The Art of Persuasion
WHAT is the aim of commercial advertising? Businesses say that their advertising provides a public service because it gives us information about their products. The International Advertising Association states: “To be properly informed the Consumer needs advertising. Informed choice is based on information. Advertising—in its broadest sense—is the vital conduit for that information between Producer and Consumer.”
Of course, we all know that such advertising does more than merely inform—its job is to sell. It is not objective or neutral. Successful ads skillfully engage the mind of the consumer and motivate him to buy the product advertised.
Moreover, advertising sells more than products; it sells brands. If you are a large manufacturer of soap, you will not spend millions of advertising dollars to encourage people to buy just any soap. You want them to buy your soap. You want ads that will somehow convince the public that your brand of soap is more desirable than any other.
The Target Audience
To be strategically sound, an ad is usually carefully directed to a certain audience, whether it be children, housewives, businesspeople, or some other group. The message is crafted to appeal to the most important concerns of that audience. Then the ad is run in the media that will most effectively reach them.
Before an ad is designed, a great deal of research goes into finding out about the group of people most likely to buy and use the product being advertised. Advertisers need to know who these people are, how they think and behave, what they desire and dream of. Wrote one professional advertiser: “We make it our business to know exactly whom we’re writing to. Who they are, where they live, what they buy. And why. Knowing all this gives us the ammunition to write persuasive sales messages. Our targets will respond to persuasion; they won’t respond to bluster, our self-interests, or rhetorical arrows shot randomly into the air.”
Elements of Persuasion
In the creation of an ad, careful wording is critical. Puffery, or exaggerated praise, is commonplace. A breakfast cereal is said to be “great,” and a greeting card company claims that people buy its cards when they “want to send the very best.” Though it is not always easy to distinguish between puffery and deliberate deceit, advertisers need to be careful not to make claims that can be disproved by verifiable facts. Some governments have laws that prohibit such dishonesty, and businesses are quick to sue if their interests are threatened by the deceptive ads of rivals.
When one product is almost identical to others, the claims the advertiser can make are limited, so the message often says little or nothing. Many identify their product with a catchy slogan. Some examples: “Just do it” (a brand of running shoes), “Breakfast of champions” (a breakfast cereal), “It’s your money, demand better” (a type of car), and “You’re in good hands” (an insurance company).
Visual messages, whether in a magazine or on television, contain powerful suggestions beyond what is actually said about the product. The way in which a product is presented may convey an idea such as, ‘If you buy this watch, people will respect you’ or ‘This brand of jeans will make you more attractive to the opposite sex’ or ‘This car will make your neighbors drool with envy.’ In one of the best-known and most successful advertising campaigns, a cigarette company links cowboys to its product. The cowboys are portrayed as strong, rugged, take-charge characters. The unspoken message: Smoke our cigarettes, and you will be like these admired men of action.
In addition to clever words and visual imagery, music is important to radio and television commercials. It engages the emotions, enhances the mood of an ad, helps make it memorable, and improves consumer attitudes toward the product.
World Watch magazine observes: “The most finely wrought ads are masterpieces—combining stunning imagery, bracing speed, and compelling language to touch our innermost fears and fancies. Prime-time television commercials in the industrial countries pack more suggestion into a minute than anything previously devised.”
Appeals to Logic and Emotion
Ads are carefully crafted to appeal to the specific desires and values of the target audience. Perhaps an ad will appeal to the need to have fun, the hunger for security, or a yearning to be accepted by others. Maybe the ad will direct itself to a desire to impress others, to be clean, or to stand out as different. Some ads promote their products by appealing to our fears. For example, one mouthwash company warned of the perils of bad breath: “Even your best friend won’t tell you” and, “Often a bridesmaid, never a bride.”
It is sometimes easy to look at an ad and analyze the nature of its appeal. Some ads are directed primarily to the conscious, reasoning, logical part of our minds. They present straightforward information about a product. An example is a sign that informs you that fish is now selling at half price. Another approach is to present a persuasive argument. This type of ad might reason that the half-price fish will not only save you money but delight your palate and provide superb nourishment for you and your family.
Other ads are designed to appeal to our emotional side. Mood commercials, for example, make their appeal by attaching pleasant imagery to the product. Producers of cosmetics, cigarettes, and liquor rely heavily on this approach. Other commercials use repetition. This hard-sell approach is based on the hope that if people hear a message enough times, they will believe it and buy the product, even if they hate the ad itself! This is why we often see ads recommending the same product over and over and over again. Nonprescription-drug companies commonly use this approach.
Command ads likewise appeal to our emotions. These ads directly tell us to do something: “Drink this!” “Buy now!” Command ads are thought to work best for products that the audience already knows and likes. A great many ads fall into yet another category. These are imitation, or testimonial, ads. These ads present famous or appealing people using or recommending the product the advertiser wants us to buy. This appeal is based on the idea that we want to be like people we admire. The cigarette-smoking cowboy is an example of this type of ad.
Have you noticed that you can become so used to an ever-present smell or noise that you hardly notice it? The same happens with advertising.
According to Business Week magazine, the typical American is exposed to about 3,000 commercial messages each day. How do people react? They tune out, either literally or mentally. At best, most people give advertisements only partial attention.
To overcome viewer apathy, advertisements must grab our attention. Television commercials feature stunning visual effects. They strive to be entertaining, dramatic, funny, puzzling, or emotional. They feature celebrities and lovable cartoon characters. Many use sentiment to hold our attention, perhaps by focusing on cats, puppies, or babies.
Once the advertiser has captured our attention, he must hold our interest long enough to make us aware of the product being offered. Successful ads do not merely entertain; they try to persuade us to buy.
That, in brief, is how advertising works. Now we will look at its power.
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The typical American is exposed to about 3,000 commercial messages each day
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Zappers, Zippers, and Grazers
The television remote control is a weapon against advertisements. Many zap, or silence, an ad by pushing the mute button. Others record programs on videotapes and when playing them back zip through the ads by pressing the fast-forward button. Still others graze, which means they wander from channel to channel to avoid the ads. Skilled grazers know just about how long a commercial break will last, and they will return to the program they are watching when the ads are finished.
Advertisers attempt to zap-proof their ads by developing ads that have stopping power—those that immediately capture the interest of the viewer and hold it. The snare of creating flashy ads is that people may remember the ad but not the product being advertised.
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In the late 1950’s, James Vicary claimed to have conducted a study in a New Jersey, U.S.A., movie theater in which the words “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat Popcorn” were flashed on the screen during the movie. The messages appeared for only a fraction of a second, too briefly to make an impression on the conscious mind. Yet, according to Vicary, they resulted in an increase in the sale of Coca-Cola and popcorn. This claim led to widespread belief that advertisers could motivate people to buy things by projecting “unseen” messages. After reportedly signing contracts for $4.5 million with America’s largest advertisers, Mr. Vicary vanished without a trace. The advertisers had been the victims of a scam.
Subsequent study debunked Vicary’s claims. Said one longtime advertising executive: “Subliminal advertising doesn’t work. If it did, we would have used it.”
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Commercials are designed to capture our attention