Some accusations levied against advertising are undeserved. But then, some are deserved, though perhaps not in ways you may have heard or assumed. Meanwhile, not a few bad apples engage in a heinous advertising tactic that goes largely unnoticed.
Quelle surprise. In yet another poll, 36 percent of respondents rated the “honesty and ethical standards” of advertising people “low/very low.”1 It’s a wonder Gallup bothers asking anymore. I’d take umbrage at the public’s dim view of my profession were it not for one sticking point. Namely, that it isn’t entirely unwarranted.
But it isn’t entirely warranted, either, and it seems to me that if you’re going to dislike what I do for a living, you may as well dislike it from an informed perspective. Space and lethargy do not permit addressing every abuse laid to advertising’s charge, so I shall deal with three that I hear most often: that advertising controls behavior; short of controlling, that advertising manipulates by unfair means; and that advertising lies at the root of many a societal ill. Then I shall wrap up with a look at an advertising abuse that I think could do with more outcry than it receives.
Claim: Advertising Controls Behavior
In 1957, marketing researcher James Vicary held reporters rapt with results from an advertising experiment. Every five seconds for one-3000th of a second, Vicary had flashed “Hungry? Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” onscreen during showings of the movie Picnic. The flash was too brief for the conscious mind to register, but not for the subconscious. Over a six-week trial, Coke sales rose 18.1 percent. Popcorn sales rose 57.7 percent. So great was public outrage that hardly anyone noticed when, five years later, Vicary admitted to having made the whole thing up (Subliminal advertising 2003).
Conveniently published the same year Vicary held his press conference, Vance Packard’s bestseller The Hidden Persuaders (1957) fanned the flame. Often deferring to Vicary’s alleged expertise, the book served up terrifying gems like this:
Housewives consistently report that one of the most pleasurable tasks of the home is making a cake . . . James Vicary made a study of cake symbolism and came up with the conclusion that “baking a cake traditionally is acting out the birth of a child” so that when a woman bakes a cake for her family she is symbolically presenting the family with a new baby, an idea she likes very much.
Mr. Vicary set up his cameras and started following the ladies as they entered the store. The results were startling, even to him. . . . The ladies fell into what Mr. Vicary calls a hypnoidal trance, a light kind of trance that, he explains, is the first stage of hypnosis . . . the main cause of the trance is that the supermarket is packed with products that in former years would have been items that only kings and queens could afford, and here in this fairyland they were available.
Those damnable advertisers! Women who thought they were buying cake mixes were but sating an innate baby lust while lost in a hypnoidal2 trance.
Such nonsense hasn’t gone away. The 2004 PBS documentary The Persuaders shows child-psychiatrist- turned-marketing-consultant Clotaire Rapaille advising a French company to sell cheese in America in resealable plastic pouches. The idea was not new. Rapaille could have advised his client, “Do what U.S. cheese marketers do, duh.” Instead he produced a convoluted metaphor perhaps worthier of his hefty consulting fee:
. . . in America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead … plastic is a body bag . . . the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies . . . in France the cheese is alive . . . you never put the cheese in the refrigerator, because you don’t put your cat in the refrigerator. . . . (Rapaille 2003)
Those damnable cheese marketers! Just as 1950s women could not resist birthing cakes, modern Americans cannot resist snacking on well-preserved corpses.
Journalism professor Wilson Bryan Key rekindled subliminal advertising fears in the 1970s. Key claimed that sexual images hidden in photos of everything from ice cubes to fried clams made consumers buy against their will (Key 1974; 1980).
No less than advertising industry icon David Ogilvy jumped on the mind-control bandwagon in 1983:
I once myself came near to doing something so diabolical that I hesitate to confess it even now, 30 years later. Suspecting that hypnotism might be an element in successful advertising, I engaged a professional hypnotist to make a commercial. When I saw it in the projection room, it was so powerful that I had visions of millions of suggestible consumers getting up from their armchairs and rushing like zombies through the traffic on their way to buy the product at the nearest store. Had I invented the ultimate advertisement? I burned it, and never told my client how close I had come to landing him in a national scandal. (Ogilvy 1983)
Evidence for hypnotism as a means of mind control is as lacking (Randi 2007) as evidence for Ogilvy’s tale. He gave no account of testing the commercial’s zombification power, only of being a horrified focus group of one. We cannot test the commercial for ourselves, because he allegedly put a match to the only copy. No writer, director, actor, lighting technician, editor, or even the hypnotist ever came forth. No raw footage or script ever surfaced. This anecdote smells of self-promotion à la Vicary.3,4
If you wonder why an industry in the business of creating positive images would promote myths harmful to its own, consider that advertising agencies needn’t appeal to consumers. Worse things could happen to an ad agency than for a client to believe it has magic powers. Yet if advertising really had such power, the best minds in the advertising business would not have produced market failures like the following, which I swear I’m not making up: Colgate frozen dinners, Bic disposable underwear, Cosmopolitan magazine yogurt, McDonald’s clothing, Ben-Gay aspirin, Smith & Wesson bicycles, Life Saver’s soda, Frito-Lay lemonade, Harley-Davidson eau de toilette, New Coke, and even the popular Taco Bell Chihuahua.5
Despite ample debunking and no evidence of effectiveness,6 subliminal advertising allegations persist.7 The reality is that if advertisers can control minds, they hide it well.
Laboratories, Sex, and Other Delights
Some mind-control scares come out of laboratories. Subjects view ads, commercials, or web pages while hidden devices track their eye movements,8 an fMRI looks for brain areas to light up, or a machine measures their galvanic responses. Should eyes fixate or move, brain areas light up, pupils dilate, or skin temperatures change, the lab’s PR department sends out a press release.
But there is a problem in leaping from “had an effect in a lab” to “made you buy in a marketplace.” Early in my career, I took over advertising for a company that marketed to the trucking industry. My predecessor had adorned ads with half-dressed women. I persuaded the company to let me substitute photos of trucks, combined with straight talk about the product. I suspect my predecessor’s campaign would have produced more dilation, fixation, galvanic responses, and brain light-ups than mine. But in the real world, truckers quit hanging our ads on garage walls. Oh, and sales quadrupled.
The case is anecdotal, but its basis is not. I happened to know that the legendary John Caples, who built his career on controlled advertising tests, had written this:
Before the widespread use of readership surveys, some ad men believed that the way to stop a male reader was to show a picture of bathing beauty. Apparently this technique may create desire for the girl, but it does not seem to create desire for the product being advertised. . . . One interesting observation that has come out of readership surveys is that men tend to look at ads containing pictures of men and that women tend to look at ads containing pictures of women. . . . A man figures that an ad containing a picture of a man is likely to be an ad for a man’s product and that an ad containing a picture of a woman is likely to be for a woman’s product. (Caples 1932)
The point is not to address whether sex sells,9 but to illustrate that a laboratory response is a far cry from an actual purchase.
A 2011 study gained some attention among skeptics (Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe 2011). Priyali Rajagopal from Southern Methodist University and Nicole Votolato Montgomery from College of William and Mary found that advertising could convince people they had sampled popcorn that in fact they had not (Rajagopal and Votolato Montgomery 2011). If creating a false memory constitutes mind control, then there you have it. But note that the study did not demonstrate that the false memory made anyone buy anything. Given the poor track record of other laboratory findings in the real world, I have my doubts. It is easier to induce a response in a lab than to make someone rise from a chair and head to a store.
One reason laboratory tests tend not to prove predictive is that people do not experience advertising in a lab the way they do at home. In a lab, participants know they are being observed, which affects behavior. Moreover, they focus on the commercial or ad they are shown. At home, no one is observing them, and commercials and ads compete for attention with bathroom trips, phone calls, texting, tweeting, Minecraft, magazines, in-person conversation, muted sound, Facebook, scratching, channel surfing, web surfing, napping—you name it. Nor do families gather at the tube. The same household may have multiple TVs tuned to different stations or streaming commercial-free content.
With no evidence to support the alleged power of subliminal or hypnotic advertising, and no evidence suggesting that laboratory tests are predictive, you may think that charges of mind-controlling advertising look somewhat like garden-variety conspiracy theories. You may be on to something.
Claim: Advertising Manipulates Behavior
Use manipulate if you like, but I think a more apt term is influence. Advertising pleads guilty. This is not a little circular, since to influence is pretty much the point of advertising. But of course the real question is whether advertising goes about said task unfairly.
Let’s start with the basic way advertising can influence. If you need new tires and see a tire dealer’s flyer, you might visit that dealer. If you dropped your smart phone in the toilet, an ad for a waterproof phone might win your attention. If you’re allergic to your eyeliner, an ad for a hypoallergenic one might attract you. I hope you’ll agree that influence of that sort is benign, possibly even useful. But then, those are products you might want. Advertising that influences you to buy products that you don’t want is quite another matter. Isn’t it a given that slicker, smoother, glitzier, better designed, more entertaining, and more memorable advertising can lodge itself in your mind so you’ll reach for the advertised brand, want it or not, without knowing why? Why else would advertising agencies boast of work that is creative, original, memorable, and likable? Why else would clients keep spending big money on slick, creative ads?
Beware assuming that advertising people make rational decisions. Advertisers tend to deem a campaign successful if it “tested well” in a focus group, was recalled by a respectable percentage of a target market, won awards, or coincided with a sales increase. That focus groups are not predictive, remembered campaigns fail and not-remembered ones succeed, awards have no bearing, and “correlation does not mean causation” should make sense to most skeptics, but it does not to many an advertiser.
An exception is direct response advertising, a subset that concerns itself less with brand recognition and more with measured actions. More than a century of controlled direct response tests have revealed consistencies in marketplace behaviors. Want more people to click a link? Spell out, “click here to. . . .”10 Want to increase readership? Avoid light type on a dark background (Bodian 1995). Want more people to open your snail mail? Use an unusual envelope (Rosenspan 2011). Want more people to call a number on the TV? Avoid Prime Time (Eicoff 1982). Want more people to take action? Offer a freebie for a limited time.11 Direct response advertising has thousands of such “rules.”
Do not be misled. Like spelling out “click here,” most direct response rules do not so much win buyers as avoid losing them. And “more people” typically refers to incremental gains. It is not unusual for a direct response advertiser to celebrate when 1 percent of a target market takes a desired action. Boasts of “doubling sales” can mean going from “99 percent didn’t buy” to “98 percent didn’t buy.” Response rates of 2, 3, or more percent are not unheard-of, but every uptick waxes increasingly aspirational.12 This is a poor showing indeed for a would-be manipulator.
Equally telling is that direct marketers achieve their greatest gains by fine-tuning reaching the right audience and offering the right gift incentive. Fine-tuning creative work, the alleged stuff of manipulation, receives lowest priority. Many direct marketers hold that creative work accounts for only 20 percent of results.13
If you worry about the extent of direct response knowledge, take heart. Brand advertising, which is most advertising you see, tends to disdain and ignore it. Why would make an article in its own right.
Advertising seeks to persuade. Direct response advertising does its best to play to proclivities. But neither can subvert will.14,15 None of this should surprise skeptics, who would likely scoff at a stage hypnotist making similar claims of mind control and manipulation.
Claim: Advertising Contributes to Social Ills
There is an abundance of inoffensive advertising, but good apples do not preclude the existence of bad. One would be hard-pressed to name a societal ill that advertising hasn’t promoted, piggybacked on, or tacitly endorsed. Circa 1907, a logo for Bluthenthal & Bickart’s Alligator Bait whiskey featured a naked African American child tromping through a bayou. In 1957, Clairol began promoting hair coloring products with “Does she or doesn’t she?” In 1965, “Mrs. Olson” began prescribing Folgers Coffee to women as a cure for the complaining husband. In 1967, Fritos introduced the Frito Bandito, an animated Mexican thief voiced by Mel Blanc whose mission in life was to steal your corn cheeps. In 2007, commercials for Haggar Clothing Company featured a pair of white, male, middle-aged spokesbrutes reveling in intolerance, bullying, vandalism, personal violence, and sexual harassment. In a 2008 TV commercial aired in the United Kingdom, Mr. T fired Snickers bars at a speed-walker to make him run “like a real man,” closing with the tagline, “Get some nuts.” Just last year, DC Metro created posters suggesting that women would rather talk about shoes than think. Not to be overlooked are ads promoting products that harm the environment, threaten health, foster unwise debt, play upon greed, and more.
These are all valid charges, leaving the advertising in question no place to hide. But here’s a disturbing reminder: Greed, racism, sexism, cruel stereotypes, and other forms of marginalizing existed long before the first ad was penned. Advertising picks up, capitalizes on, and spreads ills, but it rarely authors them. When consciousness rises, advertising eventually follows.16 This is in no way a defense. When advertising perpetuates and, worse, promotes social ills, it deserves to be called on the carpet. But there is value in remembering that purging advertising of social ills begins with purging society of them.
As it is naive to pretend that advertising causes no harm, it is equally naive to pretend that it does no good. Advertising helps build and strengthen economies. If you have a job, it is thanks to people handing over dollars to your company, which is thanks to someone who persuaded them to do so, whether through an online banner, Twitter or Facebook mention, billboard, radio spot, brochure, magazine ad, or word-of-mouth. Mass advertising enables mass production, which lowers costs so that products can be made affordable and available where they wouldn’t otherwise. Trade, of which advertising and marketing are an integral part, helps keep nations from warring with one another (Pinker 2011). And, though I cannot speak for you, I am grateful that advertising has sometimes pushed what was once considered needless, like toothbrushes, daily bathing, and deodorant.
I would love to believe that intrinsic morality would prevent most advertising people from manipulating or controlling minds were such possible. Having seen many a lofty ideal dispatched where dollars were involved, I know better. So perhaps the most persuasive debunking of unfair persuasion techniques is that most practitioners do not bother with them. Equally telling is that, unlike consumer publications, advertising trade journals and how-to books do not bother with them, either.
Not That You Asked, but Here Is What I Dislike in Advertising
Crowing about nonexistent abuses may blind us to an abuse that is real and pervasive. I refer to a tactic that I consider immoral and at times dangerous. It is often overlooked, perhaps because it lacks sensationalistic appeal. It is called lying. I wish to draw attention to three kinds: two of them legal, one not.
Puffery is an exaggerated boast presumably understood not to be taken seriously. Surely few consumers believe that Keebler employs elves, Red Bull enables flight, and women cannot resist a man drenched in Axe. You may differ, but I find puffery of that sort arguably harmless. Yet when Kellogg’s puffed in the 1960s that Apple Jacks cereal “keeps the bullies away,” I wonder how many kids consumed a bowl and went looking for trouble. And I disagree with a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that allowed as puffery Papa John’s Pizza’s line, “better ingredients, better pizza,”17 especially since the company’s website (www.papajohns.com/about/) calls the cagily incomplete comparative a “brand promise.”
The other legally permissible lie is the weasel, and I have no tolerance for it. A weasel is technically true but designed to mislead. Fad diets weasel when they trumpet miracles disclaimed in tiny type as “not typical.” So do multi-level companies that imply but do not explicitly claim that distributors are a few weeks from untold riches. So do natural and organic products that capitalize on the appeal to nature fallacy. So do so-called alternative medicines, whose large type claim treatment and prevention while the small type offers the legally prescribed weasels: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA” and “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”18
Last on the list is out-and-out lying. There is nothing legal about it. How do no-goodniks get away with it? Some operate from a country that provides sanctuary. Some rightly expect regulatory bodies to be slow to action.19 Some keep operations local, knowing that the Federal Trade Commission pursues only interstate cases. Some hide their identity and close shop or move before the law catches up. Some count on projected profits to be greater than projected fines.20
Wink or not at harmless puffery, but do not sit still for over-the-line puffery, weaseling, and out-and-out lying. Withhold your business. Warn friends. Blog. Send the offending advertiser angry mail. Write editors. Write legislatures. Make a public stink.
Fair being fair, I’d also suggest rewarding honest advertisers with your business and public praise.
There is nothing an illicit advertiser would like better than to keep on bilking people under our noses while we tilt at mind-control windmills. Let’s not.
- Car salespeople and members of Congress fared worse. See http://www.gallup.com/poll/159035/congress-retains-low-honesty-rating.aspx.
- Vicary had no more compunction about making up words like hypnoidal than about making up marketing tests.
- Did Ogilvy know better? Maybe not. He championed scientifically tested advertising, but he also resorted to graphology when evaluating job applicants.
- Ogilvy On Advertising and Ogilvy’s prior book, Confessions of An Advertising Man, were advertising feats in their own right, at once best sellers and book-length advertisements for his agency. The occasional tall tale notwithstanding, both contain a good deal of sound advice for anyone who wants to create advertising.
- I attended a presentation by Taco Bell’s advertising head, who detailed how sales plummeted even as awareness and popularity of the Chihuahua soared. Sales recovered after Taco Bell retired the doggy and returned to close-ups of food.
- Including by Skeptical Inquirer. See Pratkanis, Anthony R., The Cargo-Cult Science of Subliminal Persuasion, Volume 16(3), Spring 1992, and Moore, Timothy E. Subliminal Perception: Facts and Fallacies, Volume 16(3), Spring 1992.
- Google it if you don’t believe me.
- This is old news with new toys. When I was a college student, we studied how eyes scanned printed pages. Most American readers look first at the upper left quadrant of a page, scan to the right, zig to the lower left, and then scan right again. Our professor told us to keep that in mind when designing a page. I thought, We need a test to tell us that Americans read left-to-right and top-to-bottom?
- Usually, sex sells only when sex is relevant, such as a perfume ad using sensuous images and situations.
- That is, as of this writing. What works online has been known to change overnight.
11. Industry standard. I have validated it with my own testing over a range of products, prices, and markets. Clients are often surprised to learn that the power of the free incentive offer, far from preying on the less sophisticated, tends to increase with the education and income level of the target market.
- The response rate to expect varies by product. Sometimes one-half of 1 percent is asking a lot. On rare occasions, 10 percent or more may be attainable. The desired action also matters. Responses tend to be higher when the market is asked not to buy but only to inquire.
- Direct response advertisers call this “The Law of 40 40 20.” As far as I have been able to determine, the percentages come from thin air, but the importance of targeting and incentives over creative work is well established. My own testing has borne this out as well.
- Else, Skeptical Inquirer would have a lot more subscribers. All I know so far is that Version B of this past year’s mailer won more subscribers than Version A. If I cancel A and continue with B, is that unfair manipulation?
- Let’s not get into the Dennett-Harris debate on free will here.
- Albeit sluggishly, grudgingly, and sometimes kicking and screaming. Even today I must remind art directors setting up photo shoots that not everyone is middle class and white, and writers that not every shopper is “she.” Some resent it. Tough. I’m their boss.
- Pizza Hut brought the suit. http://smallbusiness.chron.co/difference-between-false-advertising-puffery-66945.html.
- Senator Orrin Hatch, who represents my home state of Utah, is largely responsible for that. Don’t look at me. Every six years, I vote for his opponent.
- Competitors bring false advertising actions more often than regulatory bodies do.
- The makers of Airborne survived combined fines of $53 million, and Kevin Trudeau’s books continue selling, earning him royalties while he serves prison time.
- Bodian, Nat G. 1995. Direct Marketing Rules of Thumb. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Caples, John. 1932. Tested Advertising Methods. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Eicoff, Alvin. 1982. Or Your Money Back. New York: Crown.
- Key, Wilson Bryan. 1974. Subliminal Seduction: Are You Being Sexually Aroused By This Picture? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- ———. 1980. The Clam-Plate Orgy: And Other Subliminals the Media Use to Manipulate Your Behavior. New York: Signet.
- Ogilvy, David. 1983. Ogilvy On Advertising. New York: Crown Publishers.
- Packard, Vance. 1957. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: David McKay Company.
- Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin.
- Randi, James. 2007. Hypnotism/hypnosis. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. Online at https://web.archive.org/web/20130514085208/, http://www.randi.org/encyclopedia/hypnotism_hypnosis.html.
- Rajagopal, Priyali, and Nicole Votolato Montgomery. 2011. I imagine, I experience, I like: The false experience effect. Journal of Consumer Research 38(3)(October): 578–594.
- Rapaille, Clotaire. 2003. Interview with Frontline. Online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/interviews/rapaille.html.
- Rosenspan, Alan. 2011. Envelope testing (blog post). Improve Your Response with Alan Rosenspan. Online at http://improveresponse.blogspot.com/2011/03/envelope-testing.html.
- Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. 2011. Podcast#307. Online at http://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcast/sgu/307.
- Subliminal advertising. 2003. Ad Age Encyclopedia. Online at http://adage.com/article/adage-encyclopedia/subliminal-advertising/98895/.