The Psychology of Advertising: Emotionality vs Rationality

Advertising (or advertisement) is defined as a commercial solicitation that is a form of communication designed to sell a commodity or service. Based on persuasion, information and influence, it is a highly competitive industry as many businesses will set aside large budgets to ensure their products are marketed successfully. So what is the key to advertising, and how does it work?

Advertising is all about psychology, the most popular method it uses is Classical Conditioning, an associative method dating back to the 1890s, where learning through association was demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov and his dogs. Pavlov trained his subjects (dogs) to salivate when hearing a bell ring, and did so through this method. Usually when a dog hears a bell rung, no response is elicited, this means it is a neutral stimulus. However when a dog is presented with food it will salivate, hence we call the food the unconditioned stimulus and the salivation the unconditioned response. Now if the bell and the food are paired together, understandably the dog will still salivate, as the unconditioned stimulus is still present. Yet over time if the bell and food are associated together enough the bell can generate the same response without the food being present. In this circumstance the learning has taken place, the bell has become the conditioned stimulus and causes salivation which is the conditioned response. If this process can occur in dogs there is no reason that humans cannot be conditioned in the same way.

These days advertisement and marketing managers are not interested in making a dog salivate on command, yet they are interested in selling products and services to consumers. and here is where conditioning is involved. Ever wondered why toilet tissue adverts feature cutesy babies, fluffy koalas or golden puppies? It’s to trigger an emotional response, a response that consumers can associate with the experience of using toilet paper, and an experience they can take with them to the supermarket. In the UK’s households 72% of women are responsible for the weekly shop. Like it or not women are innately more sensitive to emotional triggers in their daily life. The reason hence Andrex advertise with puppies, Cushelle use fluffy Koalas and Triple Velvet use a baby in a business suit. All of these stimuli trigger an emotional response in the consumer (usually a woman) that toilet tissue can not elicit, yet through associative learning (Classical Conditioning) the toilet tissue can trigger an emotional response in the buyer, which will, in effect cause them to put it in their basket!

This explanation is so far from rational it could be deemed preposterous. Surely a multi-billion pound industry is not based on irrational consumer behaviour? Yet it is. Which is why in the supermarket, when the shopper sees the toilet paper with the baby on the packaging the emotional response overcomes any rational thought processing leading to the purchasing of the product with the best advertising and/or the cutest packaging as opposed to the best product.

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