinctively drawn to certain colors. Unlike birds and bees, humans are self-conscious, and that consciousness prevents us from acknowledging such unconscious influences. To wit: Market researcher Louis Cheskin once conducted an experiment in which he mailed out to test subjects identical samples of an underarm deodorant packaged in three different color schemes. He told the subjects that the deodorants were different formulations and asked them which they preferred. The response? People considered color scheme B best, with its pleasing fragrance and long-lasting effectiveness. Color scheme C was deemed less effective, with a stronger aroma. And color scheme A was practically toxic. As Thomas Hine notes in The Total Package: The Evolution and Secret Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Tubes, "several users developed skin rashes after using it and three had severe enough problems to consult dermatologists." Yet, the typical deodorant buyer would deny that something as mundane as package design could shape his or her experience in such a way.
We can study our animal nature, try to memorize marketers' tricks backwards and forwards, and we'll never come close to immunizing ourselves from their influence. For one thing, there are simply too many unconscious influences to possibly identify, let alone count. Hidden influences are as varied, fleeting, and infinite as sensory experiences. We may be the most intellectually evolved creatures on the planet, but we instinctively respond to colors, shapes, and scents.
All of which is to say that marketers have biology on their side. Darwinian evolution — our genetic heritage — can't evolve fast enough keep up with culture. It took untold generations for evolution to rid us of our fangs and tails, and only a couple of months for pop-up ads to spread. In order to adapt, then, we can't rely on natural selection; we have to learn on our own.
And learn we do, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. We install software to block banner ads. We use TiVo to record TV programs in order to skip the commercials. We develop "banner blindness" to online web ads, instinctively directing our gaze away from them. We notice a twenty-story-tall billboard the first time we see it and then it becomes invisible to us.
The adaptations we muster are inevitably quick fixes. Once we adapt to a particular ad tactic, once we develop a strategy for avoiding it, advertising responds in kind; then we have to learn a new trick, and the cycle repeats. For example, consumers eagerly embraced TiVo and other DVRs in part because they allow them to fast-forward through commercials. The advertising industry responded in two ways. One, it started focusing more on product placements, because ads embedded in programming can't be skipped. And two, marketers started to make the spots they do run entertaining enough to draw an audience in their own right.
As a devoted TiVoer myself, I can say with authority that these strategies work. I'll break from fast-forwarding when I see, say, a new Mac-versus-PC commercial with John Hodgman and Justin Long. I'm certainly not alone. In fact, many people go the extra step and post favorite commercials on blogs and websites such as YouTube and MySpace. The Internet itself feeds the trend by allowing advertisers to get even more creative as they target smaller and smaller groups of people. Some of what you can find online is the weirdest, funniest, edgiest material you could imagine coming out of corporate America. A Budweiser spot created for the Internet takes place in an office where employees have to put a quarter into a "swear jar" every time they cuss; the money will go to buy "something for the office ... a case of Bud Light or something." Suited-up professionals, filmed in a hilariously dry manner à la The Office, are shown mouthing four-letter words, so that, in the end, they can all share a Bud together. A Coca-Cola spot featuring White Stripes hipster Jack White has a catchy '70s-style jingle and surreal freeze-frame hippie-dippie scenery. Somehow it all works beautifully. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ad Nauseam by Carrie McLaren, Jason Torchinsky. Copyright © 2009 Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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