How adverts make us stressed to sell us stuff

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Living in the modern world we are exposed to an avalanche of ads from the moment we get out of bed until we fall asleep at night. Everything, including our daily newspaper, the magazine we read at the dentist, our Facebook page and Google account and even the bus that we are stuck behind in the traffic jam on the way to work contain multiple ads. It is almost impossible to escape them without joining a closed order monastery or moving to an uninhabited island with no internet or radio signal.

Now we might think this is all pretty harmless and for most of the time it is. But let’s take a look at how adverts have changed. For hundreds of years adverts were just an announcement that someone had something to sell, be that a service, a product or something surplus to their requirements. An advert would say something like, ‘horse for sale’ or ‘best pies in town’ or ‘skilled carpenter for hire’. There was little effort made to manipulate our emotions, just the offer of a transaction.

After the second world war, advertising started to develop into a serious industry, with people specialising in the science of persuading members of the general public, us, to become customers and part with our money, or more worrying, borrow money to buy their stuff. Companies now spend between 10 and 13 percent of their revenue on marketing. Up to 40 percent of the cost of a typical branded loaf of bread goes on marketing the bread, compared to 2 percent for the cost of the flour. So this is a gigantic and lucrative business for those who come up with effective ways to sell stuff.

So how do they do it? We all know the basic formula. Film or photograph a desirable situation, this might be an Italian mountain road, the perfect middle class family or the beautiful model in a romantic location, then add a seductive description or narrative and connect it all to the product or service they want us to buy. That all sounds harmless enough until you look at what they are actually doing and then it becomes a little more insidious.

What they are doing is manipulating our instincts. As I suggested in a previous blog we are programmed to become stressed when we notice an opportunity to improve our life situation or in stone age talk, our survival or reproduction prospects. This stress or discomfort is designed to get us to strive to obtain the resource we have noticed in order to relieve the uncomfortable stress feelings. So how does this work in advertising?

The aspirational scene is deliberately presented to us as an opportunity to improve our life situation or reproduction prospects. We instinctively read this as improving our chances of survival or reproduction. We then subconsciously compare our life situation to the manufactured fantasy scene in the ad and find our life wanting, and therefore we might not survive or be successful in reproduction. This sets up the stress response. It’s that familiar uncomfortable feeling of tension, self doubt and desire. Again subconsciously we associate the source of relief with the product or service presented in the ad and head off to the shops or go online, credit card in hand to buy some relief from our stress that the marketing guru just gave us.

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