The psychology of advertising impact
03.04.2006

1. Advertising is the world’s oldest trade

Today advertising is normally equated with placards, print ads, commercials, events, or sponsoring measures. This perspective of advertising loses sight of the fact that advertising is one of the world’s oldest trades. Advertising is a fundamental activity of life. Our entire day is an advertising day. From morning till night we advertise a certain image of ourselves. In conversations with friends, partners, or colleagues we advertise a certain attitude, we advertise our partners and our children; at this very moment advertising is taking place, as I am advertising a certain understanding of advertising.

The only difference between such individual everyday advertising and the specific advertising in commercials and ads is that the latter is the only kind of advertising that claims to be such: it makes itself recognizable as advertising, it intends to have an impact, yet in the same breath it reveals its intention: “Look here, dear consumer, I now want to advertise for a certain product …”. We have reason to assume that the best, most effective advertising for a product is not found in the official advertising reserves, but in everyday life.

The best advertising for a cigarette is when a work colleague lights one up in a stress situation and subsequently finds a more relaxed work rhythm. The best advertising for a beer is the facial expression of the person next to the drinker after he takes a sip. And the best advertising for a care make is the new car of a friend.

It is regrettable that researchers and creative people pay so little attention to this everyday advertising. For every individual has developed great artistry in day-to-day advertising, and this has been exploited much too little.

2. The effects of advertising cannot be measured

There is nothing more psychological than the wonder world of advertising with its unconscious impact mechanisms. It is even more of a wonder that this impact psychology is not taken into account at all in most advertising testing methods, let alone analyzed. People act as though advertising impact is relatively easy to gauge, and as a result advertising impact researchers focus only on what is measurable: memories, impact strength, the number of likes and dislikes expressed, preference shifts. While these studies yield clean results, ratings, and benchmarks that can be compared, they provide an insufficient, distorted picture of the actual impact of advertising.

Effective advertising often produces reactance and dislikes

When consumers are asked to give their opinion, they often express a number of dislikes and reservations. Reactance and complaints are often viewed as speaking against an advertising measure. The fatal mistake is made of assuming that effective advertising is always accepted and praised by test persons. But usually the opposite is true. Subliminally, consumers compete with advertising. They want to prove that as autonomous consumers with their own say, they are not influenced by advertising. As soon as consumers feel that they are involved in advertising, they try to deny their involvement by criticizing or moaning about the advertising. So dislikes and reactance are not negative per se. They are an expression that one wants to and can counter the advertising with something. But as soon as this resistance sets in, consumers find themselves in an inner dialog, in a dialogue with the advertising. And this inner dialogue, this grappling forms the fundamental prerequisite for any kind of advertising impact. Advertising impact is not a communicative one-way street, but rather the product of a process of dissemination and dealing that takes place between consumer and means of advertising. In fact, it is suspicious when there is no resistance at all and the advertising is praised to high heaven. Often manifested in the praise is the generous charm of the victor, who doesn’t want to get involved and who now can politely pay tribute to the nice, harmless advertising.

Similarly, preference shifts measured before and after contact with advertising, or the question of willingness to buy say little about advertising impact. They only express whether a consumer is well disposed to a brand or not after contact with the advertising. Consumers can be well disposed to a brand because it had an impact on them and gave them new impetus. But consumers can also be well disposed to a brand because the advertising did not engross them and motivate them to buy the product.

Recall and awareness, or the power of forgetting

In recall and awareness tests, consumers’ memories of advertising – usually an advertising bloc – are measured. In addition, consumers are asked what details of the advertising they remember. High recall and awareness values are considered a guarantee that the advertising will later be able to hold in own in the sphere of competition and in the market. The potential advertising effect is tied to the ability to remember it and to conscious memory performance. Viewed psychologically, however, this link is absurd, because it presupposes that our actions and shopping behavior are determined by conscious memories. However, advertising impact is normally unconscious. Consumers don’t know why they fall in love, why they buy a given product or prefer a given brand, even when they try to explain their behavior based on rational taste or price arguments.

Hence advertising does not require conscious attention or recall to have an impact. On the contrary, advertising can have much more of an impact when it operates on an unconscious level. Then consumers are freed from conscious grappling, control, and settling scores. Hence poor recall values in tests do not automatically speak against the advertising. In fact, in an advertising impact analysis what is forgotten is much more interesting, diagnostically speaking, than what is remembered. Storing and recalling information is not an art. Forgetting and repressing is the mental achievement that distinguishes people from computers. Freud pointed out that forgetting is a sensible act of mental coping. If one investigates what is not remembered and analyzes why it is not recalled, then one is in hot pursuit of the secrets behind the impact of an ad or commercial.

In advertising for insurance companies, for instance, one can often observe the phenomenon that it is plainly forgotten or blocked out and repressed. This is not because it is uninteresting. On the contrary, it normally sets intense involvement in motion, because it addresses dangers to our personal safety. But these issues are very disturbing. They show consumers that they cannot determine their own destinies but are subject to random twists of fate. Consumers have to admit that they are dependent on (damage) regulating powers – like insurance companies – to avoid falling prey to traps of destiny. This disturbing admission often leads to two reactions. First, taking out an (additional) insurance policy to be armed against the danger. And second, forgetting the advertising to get rid of the disruption of one’s autonomy associated with the insurance company.

Impact strength – flexing muscles with no effect?

Impact means collision, and so impact is inevitable. Consumers must have a chance to collide with, or come up against advertising. The advertising measure must at least be perceived unconsciously to have an impact. But it is too simple to draw a correlation between the strength of the collision and the strength of the impact. Advertising impact does not adhere to the ‘ring the bell with the hammer’ principle – its maxim rather is ‘hit the relevant (motive) complex’. We even experience this in day-to-day life. Sometimes quiet remarks or nuances are disturbing to us because they ‘sink in’. Lots of fanfare and trumpeting surely attract more attention in the short term, but they do not guarantee that an effective process of influence is set into motion. So whether this process is set in motion by a means of advertising does not depend on the strength of the advertising or the impression it makes. What is decisive is the deeper effect and not the blinding effect. But the deeper effect can only be described and evaluated using depth-psychological methods.

When is advertising penetration really penetrating?

Similar to impact strength, inflationary advertising penetration superficially promises to gauge the impact of advertising. The constant repetition of an advertising measure adheres to the notion that ‘constant dropping wears away the stone’. Constant repetition of an advertising measure does communicate one thing with certainty: that the brand has so much financial might that it can spread out everywhere. But the question of whether repetition heightens advertising impact cannot be answered clearly. Consumers have more fun watching repeats than they admit to themselves and others. Pleasurable clinging to repetition is most obvious among children, who always listen to the same tape or want to hear the same story read out loud. Repetitions make sense to them and bring them joy because they can play through, illuminate, plumb, and vary a familiar-unfamiliar theme from all sides. What looks like a repetition on the surface, is, psychologically speaking, a turning away or shifting of accent, an exercise in being able to see one thing in different ways. As long as an advertising measure is not experienced as a repetition, consumers will continue to engage with it. So the core question is: after how many receptions is a means of advertising really experienced as pure repetition which cannot be seen from another new angle? The question cannot be answered in general terms. While all of the facets of one means of advertising may be exhausted, another can continue to captivate consumers with further repetitions through complex twists and turns.

Excitement curves – aesthetic but questionable

Involuntary physiological parameters like heart rate or skin resistance are measured in an attempt to objectively illustrate the effects of advertising. High and constant excitement potential is considered an expression of advertising efficiency and impact. Here advertising impact is brought into an (unconscious) analogy with sexuality. The more ‘chatting-up’ and exciting it is, the more intense and satisfying it is. But these clear impact factors cannot be transferred to advertising. In advertising reception high excitement values are neither good nor bad, but rather in need of explanation. Their sense and status are only clear against the background of the process of experiencing and processing an advertising measure. You have to know from which mental tensions, upheavals, fears, needs, upswings, or longings the excitement is formed. Then you can understand whether they carry (on) the process of influence. Nor are there standard values for the general excitement level of a commercial. Whether high excitement or the utmost relaxation support the advertising purpose depends on the specific advertising strategy and naturally on the product segment and brand. We use butter biscuits to munch on exciting aspects of our day in a smooth, blissful way – here high levels of excitement are out of place. We use energy drinks or tennis shoes to get a dynamic boost out of the starting block – considerable excitement potential is needed here.

Credibility – a nonsensical notion

With regard to advertising impact, credibility is a crazy criterion. When it comes to news programs (facts, facts, facts), credibility may have purchase- and behavior-relevant significance. But advertising thrives on dramatizing reality, embellishing it, simplifying it or taking it to an extreme, bending it into shape or presenting a dream version of it. Truly credible advertising would negate itself and would bore people to tears. The fascination of advertising thrives on the interplay between day and dream, between deed and deception. As a result, consumers expect advertising to show the most beautiful things or the most horrible things in life, anything except for credibility. But things are different with consumers who are not familiar with the essence of consumption advertising, e.g. the East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They encountered advertising like a public announcement and sounded it out for credibility. They were outraged by, for example, the dishonesty of Natreen advertising, which showed Natreen users suspended in air as light as a feather: “They can’t claim that Natreen can make you fly.” Western consumers who grew up with advertising, however, have learned how to translate and understand the symbolism and specific aesthetics of advertising – no matter how far out it is.

In such sectors as banking and insurance, for example, credibility naturally plays a big role. Advertising has to portray credibility here, it has to certify qualities such as safety, security, and cautious governing, but that does not make it credible. It doesn’t have to be. Consumers go to Hamburg Mannheimer although they know that Herr Kaiser doesn’t exist.

Hence advertising impact research should not test credibility, but dramaturgical cohesion. Does the advertising measure succeed in coherently depicting communication aims like seriousness and innovativeness?

Advertising impact cannot be standardized – there are various impact models

Every advertising measure must unfold its own, appropriate, unique impact strategy and mechanics with regard to its aim and its sphere of impact. Therefore orientation to benchmarks when assessing advertising impact is misleading. Creativity cannot be standardized or compared. It develops ever new skills and unique impact mechanisms which make sense and are successful only within the framework of its product area or strategy and therefore cannot be transferred. But the need for benchmarks is utterly human. This need stems on the one hand from a striving for security that requires clear and objective yardsticks. On the other hand, it satisfies competitive desires; with benchmarks you can put together a kind of league table of advertising measures, in which the level of your own measure can be situated exactly. The price for this seeming comparability is high, though. The standardized comparison bows to complex impact reality. The advertising agency, worried about its contracts, bows with it. It produces advertising measures whose top priority is to achieve the required benchmarks. A large part of its creativity is sacrificed for this aim.

3. Advertising impact from the morphological perspective

The phenomenon of advertising impact cannot be grasped with general impact parameters. While these parameters convey the illusion of measurable results, they lack the actual impact core. Guidelines for successful advertising measures on the other hand require a deeper understanding of how advertising works and makes an impact.

Here it is worth having a look at the personal advertising that every person engages in on a daily basis. Personal advertising measures aim at effects: changing the world, safeguarding our sphere of influence, occupying and winning over others for our purposes, spreading our reputation and our importance in the world, ordering and dividing up the world differently, etc. Advertising on TV and in magazines in inextricably intertwined with these personal impact aims. It is effective because it takes up our daily impact aims and games, carries them on, heats them up or dynamizes them, spurs them on and encapsulates them. Beer, coffee, a perfume, a car, or chocolate are experienced via advertising as aids that help us fulfill our impact aims. In our private advertising impact business we do not (only) work with arguments, but with the depiction of entire images. When we court a partner, for example, we do not give a lecture on personal information or preferences, but through our appearance, our clothing, and our music, through the choice of a restaurant we portray a certain (advertising) image of ourselves that we believe is attractive and will be well received. It can be the image of the responsible family father, the image of the neglected daughter who has to be taken care of, the image of an unconventional person who knows how to make the best of life, who promises surprises and new perspectives.

Unconscious images have the upper hand

Images are the key aspect of our appearance and our effects. Consumers are not determined by isolated desires or drives, but rather by complete (life) images that strive to make an impact. “In everything that we see, do or don’t do, we make use of specific images of a transformation of reality (…) Images of paradises, of liberations and redemptions, of surviving dark dangers, of overcoming hostile powers, of the birth of new life, of growth, blossoming, development (…) For such an image we want to conjure, create, produce, endure suffering.” (Salber 1995) Images drive us on, they have the upper hand in our lives. Images give our lives order, orientation, and a certain mood. Therefore successful product advertising, just like personal advertising, does not work with information or isolated longings, but with comprehensive images. Advertising takes up our (secret) images and develops them further. Conversely, nowadays advertising is playing a growing role in the development of life images worth striving for. Because the classical life image producers, religion and ideologies, are increasingly losing their orientation function. One could speak of a crisis of classical image providers. The emerging image vacuum is compensated for more and more by advertising image offers. What a life worth living looks like, what one should do and not do, is no longer propagated from the pulpit, but from billboards or commercial blocs on TV.

Effective advertising stabilizes and transforms our life images

Advertising can have an impact because consumers are constantly searching for new life images and new meaning in life. Advertising takes up these agitated search and orientation movements by making us new image offers or by modifying or strengthening existing images. Two basic advertising impact strategies can be distinguished.

Advertising can dramatize the threat to and instability of our life images and promise us new security and stability via the product or brand. Advertising dramatizes, for example, the accident and reversal possibilities connected with our coffee circles or dinner invitations or drives, and establishes a brand of coffee, a sauce binder, or radial tires as our rescue anchor. By buying a product the consumer insures his or her familiar cycle of life.

But advertising can also bring the attraction of new life images into play and motivate us to transcend or go beyond our life orders. The car, the new dress, the wine glass cleaned with a limescale-free product can become a symbol via advertising, can become the buyable materialization of a new life design in which things even work out with the neighbor. By buying a product the consumer invests in a new life image.

At the same time, advertising annoys or frightens us, because it confronts us with the (unlivable) diversity of the world. Advertising thwarts our rehearsed stage directions and shows us that we can live in completely different ways. Advertising propagates an anarchic spectrum of life images and impact directions.

We feel the anarchic and frightening attraction of being able to be more and different, above all during advertising breaks.

The advertising break removes the reception shackles that the feature film has put on us. It presents us with colorful diversity. There are faraway lands that we can travel to, fast cars that we can flee to, perfumes that we can use to have a different – more erotic or more strikingly masculine – image and impact. But it also presents us with the tasks, requirements, and moments of happiness of our normal daily lives: look, dear consumer, there are clothes to wash and soup to cook, and you can sweeten up your feature film with a cream pudding. People often complain about advertising breaks to conceal the secret pleasure they derive from the unleashed multiplicity of forms; by complaining, they demonstrate that they are not prepared to succumb to the attraction and vortex of this colorful diversity.

What counts are the deep effects of advertising

Consumers do not know the images that have the upper hand in their lives. In their private advertising life, they do not know why they trust a person, fall head over heels in love, are crazy about a new dress. Instead, they try to develop rational explanations such as trustworthiness, attractiveness, or fashion for the perceived influences. But advertising takes up unconscious life images and directorial plans and dramatizes them. That also happens unconsciously, i.e. through impact mechanisms which cannot be consciously perceived, much less remembered. To analyze the impact of advertising, this unconscious level has to be incorporated. Advertising impact research has to uncover the unconscious images and transformation desires that are challenged, ‘motivated’, supported, or destabilized by an advertising measure. It has to work out the unconscious processing processes that consumers enter when they ‘collide with’ advertising. Only then can accurate predictions be made about the impact an advertising measure can have on our shopping and consumption behavior. Formal parameters such as recall, impact, preference shifts, or excitement curves cannot measure the creative potential, the impact mechanisms, and the implicit message of an advertising measure. In order to assess the psychological (deep) impact of an advertising measure, in order to know what it communicates and how, one has to study it using depth-psychological methods.

Example 1: The West Lights ‘baby’ motif

On the surface, consumers reject the motif, saying it is typically West, crazy, and this time especially run of the mill; that it shows a disreputable sluttiness that has nothing to do with smoking cigarettes, much less light cigarettes. After initial viewing, consumers express little desire to smoke West and stress that the ad has reinforced their (negative) assessment of the brand. Even West (Lights) smokers have reservations: “They’ve had more original advertisements.”

That this superficial resistance and low acceptance says nothing about the actual impact of the advertising is revealed by a psychological analysis of the impact process set in motion in all smokers after brief viewing of the ad. Observation of the eye movements and behavior of the viewers alone shows a choreographic vacillation between their staring at the ad and their shaking their heads. The viewers had their sights set on the open decolleté of the large-breasted woman. Both male and female smokers feel incited by the ad to be more open-hearted, freer, and more sensual. They express the desire to break out of dreary everyday routine, to love life to the full.

With smokers, an unconscious dialogue is triggered in which the conflict between sensual pleasure and asceticism is negotiated. The ascetic share of the solid reserve is represented by the ‘inconspicuous young student’ on the ‘right side’ of the ad. Viewers have a hard time deciding on one side. The drawbacks of asceticism are boredom and the colorlessness of missed opportunities. The drawbacks of sensual pleasure and passion are a loss of control and prestige: one makes oneself vulnerable.

The West Lights brand addresses the dilemma between lust and vice by presenting and positioning itself as a happy medium. In terms of smoking, West Lights appears as a buyable compromise between the full sensuality of a full-flavor cigarette and the dull flatness of a prim (ultra) light cigarette. West Lights successfully advertises taking a healthy middle path removed from extremes in life and in smoking.

But the ultimate decision for West is not dependent on the brand’s successful middle-of-the-road position alone. The cigarette provides smokers with an ID for their attitude toward life. In its entire test campaign West propagates a border-crossing attitude toward life. As a smoker, one documents that one is prepared to cross boundaries. One looks beyond oneself and is receptive to other, crazier possibilities of living and being happy in a noncommittal, experimental way. The playing with boundaries typical of West is also addressed in this ad, and thus the attraction of West for smokers with a – moderately – experimental attitude is heightened.

Example 2: the cool skaters from the ‘Cool Kids can wait' campaign

Changes in attitude and behavior can be incited if advertising effectively takes up unconscious (life) images. This is shown by an analysis of the skater motif from the ‘Cool kids can wait’ campaign of the German Cigarette Industry Association. The aim of the campaign is to prevent young people from smoking before they are 18 years old. The poster puzzles and provokes young people by calling into question the equation of coolness and smoking (also prevalent among non-smokers), showing a self-confident, cool, but non-smoking skater. The claim of the motif that young people can be cool even without cigarettes disrupts the cool self-image of smokers on the one hand, but on the other gives non-smokers the hope of being able to be cool.

When viewing the poster, smokers and non-smokers alike are under the spell of ‘coolness’. They feel the fascination and attraction emanating from the cool attitude of the boy. The excited reception of the campaign is determined by the question: “How can I convey a cool image in day-to-day life?” The motif has an impact because, firstly, it conveys the insight to young people that cigarettes are only an aid, a crutch for a cool self-portrayal. Secondly, it has an impact because it makes a concrete, up-to-date offer to young people regarding how they can live out and experience the desired coolness. The clique, the sport, and the fashionable skater can be experienced as alternative portrayal aids and help for a cool image. Here cigarettes are no longer the royal road to cool self-portrayal. But the ad torpedoes the intended effect with the addition of ‘yet’ in the statement ‘I don’t want to smoke yet.’ The ‘yet’ relativizes the self-confident, cool rejection of smoking. It is understood as expressing that the skater is not completely sure of his coolness after all. It keeps open the cool possibility of perhaps smoking later after all. But due to this cool possibility the slogan ‘Cool kids can wait’ loses its sovereign decisiveness. It can be viewed as a message from the cigarette industry: “Sooner or later we’ll get you!”

Interestingly, many young people view the ad as showing the self-confident coolness of the skater because they block out and forget the ‘yet’. And so the only recommendation for optimizing the ad was to delete the word ‘yet’.

Example 3: the Peugeot 406 Break ‘wild boar’ commercial

The spontaneous reactions to the Peugeot 406 Break commercial in a small pilot study were ones of generous praise. The respondents lauded the ‘witty’, ‘imaginative’ way the commercial is made, and thought the commercial stood out from the usual spots with their ‘performance-oriented descriptions of technological advantages’. Respondents said it was one of the few commercials that they could watch for the umpteenth time.

The commercial obtains its entertaining tension from the wild hunting scenes in the opening sequence. It’s tumultuous, and viewers don’t know what is being advertised. They tend to think of ‘Maggi Jägersuppe (Hunters Soup) rather than car advertising. The wild hunting sequence incites viewers to shift their sympathies to and fro: at times they sympathize with the ‘poor wild boars’ that have to run for their lives. Then their sympathies shift to the hunters, who fulfill a necessary function by limiting the damage to the forest and fields that can be wreaked by the ‘wild hordes’.

Viewed psychologically, with the wild hunt the commercial manages – on an unconscious and symbolic level – to appeal to the two sides of every driver: the wild, unbridled desire to drive like a ‘wild boar’, and the desire to tame their wildness to avoid damage ‘to the forest and fields’ – harm to their own health and that of others.

The subsequent sequence with the depiction of the station wagon in a clearing carries on this dialogue. The situation in the clearing is experienced on the one hand as a peaceful family idyll. The touching station wagon in this idyllic scenario seems to confirm the prejudice that station wagon drivers are staid and tamed family people who don’t ‘go crazy’ when driving. On the other hand, viewers find the peace boring and deceptive: they keep an eye out for the wild boars, which seemed to be running toward the clearing. The opened trunk and the wild boars storming out subsequently confirm that the idyllic peace was indeed deceptive.

But the trunk scene can have a double meaning: as an inconsiderate ‘going crazy’ or as a considerate taming, locking up, and containment of the wild beasts. Naturally, viewers also understand that the Peugeot 406 Break has a huge trunk. But they are not sure what the new Peugeot Break represents: untamed, wild driving pleasure or a safe, orderly, family-oriented driving style typical of station wagon drivers? The commercial leaves, in the strict sense of the slogan, drivers ‘room for everything, especially for their ideas’. But this freedom comes at the expense of a clear profile of the Peugeot 406 Break in comparison with the competition. You don’t know what the Peugeot 406 Break has to offer. Ultimately, the commercial does not take a clear stance, does not mark a specific lifestyle or driving style. This is manifested above all by the fact that nearly all the respondents knew the commercial, but many didn’t know what car make it was advertising. In this respect, too, the commercial offers ‘room for everything’.

The message of the commercial could be made more concrete by reworking the incomprehensible closing sequence (the girl letting the little bird fly) and the excessively open slogan. A decisive commitment to a Break-typical driving mind state and a Break-typical lifestyle would clarify and sharpen the profile of the Peugeot station wagon in the competitive environment. It would also prevent the in some respects ingenious commercial from being thwarted by its own freedom.

Published in Planung & Analyse 2/97, Deutscher Fachverlag, Tel. (+49) (0)69-7595-2018, Editor-in-chief: Dr. Karin Dürr

© 2015 rheingold