Second installment in the
“Advertising: Rabbit in the Hat” series
Did you watch the Youtube video yet? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
For me, the commercial felt like an emotional cannon aimed at a mouse – and I’m the mouse. I know it took me through a tour de force of anger, fear, sadness, and guilt in under 90 seconds. I was left with an almost urgent feeling to do something, to change something, before it was too late. And the commercial was only for life insurance.
I don’t know about you but I’m not happy with being run through an emotional wringer so some company can make money off a life insurance policy – it’s a cheap advertising trick.
Advertising Tricks: Our brain on fear
In his book Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom talks about fear as a very powerful motivator for people – it’s the way we’re wired. Most people are familiar with the idea of the flight or fight response; it’s the part of the brain that takes care of us automatically when we’re faced with a threatening situation. You step out into the street and a bus is speeding towards you, your reflexes take over and you throw yourself out of harm’s way without even thinking about it.
If we’re talking about fear, we’re talking about the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is a very old part of the brain and is involved in the motivation, emotion, learning and memory functions. The amygdala is part of your limbic system and it decides if we need to pay attention to something right away. It does other things but we’re not going to worry about that right now.
For example – you see a bear. Your brain swings into action, the amygdala hits the panic button, which then send messages to your hippocampus, another part of your limbic system, which is like the emergency response operator. Your hippocampus is the dispatcher (911 operator) and decides what systems need to come on line to deal with the bear. In a fight or flight situation, the hippocampus gets the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system online which causes your heart to pound faster, the muscles tense, and your pupils to dilate (to allow more light into the eye).
Due to how we are designed biologically, fear is a far more powerful motivator than reason because our fight or flight system shuts down our higher brain functions like thinking and reason. There are way more connections feeding information from the limbic system to the cortex (reason and thinking centre) than there is going the other way – we have way too much information about our emotional response at that moment and not lot of reasoning power to help us figure things out rationally. Kind of like brain tunnel vision.
Advertising Tricks: H1N1 & Tsunamis
Advertisers are keenly interested in how we work, they scan our brains, conduct their focus groups, and comb through buying trends in efforts to tease out one more clue or insight into why we buy what we buy. If you think back to the H1N1 crisis, you might remember the hyper focus on germs that evolved out of that epidemic. Lindstrom discusses this at great length in his book, see below for some key examples.
Hand sanitizer, hand wipes, and other related products started cropping up in malls, airports, hospitals and other public places to help people prevent germs from spreading. People started carrying around travel-sized bottles until they became so common place, most purses and bags will have a bottle knocking around next to the wallet and keys. The interesting fact is that H1N1 is spread by droplets in the air – usually dispersed when people sneeze or cough – and inhaled by someone else. Sanitizers do nothing to prevent the spread of H1N1 – advertising tricks at their best.
But “epidemics” and natural disasters are big business and companies are quick to cash in on them. In fact, a number of big box stores contracted a company called Weather Trends to help them target their inventory stock towards those items that sell well when a natural disaster strikes. They put up huge window displays and put items like bottled water, canned food, and first aid supplies whenever there is so much as a hint of bad weather.
Advertising Tricks: Fitting in & Belonging
Fear mongering is a common tactic used in several ways, capitalizing on any number of insecurities that worry us in our daily lives. Lindstrom talks about how advertisers use fear to sell everything from toothpaste, house cleaners, vitamins, to technology on a regular basis. They target our insecurities and threaten our sense of belonging, our fear of failure, and our uncertainty about an unknown future.
Brene Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, talks about how we often mistake “fitting in” or “being popular” for a true sense of belonging. She describes fitting in as the act of hustling for approval – we socially read a situation and then adapt our behaviours to receive approval and acceptance.
Even if we aren’t “belonging” in the way where people actually see us and know us in an authentic way, it feels real because we receive positive responses. While we might believe we belong, we know on some level that this type of popularity is contingent on us acting a certain way. Then we become fearful of being “discovered”, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.
Advertisers are very aware of this and exploit our vulnerabilities – even ones we weren’t aware we had. Lindstrom talks about Dove’s “Go Sleeveless” campaign and how they claimed that their new moisturizing formula will make underarms “not only odour-free but prettier”. If you didn’t really think about your underarms before this, advertising tricks us into thinking about it after seeing that commercial. Prettier? What? Are they not pretty? Maybe I should think about that…
Advertising tricks create insecurity, build some anxiety around it, and then offer the solution all in the same package. A perfect package, really.
So what do we do? Advertising isn’t going anywhere and neither is our need for brands. While we can’t really swear off all consumer goods for all time – it will help us to understand what our relationship is to advertising and how it influences us. Being critical of our buying decisions must go beyond the price tag, it must go to the heart of what makes us do what we do. A holistic understanding of who we are and what makes us tick – if we know ourselves, we’re less likely to fall for fake commercial versions of ourselves that companies are trying to sell us.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: A Guide to a Wholehearted Life. Hazeldon: Center City, MN
Layton, J. (n.d.) How fear works. How Stuff Works. Retrieved from http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/fear2.htm on May 9, 2013.
Lindstrom, M. (2011). Brandwashed: Tricks Companies use to Manipulate our Minds and Persuade us to Buy. Crown Business: New York, NY
No author. (n.d.) The Limbic System. Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbic_system on May 9, 2013.
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