We all know that advertising is a powerful medium, particularly when it comes to the visual vehicles of TV and, more recently, online video advertising. It brazenly persuades, gently entices and subliminally suggests. But how powerful is it really? We like to believe that we can just ‘switch off’ when an ad comes on, but it’s not as simple as that. Various studies have shown that advertising affects us in a number of ways, from the way we feel to the way we think other people feel!
1. Feelings are more important than objectivity
Most people think that if we don’t pay any attention to advertisements, they won’t affect us. According to The Journal of Consumer Research (2010), this isn’t a correct assumption (Psychology Today). It turns out that what affects us the most are the associations we have with a particular product, and not what it actually does. For example, if we watch an advert about a luxury sedan and there are images of business, power and wealth, we will associate that sedan with success (and be less concerned about how fast it goes, or whether it comes with ABS brakes).
The study in The Journal of Consumer Research involved two brands of pens. One of the brands worked better than the other, so the assumption was that participants would choose the more effective brand. This was not the case. Some participants underwent a prior experiment, which they thought was unrelated to pens. During this experiment, images quickly flashed on a screen before their eyes. Some of these images had positive connotations and they matched the brand of pen that didn’t work very well. Based on these images, the participants ended up choosing the wonky pen 70-80% of the time.
2. Exposure: Over, Under, and Subtle
A study in the Perception Journal found that the amount of exposure to an advert will determine its effectiveness (Science20.com). Too much exposure and you’ll get annoyed. But a small amount will spark an interest and even give a perception of ‘rarity’. Visual exposure is most powerful in this instance, as the brain often unconsciously “sees” things that your eyes don’t even register. You may think that you have zero interest in a product, but your brain still sponges it all up. A good example of this subtle exposure is that of brand placement in TV shows or movies. Studies have shown that Brad Pitt sipping on a Starbucks or Dexter imbibing a Budweiser can cause our brains to alter our preferences (Science20.com).
3. Perception is everything, not the message
According to ScienceDaily.com, teenagers’ anti-smoking perceptions are affected only via their friends, and not through direct advertising messages (no matter how visually strong or shocking the messages are). A study that involved nearly 2000 American school students found that the more exposure they had to anti-smoking ads, the more likely a smoking habit would develop. An over-exposure actually encouraged a rebellious streak, and fired up curiosity. However, the study found that if teenagers thought their friends were affected by the messages (even if they weren’t), they would want to stop smoking! This shows that a mere perception can be more powerful than any shock-tactic advertising campaign.
Visual-based advertising is a powerful tool, and there’s good reason why TV advertising commands such high rates. It’s cunningly effective, as often your brain chooses to take on a message when your eyes don’t. Think about that the next time you’re deciding which medium to use. Although it’s expensive, a visual message is priceless.