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Marketing and advertising are regularly under scrutiny for many reasons. Some think that the multitude of ads in our society disrupt the nature of the environments we live. Others believe that the images and videos brands use to inform, remind,and persuade people can be unethical, misleading, or even damaging to the psyches of those reached. And yet still more- even though less than the past- love to watch and look at what brands are bringing to the table to make our lives just a little more convenient. Finally, you have those on the fringes who believe that marketing and those who do it are manipulative fiends; forcing the consumption cycle upon a society in order to control their wishes and desires.

This article wants to focus on how marketing actually influences behavior. Is it a simple formula? Something ingrained? Or, are the conspiracy theorists right?

What Makes People React

If you’re a marketing professional or student, then you are well aware that marketing is not a ‘simple’ formula. The truth is, effective marketing campaigns are a mix of genius, timing and testing, and iterating. But, based on the research done by consumer behaviorists, neurobiologists, and behavioral economists, we have come to understand a little more about what drives people to act or react to certain situations.

Choice. People will choose the path of least resistance when it comes to making a decision. No matter big or small. Why? Our brains suck at making decisions, so we try to categorize and use heuristics to get to a point that we are able to make sense of things. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink points this out quite clearly, as well as Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. Because decision-making is a big cognitive load for the consumer, less choice is actually better, and recommendations from friends or people in their social circle is the best.

Emotions. Though we as a society like to think that the human race is compiled of logical, reasonable beings, that is simply not the case. Consumers will act on using emotions to buy a good or service versus rationale nearly every time. Why? Let’s think about what drives us. In Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave, he relates the four major stimuli for the general human in arousing circumstances: fear, fight, flight, and sex. Where does logic fit in the picture? Our ability to add context to the situation happens (hopefully) after one of those responses are triggered.

This article could go on and on adding more reasons why people act they way they do, but there’s more to discuss.

How Marketing Triggers Those Behaviors

So far it has been discussed that marketing is not a simple formula, and consumers are not great at making decisions. Therefore, we can postulate that marketing is a complex formula in which it cuts down the fluff the consumer is irrationally trying to use to make decisions, in order to make the decision process easier.

How does marketing do that?

Imagery & Word Association. As stated earlier, the consumer’s mind uses shortcuts (i.e. heuristics) in order to make the decision-making process easier. If Brand A wants you to think that their product or service is cool, it is going to pair it with words, imagery and video that will make you think so. Now, these days, with programmatic and predictive modeling, marketers can pair their products with things you are already purchasing or searching, since the assumption is that if you think Brand B is cool, you’ll also think Brand A is as well. One cannot think that “Love: Is what makes a Subaru, a Subaru” was a slogan the Subaru team decided to try out of nowhere. With their research and customer feedback, they saw a trend, and capitalized on it with a very powerful word.

Nostalgia, Fear and Emotion. Because the brain is so powerful, the consumer can have difficulty remembering what was completely true, or knowing how they will feel afterwards. Let’s take nostalgia for example, the “remember those days” feeling. People love thinking back to a “simpler” time, when their life was seemingly not as difficult or busy as they say it is. It’s a powerful feeling, but sometimes it is not true. Yes, though some people feel nostalgic about certain moments, sometimes the details of those moments can be false. A team out of John Hopkins University did a study seeing how people could readily believe false memories from complex moments.

On fear. Sapolsky goes into detail about how the brain processes fear. This definition of fear can be combined with the threat of the unknown, uncertainty, anxiety, and the like. Humans, are typically fear averse. So when marketers use fear in advertising, something interesting happens in the brain. To put it simply, the part of the brain that feels fear skips the part of the brain that processes reason, and immediately acts. In survival cases, this makes sense- if you’re in the woods and you hear a howl and some rustling a few feet away, the brain can’t take time to process if it’s a nice wolf, or a dangerous one. But this is fascinating in marketing; how fast will you decide to vote for candidate A, if candidate B looks so scary?

As for emotion, Ariely and his team have done a number of studies that those that people in aggravated states think and decide differently than they would in their ‘regular’ state. A good example of this is the Super Bowl and brand recall. In Super Bowl games where the score is close, the brand recall from consumers is much better versus a Super Bowl game where a team is getting blown out. Why? First, consumers are less likely to leave the room or change the channel. Second, the emotion level is raised due to the close play of the game.


While marketing will continue to be critiqued about its use of sex and sex appeal, or the type of people and messages it uses, it can be agreed that marketing is not an activity that brands use to manipulate the consumer to buy whatever they push. The people who make that claim do not understand how their brain or consumer behavior actually works. Marketing can influence behavior, but it takes a lot more than showing something shiny and sexy.