You think you can ignore advertising, but you can’t. To test this, imagine wearing the house brand fashion label for Pep Stores or Shoprite. If that idea makes you feel uncomfortable, you’ve been affected by advertising.
I’ve worked in the ad industry for about ten years, and my goal with this article is to help you understand the basics of advertising’s persuasive tactics.
This can help you question your purchasing decisions, and identify toxic advertising, as well as good advertising that deserves your attention (yes, it exists).
Note that this article is about the major foundations of the sell, not the countless attention-getting and mind-bending psychological tricks like the power of newness, sales, and limited time offers.
So without further ado:
Sell the sizzle, not the steak
This is an old adage in Advertising, based on the idea that people don’t buy steak for it’s nutritional value, or make judgements on the quality of the steak based on an informed knowledge of what makes a good cut of steak (most of us don’t really know anymore). Rather, people buy into the vision of a steak sizzling on the grill, while good friends stand around watching it and making interesting conversation. Or they’ll buy the idea of a gourmet chef, offering up bite-sized cubes of fillet dipped in a larney French sauce.
- Car brands sell freedom, success, fun with friends, or adventure.
- Banking brands sell wealth, security, social respectability, and success.
- Whiskey brands sell the lifestyle they’ve spent years surrounding whiskey with. Wood-topped bars, stylish suits, the romance of Ireland or Scotland, etc.
- Toilet paper manufacturers sell “soft” and “happy babies”.
In short, advertising is selling you an emotionally loaded situation, or a lifestyle, which brings us to:
People like us do things like this
Seth Godin, marketing guru, maintains that this is the most powerful selling statement possible, because it allows people to join different tribes. Thousands of years of evolution as social animals have built within us a very powerful need to belong.
Advertising prompts us to psychologically join the tribes that encompass the values and lifestyle we wish we had.
- Nike is a tribe of runners and athletes.
- Adidas is a street gang without any of the violence.
- Woolworths is a tribe of rich, cultured people who like the best of things.
- Airbnb is a tribe of travellers and adventurers.
- A gym is a tribe of healthy, active, attractive people.
- Crossfit is a tribe of fitness fanatics.
Health and fitness tribes are notorious for urging you to join the healthy lifestyle, and then happily letting you opt out of exercise completely. For gyms, this is their entire business model. This reputation is somewhat underserved, as Nike, Virgin Active, and other health and fitness brands DO provide content and resources for learning how to be healthier and more active, and they do try to encourage you to work out. The responsibility to be an active member of that tribe is yours.
Unfortunately, there is a darker underside to this concept, and although no advertising agency or client will ever admit it, a lot of advertising contains this subconscious message:
Without this, you are not enough
Beauty products, luxury goods, and fashion brands are notorious for making people (especially women), feel insecure about themselves. Rather than communicate “You can be a part of this tribe and feel more fulfilled”, they communicate “If you are not a part of this tribe, you are a loser.”
Some would argue that ALL advertising does this, because by creating a tribe, you are automatically excluding others. Euphemistically, we call this “exclusivity”.
How to avoid being influenced by advertising
Bad news: unless you’re willing to live on the fringes of society, like in a VW Combi next to a beach (If it’s not a VW Combi, you’re a loser), or in a commune in the forest, you’re going to see hundreds, if not thousands of marketing messages every day. And as much as we like to think we can ignore them, our subconscious is soaking it all up, creating connections with brands that will influence you one day when you happen to be in the market for that product that you don’t care about at all right now.
Advertising is simply a fact of life in the world we live in, so the best you can hope to do is avoid the more manipulative stuff, enjoy the good stuff (Google “Dumb ways to die”), and read a number of articles on reducing your time spent on social networks, which are replacing the traditional media of print, TV, and billboards with a far more intelligent, inconspicuous and targeted system of persuasion.
Lastly, since we all do have to buy things in order to survive, I can recommend two strategies to cause less emotional dissonance in your choices:
Do a little research to make sure the company you’re buying from conforms to you own personal values. Is the company ecologically friendly, socially aware, authentic, or particularly well-crafted?
Once you find a brand or product that you genuinely like and have a good experience with, show them some loyalty, even if they’re not the cheapest option available. This rewards brands for creating good advertising, and reduces the brainpower you have to invest in choosing between brands the next time you’re in the market for shoes/coffee/whatever.