June 26 2016

How advertisers use psychology to entice us to buy

Adam Ferrier MAPS
By Consumer psychologist and Global Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cummins & Partners

Advertisers play on emotions and our desire to be part of the in-group, but contrary to what you might think, they’re not trying to make us buy things we don’t want.

From watching television to browsing social media channels and even standing at the bus stop, we’re exposed to as many as 5,000 advertising messages every day. Although most marketers aren’t psychologists, they use a range of psychological strategies to devise these messages and appeal to consumers.

But it needn’t be a passive relationship. The more consumers understand how products and services are marketed, the better position they’re in to pursue consumables that genuinely give them satisfaction. Here’s what savvy consumers need to know about the psychology of advertising.

Advertisers aren’t trying to make us buy stuff we don’t want

Psychology and the world of advertising had a fractured relationship for many years. In the 1950s there was a lot of commentary about subliminal advertising and creating unconscious desires, which scared the industry and made it very cautious about appearing to use hidden tricks and means of persuasion to entice consumers to buy.

Fast forward to today and we’re a lot more accepting of the role – and pervasiveness – of advertising and branding in everyday life, but many people are still concerned about the manipulative effects of advertising.

It’s important to note that it’s very hard to make people do something they don’t want to do. People are born with a set of motivations and desires, and marketers will try to steer consumers in the direction of their brands to help meet those motivations and desires. Ultimately, however, you can’t create a motivation or desire that’s not there.

Instead, advertisers think about what consumers want and need, and how they can meet those wants and needs. At a creative level, marketers come up with branded messages to share with consumers to spark interest and create behaviour change. Next comes the medium – where to place the advertising to best communicate with consumers. From print and broadcast media to online, social media and branded content, these days there are a huge number of options.

The interesting area of advertising is that every business has a right to advertise, generate desire and be the healthiest corporation it can possibly be. The trouble is that the cumulative effect of countless numbers of brands struggling for attention and working to be seen can be a marketing force that works against the consumer because the market has become very cluttered.

Emotional needs trump rational needs

There’s two things that motivate people: what’s in it for them and what other people are doing. Many advertisers will try to tap into emotional needs to satisfy the former.

For example, every shampoo cleans hair. At a basic level a marketer might try to say why their shampoo can clean someone’s hair better than other brands of shampoo. However, it’s well established that shampoo cleans hair now so marketers don’t need to communicate that. What they will do instead is try to tap into an emotional connection and say, for example, that their shampoo cleans your hair and makes you beautiful and glamorous.

Why do they do this? Because tapping into an emotional benefit often means more to the consumer than the rational benefit. So feeling empowered and glamorous is probably more important than just having clean hair, and people will pay a premium for these emotional benefits.

What other people are doing matters

The principles of what psychologists call ‘social norms’ help advertisers to tap into our innate preference to follow the crowd. How do they do this? Marketers are very good at making it seem like a product is already popular or is even more popular than people think, which encourages us to buy. A good way to do this is put it on television. As soon as a product is on television it seems to have a magic effect – people think it must be big and popular.

This strategy is effective because we are more confident making decisions that other people have already made. If we believe that other people have already decided on something we’re more likely to go along with that decision, whether it’s purchasing the new McDonalds hamburger, rushing to the Boxing Day sales or remembering to slip, slop, slap before going to the beach.