Thinking vs. Feeling: The Psychology of Advertising

Do ads with facts work better than ads that appeal through emotion and aspiration?

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Imagine two commercials for a new light beer. The first ad begins with a super-zoom of the luxurious, golden liquid tumbling into a tall clear glass. There is a man's voice: "All of the taste you want in a rich beer. Only half the calories."

The second ad starts in a bar. As a gaggle of unshaven men with floppy bellies are circling two beautiful women, like fat buzzards, a well-built man in a svelte black suit approaches the bar and orders a light beer. The women hear him and turn. He looks back. "Make that three," he tells the barkeep. The slogan appears: "Light is the new strong."

***

You can probably guess where I'm going here. The first ad relied on facts. The second relied on emotional influence. Advertising execs and researchers commonly say that all ads are either rational or emotional. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, and everybody knows it. Rational ads can still be beautiful, and beauty influences. Sexy ads can logical, and logic persuades.

So what does science really know about advertising? What kind of ads are most likely to make us buy products? The true and unsatisfying answer is that there is a lot we just don't know. The brain is a complicated thing. So is decision-making. So is figuring out whether an ad is working and why.

Here's a good example from Clay Warren, director of the Communications Program at George Washington University. The "Joe Camel" campaign began in 1988, when sales of Camel cigarettes were $6 million. By 1995, the company's sales were $476 million. They multiplied their sales by a factor of 80 in seven years while barely changing the product! One could say the sales increase was due to the ad campaign. But what exactly does this advertising campaign prove? Maybe it proves the power of marketing to younger customers. Maybe it proves the awesomeness of cool brand-inspired mascots (e.g.: the Camel Camel, the Geico Gecko, Mr. Peanut). Or maybe it proves that Americans really, really like camels.

The literature on rational versus affective advertising is very long and mostly inconclusive. Some studies suggest we care more about rational ads for things we need, like medicine, and are more receptive to emotional ads for things we simply want, like clothes. But another study by Aimee Drolet & Patti Williams & Loraine Lau-Gesk showed that, whereas younger consumers prefer emotional ads for "hedonic" products (beer and cologne) and fact-based ads for "utilitarian" products (pain relievers and investment plans), older consumers prefer affective ads for just about everything.

If this sounds basically intuitive, then good. Ads are supposed to play on our intuition, our conscious and subconscious desires. The Freudian theory everybody is driven by powerful sex urges has long been popular with advertisers (and those who advise them), so we see a lot of ads that obliquely use sex to sell just about anything, from cars to Coke.

The most successful ads -- in the eyes of advertisers at least -- have broad emotional and cognitive appeal. They target aspiration, persuasion, and emotion -- what Warren labels ethos, logos, and pathos.

"In 2004, Goody, Silverstein & Partners, developed what would be a "Campaign of the Year" for Hewlett Packard's digital photography," he wrote in an email. "Frenchman Francois Vogel developed a software program that made it seem as though still pictures could be snatched out of thin air. HP spent a record sum of money on this campaign, and the positive feedback was enormous. The focus is on you (ethos is the main premise in persuasion), the evidence (logos premise) that HP digital cams and printers will give you a picture so good it is like looking at the actual person and is simple to use, and (pathos premise) a wonderful feel-good sing-along song accompanied with the feeling of how fun it is to snatch pics out of the air like a wizard."

Ian Cook, associate director of the UCLA Laboratory of Brain, Behavior, and Pharmacology, and a co-researcher of Warren's, put his most latest finding this way: "Advertising images that may seek to influence behavior without a rational evaluation, tend to activate the brain differently than ads that appeal to rational decision-making. The idea that irrational behavior may be present every day for many people, even among those who ordinarily seem sensible and logical, is getting more and more attention."

So, given that we are capable of both rational and irrational behavior, what's more effective: rational ads or affective ads? I asked both researchers. It's a great question, they each responded, that the psychology community is still trying to answer.

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Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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