Since the dawn of capitalist ventures, successful marketing has always used human psychology to its benefit. Early on, marketers made claims based on intuitive understanding of human behavior.

Cue snake oil salesman. . .

The Psychology of AdvertisingSnake Oil Salesman

With the growth of psychology as a science in the early 20th century as well as the birth of behavioral sciences mid-century, marketers increasingly turned their efforts away from intuition and toward science.

In 1957, in his book Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard uncovered just how influential psychology and behavioral science were becoming to advertising agencies. In a review of Packard’s book, the New York Times explains that, by using lessons from wartime propaganda as a launch pad, advertisers “were trying to puzzle out the reasons for impulsive and even self-destructive purchasing, then tailor images and packaging accordingly.”

At its heart, not much has changed in advertising. However, with increasing data and algorithm sophistication, hyper-optimization of ads is becoming a reality for even the smallest of ad agencies—and it’s becoming ubiquitous. In fact, today it’s easier than ever for advertising to manipulate your instincts.

Manipulating Maslow: How Advertising Creates Perceived Needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced his Hierarchy of Needs which breaks down a person’s road to self-actualization. First, psychological needs must be met (food, water, warmth), followed by safety needs (security), love needs (sense of belonging and love), esteem needs (sense of accomplishment and prestige). Only once all of these requirements are addressed can a person reach their full potential.

Advertising targets the most basic psychological demands and plays off denial of our access to those needs. For example, the desire for food is always there, but advertisers manipulate the psyche to believe the requirement is unmet and induce you to purchase a specific product, whether it’s cheeseburgers or a particular brand of candy bar.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid: How Advertising Hijacks Fear Aversion

Branding and marketing expert Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, dug even deeper into the effect of advertising on the human psyche. In a three-year, seven million dollar neuromarketing study, his cutting-edge experiment peered inside the brains of 2,000 volunteers globally as they encountered ads, logos, commercials, brands, and products. What he found was that fear overrides any other purchasing behavior.

Advertisers put this discovery to work by instilling FUD—Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt—in consumers. Contextual advertising, placing banners or click-bait that feed off recent user tracking, helps marketers stoke a sense of fear by creating urgency.

“The ads that are getting the most attention and are most successful are the ones that call consumers to quick action,” says Brent Brien from the American Consumer Protection Group. “When people feel there is a sense of urgency, they don’t process or scrutinize information correctly.”

Get Emotional: How Advertising Encourages Impulse Consumption

In addition to instilling fear, experts play on consumers’ subconscious by toying with emotions, pitting them against us. On top of the pseudo-urgency ads create, advertisements are designed to edge thinking out of the equation. As a result, consumers act hastily, without thinking, to quickly resolve whatever emotional response is plaguing them at the time. Research out of the University of Southern California (USC) shows that 31 percent of successful advertising campaigns appeal to emotions rather than rationality (16 percent).

In an interview series with NBC, Lindstrom confirms the importance of emotion in advertising saying, “the emotional part of the brain will win out.” Ads and stimulation are aimed at triggering a purely emotional response.

In our recent analysis of more than 21 thousand banner ads, we uncovered that 41.6% used strong, emotional language like “Warning,” “Save,” and “Stop.”

Abusing Your Subconscious: How Advertising Uses Color and Design to Evoke Emotion

According to Lindstrom, 85 percent of choices are taking place in the subconscious mind.

With our greater understanding of behavioral science, we’ve come to realize that the most subtle, but indeed the most critical component of an advertisement, is without a doubt the color scheme. According to Impact of Color on Marketing, 90 percent of immediate judgments on products are determined by color. Consequently, there is a significant push to understand precisely why color makes such a big difference. It turns out that the assumptions we make about color can calm us or rev us up. They can also reinforce opinions or trust in a brand, particularly when our assumptions about color align with the “personality” we assign the brand.

More specifically, researchers have learned that monochromatic color schemes allow an individual to focus too much on their thoughts, and is typically considered unsuitable for advertising. On the other hand, bright colors or distinct contrast have an activating effect. That excitation seems to pay off. USC has shown that contrasting conversion buttons increase clicks up to 60 percent! Consequently, many marketers are increasingly optimizing for high contrast, e.g., if you have a blue palette, the most effective CTA or button will be in contrasting orange or red.

Furthermore, according to Sally Augustin, Ph.D., color can also be used in an attempt to elicit a specific emotional response from the viewer. For example, businesses trying to create an atmosphere of relaxation usually use a blue and green color scheme because we associate these colors with calmness and a natural environment. Likewise, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s stick with red and yellow color schemes as these are considered more stimulating and energizing colors that grab the consumer’s attention, showing them how specific products will help them optimize their day.

Our research has shown how powerfully color choices correlate with abusive or manipulative advertising. For example, 31.9 percent of aggressive ads capitalize on the the color red and it’s ability to elicit urgency and an appetite.

Seeds of Dissatisfaction: How Advertising and the Plethora of Consumer Goods Make Us Unhappy

Sadly, however, all this psychological dilly-dallying and coercion may not be the worst effect marketing has on consumers. New research on choice and happiness indicates that as the level of choice (or perceived choice) increases, so do our levels of dissatisfaction. In his TED Talk, “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz explains:

“All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation . . .The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.”

Despite all the promises advertising makes to our subconscious about calming fears and making us feel better, the truth is: prolonged exposure to so much choice is not liberating us from suffering but likely making it worse. The nature of consumption, advertising, and human psychology means that as soon as we make a decision, we are reminded of what we did not choose or that we could have chosen better. We immediately feel the compounded opportunity costs of our decisiveness and begin regretting our choice. Such regret is particularly effective when contextual advertising reminds us of what we did not choose.

How does advertising guide us to resolve these negative feelings? With promises that more consumption will ensure our we’re not missing out.

As Packard pointed out over 50 years ago, despite intuitively knowing we’re being hustled, we often justify it. Mark Greif with the New York Times clarifies our assumption well: “. . . [advertisers] play only on the fears and hopes of desperate consumers who aren’t as “conscious” as we are . . . , while we ourselves are smart enough to decide when to give in.” This bias, however, just plays to advertisers advantage. If we think we’re buying rationally, isn’t it easier to justify all the consumption? By accepting that advertisers are increasingly playing our psychology against us and that the whole seduction of consumption ends in dissatisfaction, we can begin to appreciate just how abusive the industry can be to a (largely) ignorant and apathetic market.

Taking Back Control

Luckily, there are millions of people who are tired of being manipulated and distracted by the whims of marketers. Some organizations in the U.S. and Europe are working to improve advertising quality. Other services try to limit or eliminate advertising. Adblockers are increasingly popular solutions for Internet users tired of being tracked, retargeted, and sold to.

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