What makes for the most persuasive advertisements

I rarely watch commercial radio or TV because the frequent interruption by ads annoy me, but it is impossible to avoid advertisements these days since they are all over the internet, including this blog. I like to think that I am too sophisticated to be taken in by these pitches but it may be that advertisers are smarter than we are. For example, take a look at this ad.

It apparently resulted in a 10% increase in sales across the firm’s entire product range even though it did not show the product at all.

Robert George Heath says that this ad a classic example of the power of subconscious seduction, how our buying decisions are so strongly influenced by the emotive content of advertising. He says that this is quite different from subliminal advertising whose purported effectiveness does not hold up under closer scrutiny.

In fact, rather scarily, the vast majority of advertising’s influence on us is subconscious. My own research has shown how the emotive content of advertising enables it to break almost all the rules which we believe govern our own susceptibility to adverts.

For example, we believe that ignoring ads stops them working, oblivious of the fact that emotive content requires no attention at all in order to be effectively processed. We also think that if we can’t recall an advert’s message, we cannot have been influenced by it. However the truth is that emotional influence lodges deep in our subconscious and is almost impossible to recall.

Above all, we believe that our brand choices are logical, and driven by our rational thinking, whereas the greatest driver of brand decisions is actually our emotional predisposition.

Heath says that the reason lies in our brain’s limbic system that is the source of our basic instincts.

The limbic system works regardless of whether we are paying attention, and works at a far greater speed than our thoughts. And unfortunately for our consumer selves, it is the system that processes emotional stimulus.

So when we perceive an ad for a brand, we make an instant judgement of its emotional value and store this subconsciously as a marker for future reference. If the emotional value is positive (kind, warm, sexy, cool, successful and so on) we are subconsciously “conditioned” to invest the brand with this positivity. We are not aware this happens, which means we can’t argue against it. But when we come to making a decision involving the brand, we find ourselves “seduced” in favor of it, and provided there is no strong reason not to, we buy it.

Of course if someone then asks us why we bought it, we invent all sorts of rational reasons for ourselves to do with price, features, performance, of the item in question.

I was aware that this process of rationalization, of inventing plausible reasons for beliefs and opinions that were not arrived at rationally, goes on all the time. This is why it is so hard to change such beliefs, since we can always invent new reasons if the old ones are successfully challenged. As Jonathan Swift said, “You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.”


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Disclosure: I used to work for Cadburys, back when it was Cadburys.

    What that article doesn’t say is that the gorilla advert followed a period of really quite diabolically poor and unsuccessful ads from the same business. When I was a kid, back in the days when the UK had only one commercial television channel and TV adverts had much greater reach, Cadbury adverts were iconic. My go-to example for this is the following challenge: go up to anyone in the UK aged 45 or over and say “NUTS! Whole hazelnuts!” -- the next word out of their mouth will be “Cadburys”. As in “Cadburys take them and they cover them with chocolate.” Everyone remembers it -- it’s part of our cultural wallpaper, even if you don’t like hazelnuts. There are many others -- the Turkish Delight ad (“Full of Eastern promise”), Creme Eggs (“how do you eat yours?”), the fruit’n’nut ad (“Everyone’s a fruit and nutcase”), fudge (“A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat”) -- the list goes on.
    By contrast, I challenge anyone to describe a Cadbury advert from between 1990 and 2007 that did NOT feature a gorilla. Hardly anyone can, and when they can it’s usually in the context of it being rubbish. So the context of the 10% increase was of previously relatively ineffective advertising and some shakeups in the business (and, not coincidentally, a scandal involving the presence of salmonella in the production stream.)
    Another piece of context missing was Cadburys’ immediately prior efforts towards brand integration.
    I and probably more than a thousand other employees were ferried to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham in about 2003, there to be educated about where the business was going. One of the presentations we were given by a celebrity concerned integrated brands, and made reference specifically to BMW. It noted specifically that while the Cadbury ads I mentioned above are good, they only advertise the one specific product -- fudge, Creme Eggs, whatever. BMW’s approach is different. EVERY BMW ad, no matter how specific, is at the end an advert for ALL BMWs. Apple later followed the same approach -- “Hi, I’m a Mac”. Not “I’m the latest Mac Airbook Pro”, just “I’m a Mac”. They’re not selling one product, they’re selling the business and what it says about you that you’re their customer. Cadburys took this on board and integrated their product lines, ditching many, rebranding others, and generally just pulling together the idea that THIS shade of purple means “that chocolate you grew up loving”. The gorilla advert only worked, and only could have worked, after that effort was effectively complete.
    The second bit of genius was they didn’t talk about it much, but let people talk about it. Was it a real gorilla? Surely costumes aren’t that good…? But you couldn’t train a real gorilla to do that… could you? And so on. Information on how it was done dribbled out later, prolonging the ad’s shelf life. The music was a deliberate nostalgia kick too -- the ad could potentially be effective even if you only saw the last five seconds and didn’t know anything about the gorilla at all. The feeling that song evoked -- remembrance of a time twenty to twenty five years ago -- was the aim, and the song does that on its own.

  2. raym says

    Not Cadburys (and yes, those phrases evoked all the related memories for me, too), but another iconic ad from the same period was from Hovis. Now, every time I listen to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, all I see is a loaf of brown bread.

  3. mnb0 says

    “Now, every time I listen to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, all I see is a loaf of brown bread.”
    For its full 40 minutes? That’s quite an achievement.

  4. Smokey says

    I saw an ad years ago, with John Cleese. Worst ad ever. You’ll find it on YouTube.

    I still remember the bloody product.

  5. KG says

    My go-to example for this is the following challenge: go up to anyone in the UK aged 45 or over and say “NUTS! Whole hazelnuts!” – the next word out of their mouth will be “Cadburys”. -- sonofrojblake@1

    Wouldn’t have worked with me; it took the subsequent phrase to trigger the memory. And I have no memory at all of the gorilla, because long before 2007, I was watching little non-prerecorded TV, and when I did, I was systematically turning the sound down whenever the adverts came on. That works a lot better than just thinking you’re ignoring the advert. Mostly, I don’t even know what’s being advertised and even if I do, it’s difficult -- at least for me -- to get the warm fuzzies from soundless images. Online, I use ad-blockers.

  6. lanir says

    I probably consume between none and maybe a few hours of media with advertising in an average month. I’m pretty tech-savvy so I use ad-blockers. Using them doesn’t take technical knowledge but knowing what to do when a site doesn’t work correctly with them on does.*

    I try to take apart advertisements when I run across them. One of the most useful classes I ever took was a highschool class about advertising. The teacher enthusiastically took apart advertisements and propaganda and got us involved in doing the same. I’d had the basic ideas drilled into me in grade school but actually practicing it felt like static knowledge that didn’t necessarily relate to anything. Being encouraged to use it actively and talk about it was incredibly useful. Like in the end, the gorilla Cadbury ad really doesn’t say anything about the company or product. Almost all advertising is this sort of useless fluff.

    * To use ad-blockers without requiring any tech knowledge, get them and turn them on. When a site doesn’t work, copy the address and open it again in a private window. Turn off the ad-blockers in the private window and reload the page. Do not use other windows or tabs in that browser until you’re done. When you are, re-activate the ad-blockers and close that window.

    A completely different and probably simpler approach is to use another browser (I recommend chrome or firefox) solely for things like this and simply never install ad-blockers in it. Using a private window is still probably a good idea even with a different browser. Helps avoid some common tracking BS that advertisers shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Close out of the window without ad-blockers as soon as you’re done viewing whatever wasn’t working and go back to your browser with them installed.

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