What Can Political Advertising Tell Us About Human Nature?

What Can Political Advertising Tell Us About Human Nature?

People view the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ad against John Kerry as a turning point in the 2004 election, but the research says it probably didn’t have much of an effect. While billions of dollars are spent on political advertisements, they are generally ineffective. However, they do reveal a lot about both advertising and human nature.

To start, political advertising seems to be ineffective because many people have already made up their minds. As a result of confirmation bias, once a mind is set any new information will be viewed in relation to preserving previous thoughts. As George Washington political scientist John Sides told NPR, “When voters are confronted with inconvenient facts, it is oftentimes difficult to persuade them that those facts are, in fact, facts. When supporters of President Obama see negative information about Obama, they don’t think it is true. To the extent it is true, they find ways to explain it or rationalize it — they discount it.”

Since most of the viewers are already committed to a party or candidate, there are very few people out there whose minds can be changed. But, Rolling Stone’s basic position is that this small number of people is large enough to sway our elections and thus justifies the large ad spends. However, the data doesn’t fully support that conclusion. In fact, the person or campaign launching an attack ad often loses support, and the best research in negative ads’ favor suggests that they are most effective when shown sparsely.

But here’s where it gets more complicated and even more interesting. What if it’s not just confirmation bias? What if the ads are ineffective because we have entirely different ways of seeing the world? Fear based ads and imagery are more effective at pushing people to vote conservatively. In fact, reminders of disease or contamination, pictures of children, and images of the flag have all been shown to push people to vote more conservatively in the past. Could that lead us to believe that conservative people in general think more emotionally or make fear-based decisions?

Yes. In fact, the data shows that conservatives and liberals don’t just have minor disagreements, they have different brains with which to interpret the world. Conservatives are more affected by fear – they have a bigger amygdala, respond more sensitively to negative stimuli, interpret things as being more threatening, and are focused on preventing negative outcomes. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be more open-minded, open to risk, capable of change, and focused on creating positive outcomes. Differences in thinking style may also shed light on how to approach these groups. Studies show conservative policies are in general derived from more “low-effort” thinking, while more deliberate (or possibly censored) thought leads to more liberal decisions. A simple summary of these studies can be found here.

Undoubtedly, that should begin to explain the political divide and why compromise seems to be so hard. But it also hints at how to bridge the gap. If you can flip your perspective to examine the issues from either a risk aversion or gain focus, policy issues begin to make more sense. For example, opposition to or support for the Iran Nuclear Deal, Immigration, Stimulus spending, etc, are more relatable when you can see how the other side approaches the issue.

In terms of advertising, the takeaways seem to be focus on thorough action plans and benefits while building a coalition of support with liberals and focus on the preservation of order or the avoidance of negative outcomes while reaching out to conservatives. Products which stereotypically fit a certain type of person may also benefit from these approaches.

The Ambiguous Success of Fear Based Advertising

The Ambiguous Success of Fear Based Advertising

If you asked a layperson what they knew about advertising they might say “sex sells.” That’s been the summary of advertising for a very long time. But, fear may be as powerful a biological motivator as sex. Does fear sell?

Yes. Well, maybe.

Advertisers use fear in two different ways. They either build it up or broadcast their ability to free you from it. The fear building technique is often used by PSAs to discourage certain behavior. The freeing technique is used by brands to push products. This type of ad often seems less sinister. Think of the deodorant or  mouthwash ads that broadcast their ability to keep you from the fear of smelling bad. That’s not so awful, and these ads typically skate under the radar because they feel so much less traumatic than an anti-smoking or anti-drinking message.

However, that isn’t to say ads using the freeing technique can’t be harmful. After all, Listerine essentially invented the idea of bad breath as a medical concern to sell more of their surgical antiseptic and made us all a little more neurotic in the process.

Regardless of which category of fear an ad falls into, it would be wise to consider the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM). The EPPM is a framework for understanding how people will react to fear-inducing stimuli like fear based advertisements. According to the EPPM, there are four inputs that determine message success: self-efficacy, response efficacy, susceptibility, and severity. Susceptibility and severity refer to an individual’s belief in how likely and how serious the advertised danger is. While self-efficacy and response efficacy refer to their belief they can perform the actions needed to prevent the danger and that those actions will avert the risk.

One might think the higher the susceptibility and severity the better the ad will do. But actually, according to the model, when fear is too high (and efficacy too low) the message will be less effective because people will avoid the fear by tuning it out. Thus, the optimal combination of the elements involves efficacy measures that are at least as high as danger levels.

Even with the EPPM, the ad profession is divided on the success of fear based advertising. The results are inconsistent. Is it because of poor execution, differences between products (for instance between low and high involvement products), or perhaps even a subtlety with branding where fear based advertisers acquire negative emotions? These are all plausible explanations.

But, even if we were to find some optimal formula for success we haven’t discussed the ethical questions yet. Generally advertising seeks to improve people’s lives. We might overemphasize a need here or a want there, but good products have an innate value. We’re not in the business of pushing bad products because that hurts everybody in the long run. Can we still say there’s inherent value in a product if it solves a fear we had to create in order to sell it? 

If you’re going to use fear based advertising tread lightly.

How Ads Take Advantage of our Cognitive Biases

While I don’t believe we pay attention enough to psychology in advertising many advertisers have made good use of the science. Below are common and easy to spot examples. Some of them are intuitive but it still helps to consciously add them to the repertoire.

Rhyme-as-reason Effect – Rhyming doesn’t just make things more memorable. It also makes us see them as being more accurate or truthful. The most famous example of this is John Cochrane’s memorable “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” defense of O.J. Simpson. Plenty of ad slogans rhyme as well: “A nose in need deserves Puffs Plus indeed”, “Drive sober or get pulled over”, “To save and invest, talk to natwest”.

Decoy Effect – The decoy effect is when an extra option is added to a choice that skews someone’s perception of their relative value and sways them in a certain direction.  One of the best examples of this is the economist’s print and web sale, which was explored in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. I pulled this old image off another site, since the economist has now changed their pricing strategy after all the publicity.

Economist Decoy Effect

As you can see, the online subscription was offered for $59 and the print option was offered at $125. But, the third option combines the first two. It is designed to pull people from the online option to pay for the print version as well. For the customer this probably feels like a good deal, but many of them probably would have been just as happy with the online subscription only (and  they would be $66 bucks richer too).

Another example involves restaurants and wine. People will typically buy the second lowest priced wine at a restaurant, which has led restaurants to strategically price their options, typically by raising the price of the cheapest wine so that it becomes the second cheapest thereby increasing their profit margins. It’s worth mentioning, since we’re talking about biases, that a lot of wine’s taste actually comes from perception of quality rather than inherent characteristics, so it actually might not matter to the consumer that the prices are rearranged.

Picture Superiority Effect – We are better at remembering images than words. In general this means products are going to be easier to sell than services. Either way, finding an image to say what we need to say is a winning strategy.  

That’s why verizon chooses to show you their coverage rather than tell you about it:

Verizon Coverage Map

Framing Effect – You could probably consider the Decoy Effect to be a component of the framing effect. Indeed, almost all of marketing can be attributed to the Framing Effect: How you say something has a big impact on the results of advertisements, even if the information conveyed is the same. 

Are you more likely to buy a package of beef that says “80% lean meat” or one that says “20% fat”? They convey the same information, but I know which one I’d put money on.

Anchoring – The first piece of information we receive about something affects the rest of the information we receive about it. That is, once an anchor is set people don’t tend to move from it as fully as they should. For example, quantity limits can be used to increase sales. If you’ve ever seen a sale that included a maximum limit of the good people could buy that limit actually carries information to us about how many people should buy. It’s creates a starting point for the number we should purchase that is likely far higher than we would have without it.

Anchors can also be set for the amount of something that should be used. You only need to use about a pea-sized shape of toothpaste, yet most people cover the entire brush because that’s what they show in the ads. There’s also the example of Alka-Seltzer, when they started advertising using two tablets sales increased dramatically

Bandwagon Effect or Herd Instinct – Normally in advertising this is exploited with an appeal to the popularity of the brand. It’s not always bad as surely many category leaders are good products, but it does work off our bias to trust in other people’s opinions when we aren’t sure (herd instinct) or off our attempts to fit in (bandwagon effect). 

Any brand trumpeting their success is probably operating on one of these biases. McDonald’s makes very good use of them:


Loss Aversion – We are more averse to losing a particular amount of a good than we are receptive to gaining that same amount. The best example of this deals with blood donations where individuals told to focus on saving lives were significantly less likely to donate than those told to prevent deaths.

Functional Fixedness – Functional fixedness is the idea that we are incapable of seeing alternate uses for products once their established purpose is known. The concept plays a role in quite a few riddles. It’s also a common topic for listicles  But, it can also be used to boost sales for some products. Imagine Duct tape or Baking Soda starting out. They’re each only used for one purpose each, but as time goes on the companies educate us on additional ones. What do sales do? Skyrocket, of course.

Why isn’t humorous advertising more effective?

Humor is the copywriters go to strategy. In fact, according to Millward Brown more than half of TV advertisements use humor. Yet on a wide variety of measures these campaigns are ineffective. As Mark Levitt of Partners and Levitt summarizes,  “Humor in advertising tends to improve brand recognition, but does not improve product recall, message credibility, or buying intentions.”

Unfortunately there isn’t much research available on the topic. While the general consensus is that humor doesn’t help much, a few studies have shown that humor is effective for lower engagement products. We can start by stating that humor is overused, then, since it is used in campaigns for more expensive purchases all the time. But, there is a second factor that we should consider, as well. Humor, when it is studied in advertising, is treated homogeneously, but it shouldn’t be because it actually breaks down along two distinct dimensions.

Let’s compare two ads to get a feel for the different styles.

As you’ll notice, one ad wants us to find humor from somebody using their product, while the other one wants us to find it from someone not using their product. A second difference is the degree to which the humor relates to the benefit the ad tries to convey – does it reinforce the point or is it really there to get attention?

From a psychology and branding perspective, using humor that puts your brand or product in a bad light is a bad idea. That’s why the “Jake from State Farm” commercials are an example of the wrong type of humor. Using State Farm’s product creates a negative experience for the customer in the ad – it causes an unpleasant interaction with his wife. That may raise our awareness of State Farm but how could it increase our intention to buy? Many people would view the ad as a success because it has staying power and entered our cultural consciousness in a way that few advertisements do. But the actual barometer is long term sales. Does the ad make us more likely to use State Farm? I doubt it.

On the other hand, the Berlitz ad makes us laugh at people who don’t use their product and the humor also reinforces the product’s benefit.  Our awareness of Berlitz rises and we become more likely to use Berlitz because it resolves the situation we are laughing at.

It’s a simple but key distinction. In an advertising sense, to be effective humor doesn’t need to improve an opinion of a brand (we think State Farm is funnier now but that doesn’t make us want to use their service) it needs to effectively highlight the brand’s benefits and make us more likely to purchase it. Audi’s ‘Grandpa Bode’ commercial is another good example of a humorous ad for those reasons. Celebrity endorsement aside, it is effective. 

Moving forward, humor shouldn’t just be inserted into a commercial to raise its memorability. That may get views but it won’t sell product. But ads using positive brand humor, that is focused on the selling point, may prove to be more beneficial.

Celebrity Endorsements are the worst. Why do so many companies use them?

Celebrity Endorsements are the worst. Why do so many companies use them?

If you spent any amount of time in front of a screen today you probably saw a celebrity endorsement. Chances are you were also completely unaffected by it. While celebrity endorsements are an extremely popular advertising technique, they are also generally ineffective.

This should feel a little odd. Advertisements with celebrities are more likely to be shared or talked about so they’re likely to have increased viewership. So what do they do wrong? Well, actually, there are a few of things. Advertisements with celebrity endorsements do achieve higher engagement than comparable non-celeb ads, but they aren’t any better at helping consumers remember the brand. Basically, celebrities draw attention to the ads, but they typically draw attention away from the product and to themselves. This is known as the ‘video vampire’ effect.

Another psychological consideration is that consumers attribute the celebrity’s endorsement to the money paid to the celebrity instead of to underlying qualities in the product itself. One assumes this is particularly true when celebrities and brands occupy very different positions in our brains and that is often the case. Rob Lowe and DirecTv, Ozzy Osbourne and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, and Penelope Cruz and Nintendo are all good examples of this. Ozzy Osbourne in particular was probably chosen because the randomness would generate buzz, but since he doesn’t share many attributes with the brand that buzz probably didn’t convert into long-term product recall or improved sales.

The inherent “otherness” conveyed by celebrity is another drag on success. Social proof states that in uncertain situations people pay attention to others who are similar to themselves for tips on how to behave. That’s why brands often include actors in their commercials who are similar to their target market. When a celebrity and a brand (or the brand’s target audience) are mismatched it feeds the wrong information to potential consumers. Think about that in the context of Gameboy and Penelope Cruz. Gameboy’s target audience is presumably young boys. Ignoring her celebrity, the message Nintendo sends by using her is that the product is for middle-aged women. That, in itself, is mistaken, but if you add in the layer that she is a celebrity you have to take the mismatch one step further.

This isn’t to say that celebrity endorsements can’t be effective. In fact, that extra step can be a good thing for aspirational marketing. But, as in Nintendo’s case, brands often make a poor choice of endorser and the advertisements are more expensive. A more careful selection of celebrity (one who doesn’t endorse anything else, will stick around for a long time, and who closely matches the existing brand identity) will help these campaigns. Audi’s Grandpa Bode commercial is one I’ve always liked because it intimately relates the traits we identify him with to the product benefits conveyed by the advertisement.

Still, even with those changes, it might not be worth it for most brands. After all, as I’ve previously written, brand mascots (e.g. Verizon’s “can you hear me now” guy, the Geico gecko, or Flo from Progressive) play a similar role for businesses and they don’t present the same worries about potential legal trouble. It’s also worth noting that non-celebrity endorsements (AKA testimonials) are effective, and cheaper than celebrity endorsements.

In summary: Celebrity endorsements are dumb, but don’t expect them to go away any time soon.