The Psychology of Persuasion – Find Out How Advertising Can Influence Customer Behaviour

My personal fascination in the Psychology of Persuasion started way back in 1998 when I was studying my degree in psychology in Manchester. I chose a module called Persuasion and Advertising, which evaluated how advertising can influence customer behaviour. It was probably theCustomer Influence most fun learning experience I’ve ever had. Imagine our appreciation of spending hours of watching TV adverts in class and doing the similar as home work! Whilst the watching was fun the theory and analysis was probably amongst some of the more challenging that I’ve ever come across.  This is because  every shot, every frame, every word, every colour could potentially be designed as a trigger for a number of different behavioural responses. I’m not going to go into great depth here about psychological theories associated to advertising as I want illustrate at a high level that advertising can greatly influence behaviour – and not necessarily buying behaviour!

Let us start first be defining behaviour as one of three responses – either cognition (thinking), affect (feeling) or behaviour (doing something that can be observed by others such as buying). The aim then of an advert is to create a response in the observer, whether it be a television commercial, magazine ad, newspaper ad, direct sales marketing or internet marketing copy writing. To illustrate how advertising can influence customer behaviour I have trawled through 100s of adverts and videos on YouTube and have selected the following.

How Emotive Advertising Can Influence Behaviour

These adverts are designed to make the ‘target observer’ experience strong emotional feelings. The key here is the ‘target observer’, as not every observer will be affected in the same way. As an example I’ve selected the UK John Lewis Christmas 2011 advert. Its target market is those with a middle-class aspiration, who value comfort and family values. Interestingly the advert is backed with a re-working of a Smiths track, ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ which kind of represents a dash of 1980s anti-establishment. Cleverly this ad was first aired during X factor – aiming straight at the hearts of millions of John Lewis’ target market!

The 60-second ad, reveals a story of a small boy getting increasingly impatient during the lead-up to Christmas before it turns out he was only desperate to give a present to his parents. In terms of the ad eliciting a response it certainly has done its job as many viewers confessed to being moved to tears. Another question is how did this actually impact John Lewis bottom line – will John Lewis be left laughing or crying with the rest of us? How does the advert affect you?

How Humorous Advertising Can Influence Behaviour

There is a large body of research that evaluates the link between humour and brand strength. In an intriguing journal article in the International Journal of Advertising (Vol. 30, No. 5, 2011, pp. 795-814) entitled, That was funny, but what was the brand again? (Paul van Kuilenburg, Menno D.T. de Jong and Thomas J.L. van Rompay) it was found that brand-related humour can lead to stronger brand linkage than unrelated humour. However, there are limitations as this link was only identified for complex or sophisticated humour. So it’s not enough to have a funny ad there has to be an element of intellect embodied in the humour to develop a stronger brand.

To illustrate this point I have selected an ad that is more clever than side-splittingly funny. It’s an ad that ran in 1981 by FedEx called “fast-paced world” and consistently appears in best ads lists. The ad focused in on an executive who speed-talks his way through his business day. Talking at more than 450 words per minute, the executive manages to conduct a board meeting, hire a new employee, complete a deal over the phone and eat his lunch. It finishes with a voiceover, which says: “In this fast-moving, high-pressure, get-it-done yesterday world… aren’t you glad there’s a company that can keep up with it all?” To this day I have a perception that FedEx are the fastest courier in the world – how much of my perception is down to the easily digestible brand-related humor of the ad that I watched as a kid back in the 1980s?

Amazing Advertising With a Wow Factor

There were many adverts that I viewed for this post that I thought were amazing. The more that I viewed different ads the more that I became aware that these types of ads elicit a cognitive response – they make you think! These ads were mainly car ads or ads that included a sporting element that looked simply amazing. This type of advertising works really well where you want to change people’s perception of a brand. The best example for me is the Skoda Fabia advert, before this ad Skoda was a slightly tired brand which few would class as desirable.

In the Skoda Fabia ad bakers are shown making an array of differently shaped and sized cakes and then assembling them into something. It becomes clear eventually that they are assembling an orange car, but it’s only when you see a Skoda badge being fixed with icing sugar to the front of the cake car that the brand is revealed. This is advertising on a big scale. It’s imaginative, ambitious, painstakingly crafted. It’s an instant classic. When you first view it you certainly don’t realise it’s a Skoda advert. When you do realise it is for a car, the first one that comes into your mind is a Honda or maybe a Ford. Such association is a fantastic result for Skoda.

Nostalgia In Advertising

We all have a soft spot for nostalgic advertising, but what is really going on at the heart of it is something quite clever. This type of advertising only works for brands that have been around for a few decades. The ad can work on a number of levels in that it works because you can point out that your brand was strong 10 years ago, 20 years ago and so on.  It also works because you can show how it has developed or has kept apace with new developments in technology or popular culture. This is done well in the UK with Hovis (bread baker), which recently ran an ad highlighting it’s enduring success across 122 years showing it’s resistance to the depression, two world wars, recessions etc. But for me Virgin Atlantic wins the day.

The Virgin Atlantic ad entitled “25 Years, still red hot!” is fabulous. During the ad there are many references to brands in the 1980s, but there are only three elements in the ad that stand out, the music, the girls and the Virgin’s resilience. The Ad reminds us how good Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s track “Relax” was – which still stands the test of time as being a top tune. Virgin by association are also subtly saying exactly the same thing about their airline – 25 years on and we’re still red hot on customer service and experience. But best of all though is Virgin’s tongue and cheek celebration of the fact that Virgin always had the most glamorous cabin crew of any airline. Some critics have labeled the ad as sexist, but for me it’s just bloody good fun, entertaining and innovative – exactly what Virgin wants us to think and feel! In short it works marvelously.

Intelligent Advertising

In a way it is unfair to have a separate category called intelligent advertising as all of the ads that I’ve selected are intelligent advertsing. However, there are some ads out there that are so clever that it takes a millisecond more processing for our brains to catch up. The type of ad that I’m referring to is one so clever that you’re left thinking, ‘god that’s clever’. This usually is not a complex ad – it’s usually a very simple ad which looks like it’s saying something else and then you find out that the element at the end of the ad  completes the loop and you see the whole picture. You could call it misdirection rather than intelligence, but either way they are a pleasure to view.

For me BMW have got the art of misdirection sown up. In 2009 BMW released a commercial where you see a jet car attempting a world speed record somewhere in a desert. See what happens in the commercial after the jet car releases its parachute to slow the car down.

Music Videos As Adverts

Music has always been associated as a key ingredient in some of the greatest ads. However, music itself is delivered to consumers through the medium of video adverts. The videos paint and imagine of the artist in the minds of the observer and all can elicit similar behaviours as seen in the ads above. Online today it is easier than ever to listen to your favourite tunes and if the artist gets it right it is easier than ever to get mass exposure of their material. Take for instance Lana Del Ray’s song, “Video games”. It was uploaded as a YouTube video in October 2011 and almost overnight has become a massive worldwide hit with over three million views!

Now over to you.  Tell me how adverts have changed your behaviour – either by way of affecting you emtionally, or by making you think or maybe even by making you want to purchase a product or service.

To Your Success
Howard Clemence
Professional Internet Marketing Coach

Author of How You Can Generate 50-100 Leads Per Day

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