Modern Propaganda
April 21, 2010 7:51 PM   Subscribe

How do advertisers manipulate people?

I think it's a pretty well-established fact that advertising works, but how?

What techniques do advertisers use to manipulate the public and convince people to buy their brand or support their cause? I'm interested in the overt and covert methods of persuasion that are frequently employed, and I'm looking for all kinds of examples across a wide variety of media (print, radio, TV, etc.).
posted by Despondent_Monkey to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
You want to read this book (Cialdini's Influence).
posted by phoenixy at 7:56 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Specific examples? Here are some general ones.

Sex. Fear. Conformity (everyone has/wants one!)

My favorite is when advertisers try to sell to new parents because advertisers know parents want the "best" for their kids. When I was little, my mom used to wash our hair in the bathtub and rinse it by pouring water from a regular old plastic cup. Recently, I saw a special "Toddler Bathing Bucket" in my friend's bathroom that probably cost $20 because it was made special for kids but does nothing more than the cup does!
posted by thorny at 8:08 PM on April 21, 2010

manipulation? only you can do that.
those are your hopes, dreams, ambitions, delusions.

we just try to tell a cool story and hope you like it.
sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
most of the time it doesn't.
posted by krautland at 8:12 PM on April 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

You'll want to check out the people on the editorial team at AdBusters, and particularly EIC Kalle Lasn's book Culture Jam. Also check out Media Messages, No Logo (more about first world consumerism in a global market), and start subscribing to Adbusters.
posted by zoomorphic at 8:15 PM on April 21, 2010

Just chiming in to second the recommendation of Influence.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:15 PM on April 21, 2010

"Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say" may interest you.
posted by pompomtom at 8:15 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sorry for the redundancy. I'm really tired tonight.
posted by zoomorphic at 8:15 PM on April 21, 2010

By figuring out what they really think, want, or fear, and identifying how the product relates.
posted by salvia at 8:20 PM on April 21, 2010

Two examples come to mind:

The bottled water industry comes to mind. I think Dasani and Aquafina were tested, and found to be tap water, basically. But we're led to believe that these bottles of water are somehow more natural, or pure than tap. You see it with images of mountains and glaciers on packaging, among other things. These images both on the product and in media advertising distort the reality of the origin of what we're buying, with our perception of where it comes from. Everyone knows water is good for you. But the glistening glacier on the bottle makes it seem like it's extra super good for you. And I think there's a lot of peer pressure in it too, consumers become advertisers themselves because, you know, water in a bottle? It's cool to be healthy (or give the image of health).

I also have my opinions on Kotex's new ad campaigns, poking fun at the simultaneous taboo and mystique of menstruation. Ok, the ads are cute and funny, but what do they do? What do they tell me about the product? Why are their products better for my needs? Or are they just trying to get me to buy their products because they're being all cool and hip about periods? At the end of the day, they're selling a product and they're trying to get us to buy it. It's making consumers feel like a company "gets" them, rather than necessarily having a better product for their needs. And the black box with neon colored pads and tampons obviously means that Kotex isn't your grandmother's pale pink feminine hygiene product. It's way cooler and more modern. Duh!
posted by raztaj at 8:36 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Find a need (or invent one) of yours that their product fulfills. Tell you about it. If you don't need or want it, you won't buy it. For example, if I'm a single male no amount of advertising will convince me that I need sanitary pads. If I'm a woman, at least there's a chance I'll have the need for it.

It's not manipulation rather it's companies promoting only the best about their product, rather than the potential downside. If you were looking to date someone you wouldn't go up to your love interest and inform them that you're habitually late and swear a lot, instead, you'll tell them that you play in a band and love Shakespeare and walks in the park and leave out your bad points. Advertising's the same, companies always put their best foot forward. Repetition works a lot as well, you're more likely to remember a message if you hear it a few times.
posted by Jubey at 8:39 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thirding, Influence and not just for advertising. If anyone is at all interested in persuasion and inter-personal dynamics work, then you will enjoy this book. It has lots of fun anecdotes as well as references to lots of academic studies.
posted by mmascolino at 8:44 PM on April 21, 2010

You might also enjoy CBC Radio's The Age of Persuasion which is more of a dive into the history of various facets of advertising. While it doesn't always explicitly address "how to manipulate consumers" you will learn about what makes good advertisements and how good advertisements have changed through the decades.
posted by mmascolino at 8:49 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check out The Century of Self it's Adam Curtis, which means you have to watch it critically, but you'll still learn a lot.
posted by klanawa at 8:53 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

There's this construct called the availability heuristic, which is basically getting some kind of product brand on your mind. This works because when you're facing a wall of products (like cereals) and you're not sure which one you want, you'll reach for one that's on mind. If they can fit a product into your mind, they find there's some small likelihood that you'll buy it. And when you've got an audience of millions, that small likelihood is all you need.

Another technique, which Cialdini goes into, is called descriptive norms - meaning that we all want to emulate people we know and admire. So if they have a commercial with some popular celebrity endorsing a product, a whole bunch of people will buy it, just cause they want to be like that celebrity.
posted by jasper411 at 8:55 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

second watching Century of Self.
posted by Glibpaxman at 8:56 PM on April 21, 2010

Boobs. Its mostly about the boobs.
posted by spilon at 8:59 PM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding Age of Persuasion....podcasts can be found here.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:59 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of it is exploitation of basic psych principals. For instance, familiarity breeds likeability (not contempt!). The more you're exposed to something (a logo or branded object for example) the more you're going to like it, and of course also recognize it. This is why companies love to give out free stuff with their name on it.
posted by radioamy at 9:02 PM on April 21, 2010

Oh, there are so many ways. One of the easiest is to create a campaign around how popular a product is. Make people believe it is popular and, sure enough, people will start to like it... because they think everybody else likes it. The reverse is true as well, but it's dangerous to take that route because it can backfire (trying to make people believe everybody hates a competitor, for example. That can convince people the competitor sucks, but it can backfire because they believe the company running the ad is mean).
posted by 2oh1 at 9:02 PM on April 21, 2010

I don't think it's as much about "convincing" or "manipulating" people as it is branding - as in, creating a brand identity for a product or company that consumers will want to attach to their own identity.

There is a large misconception among people who think that every advertisers goal is to get people to think "MUST BUY NOW" after every spot they see. A lot of people like to play ad-critic and think you themselves "uhhh, that didn't make me want to BUY that deodorant" but that wasn't the point. Like krautland said, it's about telling a story and hoping it sticks. "That deodorant commercial is on again. It's actually pretty funny. I'm pretty funny for recognizing the humor in it." Then, next time they're at the store and remember they need to pick up some new deodorant...
posted by windbox at 9:23 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

You probably don't even realize it, but you might be smelly down there. But how would you know if you were? You honestly think anyone is going to tell you? No, they'll notice all right, but they won't tell you. But there is a way to be sure you don't smell - our fantastic product!

Everyone is already privately using our product, which is why they're not smelly. You better get with the program before you humiliate yourself without even realizing it.


Did you know that criminals laugh at deadlocks? They can break right through them. Terrible terrible violent criminals who can't wait to break in while you sleep and do horrible horrible things to you! They know what to look for, and you're the easy target in your area if your home doesn't have our fantastic product!


Don't be a sitting duck - TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE!

etc etc

Of more generally, you need boring mundane product X. The store has an aisle of different brands that all do the same thing. You recognize one brand, though you don't really recall from where. You just know it.
Most people lean towards going with what they're familiar with.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:30 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Advertising appeals to your senses (something soft equated with toilet paper or music that makes your ears perk up) and your aspirations (if you want to get a hot girl drink X kind of beer).
posted by MsKim at 9:30 PM on April 21, 2010

Also, one more bit on branding - there are is are so many intricacies in a company's branding, right down to choosing the font/typography, the colors, the voice of the copywriting, etc...think of it as, if this company could be transformed into a single human being, would people want to be friends with him/her?

Apple actually went ahead and did this with Justin Long - Apple was calm and cool Justin, while PC was a nerdy, neurotic square with ugly glasses. Not surprisingly, people wanted to be friends with Justin Long - and while you might think you're above those ads, "they're not after you...they're after them" (To quote Thank You For Smoking)
posted by windbox at 9:31 PM on April 21, 2010

I'm not a PR professional, but I've always understood it to be all about getting remembered, and sometimes, being half remembered is best. It's why the horrible late night ads work. For every person that's looking for a used car and say's, "Geez, I hate Joe's. I'm not going there", there are ten that say, "I've heard of Joe's. Guess I'll look on there lot." And why candy snake foods don't even have to tell you what they are in the ad's, "Hummm, Hockey Pukes. That's familiar sounding, I'll grab some of these bacon jerky strips."
posted by Some1 at 9:38 PM on April 21, 2010

I taught advertising -- planning, strategy, copywriting, creative, semiotics in -- for years. I'd like to tell you it works like this:

- Researchers uncover unmet needs and "ladder" them up to higher need states; i.e. "He says he wants a phone that's more powerful because his is wussy, which means he feels inferior and like less of a man."
- Product is built to address unmet tangible and psychological needs of the target audience:
"Sure, we gave it more processing power, but we also added square corners, a heavier hand feel and a louder click to create a feeling of power and masculinity"
- Advertising, marketing and product naming are created to address the psychological aspects
"He wants to feel that he's smarter than marketing, but still needs to feel like this is a man's phone. So we're going to call it MoPho for mobile phone and have an ad campaign that makes fun of ad campaigns."
- Advertising is tested and tracked, with multiple executions of the campaign in different, similar cities. As a campaign is more successful in the market, the successful ad campaigns are rolled out in more cities, constantly refining.

But in reality, it works like this:
- A bunch of (mostly) guys in their 20s sit around trying to crack each other up with stupid ad ideas.
- A day before the presentation to the client (who the guys have been mocking for the last two weeks), they show their favorite ideas to the rest of the team. All the ad executions speak only to 20-something guys, no matter who the target audience is and are derivative of whatever won awards last year
- The account person or planner on the team freaks out, desperately trying to make something, anything, relate to the business task at hand
- The work is presented to the client with a straight face as "amazing" and "the best work we've ever done" even if it was just recycled from the last client
- The client picks the two most familiar ideas, asks the agency to combine them (especially if there's no way to sensibly combine them) and then asks for more product feature bullets
- The creative team complains about the client and acts all dramatic that the changes have just screwed their chances of getting in Communication Arts
- The day before the ads are set to launch, the client gets cold feet, dictates a whole bunch of changes based on his/her gut
- The ads run. Consumers don't notice it, but when they go to buy something, the name seems oddly familiar.
- People trust familiar things and if something advertises, it must be in good enough shape to stay in business, so they take a closer look at the product.
- If they like it, they buy it. If not, they don't.
- If the product sells, other ad agencies try to copy that campaign. If it doesn't, they don't.
posted by Gucky at 9:58 PM on April 21, 2010 [33 favorites]

Anchoring. Talk about a particularly expensive product or variation of the product you're trying to sell, then present the product you really want to sell. People will hopefully have anchored on to the more expensive product and consider your next offer to be reasonable, when it may not absolutely be so.
posted by wackybrit at 9:59 PM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing Century of the Self. Watch it twice, then pose your next question.

Popcorn required.
posted by philip-random at 10:09 PM on April 21, 2010

One of my professors told us he had resigned from head of marketing for a major domestic products multinational (think: toothpastes, cleaning products) because he "grew tired of making young women feel inadequate vis-a-vis their mothers"

Suddenly I was seeing it in almost every ad for those kinds of domestic products:

"Shit! Mum's dropping in by in 10 min! Lucky I have SpraykleenTM!"

*cleaning montage*

[mum arrives & runs finger over windowsill to check for dust, looks at daughter with grudging approval; daughter smiles triumph, camera cuts to Spraykleen TM can, where the Spraykleen man winks & sparkles of cleanliness rain down from his magic wand]
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:15 PM on April 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

UbuRoivas: I totally remember that ad.

One of the most annoying tropes is when advertisers simply state their thesis. Like they're not event trying. There was an ad for the Cadillac Catera that basically said "you've been pushed around all your life, then you got a Catera, now everything's better". That's literally what they said!

Lately this Audi ad has been saying that people are brainwashed into buying BMWs or Mercedes, but that the solution is to buy and Audi. Which is apparently the non-conformist luxury car now.
posted by delmoi at 10:47 PM on April 21, 2010

Here's a specific example.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:14 AM on April 22, 2010

Here's the relevant ad. I think it has been removed from the post.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:19 AM on April 22, 2010

A lot of people are talking about exploiting fear and desires, but seem to be overlooking the way that advertisers create fear and desire. For instance, I've noticed in the few decades that I lived that the "before" and "after" pictures for diet products have been changing since I was a kid. Nowadays, many of the "before" pictures are much thinner than they used to be and often depict someone at a perfectly healthy weight. You're supposed to think "Wow, if that is what fat looks like, then I must be fat! I need to buy that diet product!"

Similar messages are "You're uncool if you don't buy this," targeted at kids and teenagers, "You're a bad parent if you don't get this for your kid," "If you don't buy this for your wife/girlfriend, then obviously you don't love her," "Only stupid people buy our competitors' products, and you're not stupid, are you?" and so forth. Less insidious, sometimes they just want to get the message across that this is totally the product that someone like you buys, e.g. artsy people drive a Volkswagen Bug, sensible no-nonsense people shop at Walmart.

There is something called "the nag factor" which doesn't target the purchaser of the product, but someone that will "nag" them to buy it. Most typical is advertising SUVs to children so that they will nag their parents to get one. The above "You don't love your wife/girlfriend if you don't buy this" works this way, too. Just look at diamonds. Why on earth would a woman ever want an extremely expensive shiny rock? Because diamond companies have done a terrific job of convincing women that they are not loved if they don't get one.

Another trick is to keep the customer dependent on products. I think it was Naomi Klein who pointed out that it is often the same umbrella company selling food with advertising encouraging binges, then also selling a diet product to make you feel that you're fat and ugly and need to lose weight.

Advertisers often put advertising where we don't think it exists. Beauty magazines are a perfect example of this. Pretty much all the "articles" and "information" in beauty magazines is there solely to make you purchase from their sponsors. This could be with articles telling you that a particular lipstick is "the best" or is "hot right now." I've also seen beauty magazines with articles chiding and shaming women for "not taking care of themselves" or "disrespecting themselves" if they don't wear make up.

Some even more insidious methods are outlined in the book Coercion as recommended above. These include psychological tricks to put someone in a receptive state, or make them anxious so they rush to make a decision before having all the information.

Don't forget that one method, tried and true by Coca-Cola and McDonald's is simply familiarity. These companies have worked very hard to make sure that you grew up being very familiar with their company. Most people are afraid to try new things, so they will buy Coke sooner than they will buy some unfamiliar soda sitting next to it on the shelf. This is why billboards that do nothing more than show the Coca-Cola logo are so effective. Sometimes you just need to remind somebody of something. Ads for cigarettes and candy just need to remind people of their existence and that is enough to make someone feel like they would like to go and have one.

Finally, a trick I've noticed is exploiting a common psychological phenomenon where people think "Everything will be fine if...." For instance, a lot of people who want to lose weight are putting off a lot of things in their life, because they think "When I'm thin, I'll learn a new language, get a great new career, get an awesome boyfriend..." Advertisements often depict people who have used a product and their entire life has transformed in exactly that way. It's possible that this psychological phenomenon only exists because we've all grown up on these ads. Maybe people didn't used to have that mentality.

There are also lots of little tricks, like pricing things at $22.43 instead of $20, which makes it look like there is really a reason why it has to be that price. Also, take a product sold for $1 a piece and then change it to "special price: 2 for $3!" and watch the sales go up. Surprisingly, making something ridiculously overpriced is good for sales because it makes it seem like the product must do incredible things. Just ask the makers of beauty creams.

One of my favourites is the "We're not advertising, no really, we just want to provide you with this because we love you so much" trick as championed by Dove. Also, warehouse stores are specifically designed to look shabby because that makes you feel like you're saving money, "We pass the savings on to you!"

Creating intentional shortages works well, too. This is done with collectible items a lot, and Disney does it with their DVDs which they only release for a limited period. I remember one Christmas time when people would pay out the nose for a Tickle Me Elmo doll at Christmas because there was a huge shortage of them, but savvy customers know that shortage was planned.

Also, to quote Sarah Haskins, "pictures of science" work great for selling beauty products.
posted by giggleknickers at 12:37 AM on April 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm in New Zealand. I just saw a commercial that had this healthy, active family sitting around talking about their day. The dad was all talking about his workout plan, and how he's getting buff. The entire family looked rather good fit.

They were all eating a meal together. It was a family meal made up of big macs, fries, and cokes...from MACDONALDS...which had family meals in a box in New Zealand.

So yeah...go ahead and work out and eat big macs...because its what people who work out do.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:47 AM on April 22, 2010

UbuRoivas & delmoi: I saw the latest incarnation of that ad the other night. Definitely a new-ish one, as what's-'er-name is looking decidedly the worse for wear.

Personally, I reckon the memorableness (is that a word?) of that series of ads owes it all to the jingle - which, IIRC, is based on an Ian Dury & the Blockheads song…

Re: the Audi ad. It's just an extension of the old "you want to project an image of not caring about image? BUY THIS DRINK!" technique.
posted by Pinback at 12:49 AM on April 22, 2010

Surprised nobody's mentioned FUD yet--fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The general idea is to prevent existing customers from switching from an industry leader to a cheaper upstart by encouraging the natural doubts that anyone might have about a smaller, less-established company: are they financially viable? Will they go out of business next year, leaving us screwed? Have the bugs been worked out of the product?

This is most useful when the product itself is complex. You're not gonna be able to tell people that your bucket is a safer bet than your competitor's bucket when any damn fool can see that they're the same exact thing, but 99% of people aren't going to be able to compare cars, computers, medications, etc. that easily.
posted by equalpants at 12:50 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

my personal favorite is what I like to call "Irritising"(arguably a subdivision of 'familiarity') so intrusive and obnoxious that you can't possibly scub them out of your head, even with brain bleach. Anybody feel like Chicken Tonight? Chicken Tonight? Chicken Tonight? they haven't made that shit for a decade. and yet, i will remember that awful jingle 'til the day i die. Irritising.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:19 AM on April 22, 2010

I never understood the point of listing, after all the credits for makeup and styling and accessories, the perfume the model was "wearing" in a fashion magazine spread.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:00 AM on April 22, 2010

It's also because people are presented with so many choices the act of decision-making becomes massively stressful. Advertising appears to do the hard work of selection. This was maybe helpful in an age where options were limited, but with those choices becoming infinitely granular advertising is presented as a necessity. Ads are designed to reassure you that someone has effectively pre-decided the right choice for you.

That's why life becomes so much simpler when you stop watching/listening to commercial TV/radio. You really don't need to make that many choices in any given period, but advertising makes you think you do.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:59 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

2 specific examples:

Brand familiarity, exploitation of vulnerability:
Most hospitals use Pampers diapers in their maternity wards. When those sleep-deprived new parents go to Wal-mart for the first time to face a literal wall of diaper choices, a huge percentage of them zoom right in on the same thing that the hospital uses. I don't have any proof, but I am pretty certain that Pampers knows this.

Creation of false scarcity:
Snack bar has a counter full of candy to sell during intermission. If you only put 1 or 2 of a popular bar out on the counter, people are more likely to buy it "before it's all gone". Once they leave, you pull another one out from underneath and replace it. I've seen this in real life as well as in ads for candy bars.
posted by CathyG at 7:21 AM on April 22, 2010

At its very simplest: Hope sells. So does fear.
posted by Work to Live at 8:33 AM on April 22, 2010

Marshall MacLuhan's The Mechanical Bride and Roland Barthes' Mythologies both contain wonderful cultural analyses of specific advertisements. If I remember correctly, most advertising can be classed under Barthes' concept of 'right-wing myth', which is used to preserve the ideological interests of the bourgeoisie. He goes through specific techniques that this sort of 'myth' uses to propagate its message. His notion of 'left-wing myth' vs. 'right-wing myth' is really interesting, and you won't look at advertising the same way again.
posted by kitcat at 9:57 AM on April 22, 2010

See if you can find a copy of "MADvertising" at the used book store. Lots of what's discussed in this thread is parodied and it all rings very true.

"Buy Tiger gasoline! It contains absolutely NO molasses"

[Wait, do the other brands contain molasses? Better buy Tiger to be safe.]

my personal favorite is what I like to call "Irritising"

posted by chazlarson at 10:09 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

This was posted on today: Fake Problems in Infomercials. So they basically manufacture a problem that the item in question is a solution for.
posted by Kimberly at 11:11 AM on April 22, 2010

I thought of a few more.

Putting you on the spot, so you feel guilty if you don't buy something. Charities use this, which is why they invest in the cost of having people stop you on the street or call you at home to ask you for a donation. This is also often achieved with "free" gifts or a "free consultation" that make you feel guilty if you don't buy something. You can walk into any department store and get a "free" makeover, a service they offer because they know you'll feel like a jerk if you don't buy some make up afterwards.

Creating a controversy so everyone talks about you. Back in the 90's, there was a scandal when a Calvin Klein commercial featured a topless underage girl. The result? Everybody was talking about Calvin Klein! This led to a great deal of exposure and familiarity, as well as making the company seem "edgy" and "rebellious." "Edgy" was invented by marketers. There is a brand of ice cream in Sweden called Nogger, which is already uncomfortably close to an awful word. When they came out with a licorice flavour, they called it Nogger Black and advertised it with the name written in a way that looked like graffiti of supposedly Black urban culture. Pretty much every Swedish person on the internet was arguing about whether it was racist and I'm sure that was exactly the advertisers' intention.

Nogger, Calvin Klein.

The very idea of fashion is actually kind of evil genius. There is absolutely no reason why we need to keep buying new clothes all the time, but the fashion industry has created a concept of what is "in" and what is "out" and tells us that we absolutely must have what is "in," which they constantly keep changing in order to get us to keep buying new things all the time. If it weren't for that cleverness, you may as well still be wearing your bellbottoms and platforms from the seventies, or your huge t-shirt and stretch pants from the eighties.

Check out this ingenious hoax site about the perils of dihydrogen monoxide for a brilliant demonstration of how extremely one can mislead despite telling nothing but the truth. An example is "mineral make up" that a lot of consumers are going crazy about. In reality, "mineral" just means ingredients like talc or zinc oxide, which have been standard ingredients of make up for decades, but cosmetics companies make it seem like something special and new and unique. The placebo effect is strong. I keep running into people who tell me their skin is so much better now that they use mineral make up and they will never use any other kind of make up again.
posted by giggleknickers at 7:08 AM on April 23, 2010

They create a need and try to fulfill that need. E.g. mascara for women makes them more attractive or thats what they try to convince women. You need more stuff, more beauty, more more more in life. Dissatisfaction with what you have will be great, so that is what they focus on.
posted by bostonman at 9:05 PM on June 9, 2010

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