When it comes to the effect of advertising on decision-making, Chris Berg (The Sunday Age, 23 March, 2008), is either naïve or just a bit dumb. Of course marketers use advertising to influence, and manipulate, our behaviour. Why else would they spend billions of dollars a year on it? And they are not, as Berg argues, just trying to inform you “that new products are available in the marketplace”.
He is partially right when he argues that we first need to feel some form of a need or want for advertising to have some influence on our attitudes and behaviour, but what he conveniently avoids is the fact that part of the role of advertising is to create that want. But marketers don’t do it as obviously as Berg would like us to believe – in advertising it is about incremental steps. In other words, the role of marketing and advertising is to make you feel uncomfortable with your current state of being, but not so obviously that you can always defend yourself against it.
Berg trots out the typical simplistic belief that we have conscious control over the choices we make, and that they will typically reflect our desires. In other words, we choose what we want. But he is wrong.
When we make a decision, to quote Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love, “it’s a mystery”. We try to proceed in a rational manner, but the analytic process is often a bit of a sham. We might attempt to draw up a mental list of pros and cons, if we can stretch our lazy conscious minds to undertake this process, but the problem with these types of lists is that we habitually cheat in their construction. We rely on information that is easily accessible and fits in with our current worldview. So, most of the time we rely on a flawed system of utilising the most accessible, and least challenging information to make judgments. Generally speaking, our minds don’t have the capacity to constantly weigh up all the options, and therefore, we look to patterns that won’t challenge our egos or our current belief system.
It is now generally accepted in psychology that people’s judgments and decision-making are usually based on scant data, which are seemingly haphazardly combined and influenced by preconceptions. In the field of social psychology, for example, it has been found that certain elements in an environment can bias the judgment process. A person that is brightly lit, moving, and contrasting (through the use of seemingly trivial manipulations as small splashes of colour on a shirt) has been found to draw a disproportionate amount of attention. Further, Nobel Prize winning Economists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky observed that the use of heuristics or cognitive shortcuts were likely strategies for making non-social judgments, as well as social ones. What this means is that we rely on emotional responses to get us through most of our decision making. If we are feeling a bit low, we think that “retail therapy” will make us feel better (it rarely does); if we are concerned about our weight we will respond to advertising that promises to make it easy for us to take the weight off (it doesn’t); and if we are a teenager, and having trouble fitting in, we will respond positively to advertising that shows people drinking together and having a good time (rather than bingeing, throwing up, and getting into fights). It doesn’t make rational sense, but we aren’t as rational as we would like to think we are.
In advertising, it’s all about familiarity, trust, and the promise of a better life. Funnily enough, marketers know this – that’s why they spend so much money on research into consumer psychology. For example, research suggests that the more we are exposed to a particular ad, or product, or brand, the more we are likely to believe that it is a good product or brand. Sounds crazy, but repetition has the effect of convincing us that if a company is advertising a whole lot, they must be successful, and therefore, their product must be good. Repetition increases our familiarity with a claim. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, a feeling of greater likelihood that the claim is true begins to accompany the growing familiarity. This effect of repetition is known as “the truth effect”. The more we are told that something is true, the more it actually becomes true, in our mind. We tend to think that if something is not true, somewhere, somehow, it would be challenged. If it is repeated constantly and not challenged, our minds seem to regard this as prima facie evidence that perhaps it is true. The effect of repetition is to produce small, but cumulative increments in this ‘truth’ inference. It is hardly rational but we don’t really think about it. We don’t go out of our way to think about it because low involvement, by definition means we don’t care much anyway. If you have ever wondered why advertisers seem to persist in repeating the same ad — if you have ever wondered why they think this could possibly influence sane, rational people like you — then here is the answer. Much of advertising creates only marginal differences, but small differences can build into larger differences. Even small differences can tip the balance in favour of the advertised brand. And in marketing, it is all about degrees of difference.