The Psychology of Advertising

Instructor: Michelle Blessing

Michelle is a former therapist and adult education/college instructor. She holds a Master's degree in Psychology and a Bachelor's degree in Sociology.

Advertising has been around for many years, but what makes certain ads more successful than others? Psychologists have some ideas about how advertising appeals to us on many different levels. Read on to learn more.

The Psychology Behind Advertising

Advertisers use a variety of psychological tactics.
strategy magnifying glass

What's your favorite part of the Superbowl? Your favorite team scoring the winning touchdown? The amazing theatrics of the half-time show? Or is it the commercials that advertisers are willing to pay almost a million dollars to have air for 30 seconds? If you are like many people, you eagerly await the hyped-up ads with as much anticipation as you do the actual game. You may even go out after and buy some of the products you've seen. Why? The answer is simple - the psychology of advertising.

Scott, Hollingworth, and Watson

The relationship between psychology and advertising has a long history. Several psychologists looked at how advertisements worked, one of the first being Walter Dill Scott . Scott believed people were very easily persuaded by propaganda, regardless of intelligence. Starting with his 1903 book The Psychology of Advertising in Theory and Practice, Scott's work paved the way for two other psychologists, Harry Hollingworth and John B. Watson, to further study how advertisements draw people in and help companies sell products.

Harry Hollingworth believed in order for advertisements to be effective, they needed to accomplish the following:

  • Attract your attention and focus you on the message
  • Make you remember the message of the advertisement
  • Convince you to follow the message (aka purchase the product or service)

John B. Watson expanded on Hollingworth's research by looking at the emotions raised by advertising. He believed successful ads invoked love, fear, or rage. His research also focused on subliminal messaging and celebrity endorsements.

Be Like Mike (or Joe or Tony)

Celebrity advertisements work to sell products, something that both advertisers and psychologist have known for years. These types of ads work for two main reasons: (1) celebrities give products/services a recognizable face, and (2) celebrities tend to embody, at least for many people, qualities that mark success and achievement. Celebrity endorsements can suggest that if you want to be strong and attract women, you should wear the cologne that the star NFL quarterback wears; or if you want to be beautiful and marry a wonderful man, you should buy your undergarments from this particular store. When we associate products with qualities, the likelihood we purchase those products skyrockets. This is why advertisers will compete for the latest and greatest celebrity: he or she will sell their product.

Emotional Appeal

Commercials can connect with us on particularly trying days.
sad man

Imagine this - you are having a terrible day. Your car will not start, you are late to work, and your boss reams you out for something that was not your fault. Your emotional stability is hanging by a thread, so you decide to binge watch your favorite television show after work.

During the commercial break, an ad catches your eye. 'Had a bad day?', the voice over booms. 'Life got you down?', the voice continues. You watch, intrigued by the smiling faces and colorful images. 'Then stop by XYZ Store and grab some Happy Snacks!'. Deep down, you know Happy Snacks will not fix your terrible day, but in that moment, something in your mind tells you to just maybe, possibly, give them a try.

While at the grocery store the next day, you spot a display for Happy Snacks. Reminded of your bad day and the smiling faces on the television, you think, 'Why not?' and causally toss them in your cart. Ah, the psychology of advertising. Emotional appeal is an advertising tactic that reaches us at the core. It reminds us we are human and flawed, but it also appeals to the sense we (via a product or service) can change that. Commercials bombard us with beautiful people, fancy cars, and a sense we could have all of that - if only we buy into what the company is selling.

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