the price is right regardless of the cost

Zac at writes about an experimental test of buying irrationality using Ebay. Quoting:

Test auctions on eBay showed that most people prefer to pay a low price for an item and also pay postage (American: "shipping") than pay a higher price and get free postage, even when the former added up to more than the latter. A CD for $5+$6 postage is preferred to a CD for $10+freepost. It wasn’t presented as that stark a choice: multiple auctions with different price-postage ratios revealed a net preference for low item price and a poor correlation between auction success and stated postage costs. Interesting but hardly surprising: the salience of the price is greater than the cost of shipping (the anchoring cognitive fallacy), and people in general are not as rational or systematic as they/we believe.

(Zac’s links. read the full post here)

In Influence, Cialdini highlights scarcity as one of the six principle factors of persuasion. In an auction they combine particularly strongly: scarcity of time (the item is only on sale for a limited period), scarity of product (items are sold individually, not just as one-of-many ‘off the shelf’) and competition (from other buyers). Add to this heady mix the price/postage sleight of hand and it is no wonder you get choice irrationalities.

[Cross-posted at]


Influence (by Robert Cialdini)

Influence by Robert Cialdini is an excellent, excellent, book. Not only does it present voluminous evidence on the social psychology of persuasion and compliance, but it does succinctly and engagingly, mixing academic references with historical vignettes and personal anecdotes. The book discuss how techniques of persuasion work, grouping them under six major headings, and for each heading the book provides a ‘defence against’ section detailing how to stop yourself being unduly influenced. The final, glorious, touch is that in order to write the book Cialdini – who is a professor of social psychology – engaged in a three-year project of going undercover to explore first-hand how techniques of persuasion are used in the real world: applying for a waiter’s job to study how to increase customers’ tipping, attending tupperware parties, going on training programmes with door-to-door salesmen…it makes the book a wonderful blend of thorough research and astutely observed practice.

The book has been extensively and excellently summarised here, at, so I’m just going to pull out some particularly fun examples of persuasion techniques, particularly as the relate to advertising and marketing.

Notes on Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Influence: Science and Practice. Forth Edition. Allyn & Bacon

A key idea is that we all use various cognitive ‘shortcuts’ (heuristics) we use to decide on what to buy. Advertisers can take advantage of these short-cuts to skew our behaviour. For example, there is a price-as-an-indicator-of-quality heurstic which means, if we’re not thinking carefully about a purchase decision, we might just use the assumption that



What’s the difference between the mafia and a deconstructionist?
A deconstructionist will make you an offer you can’t understand..

technical notes

recovering thunderbird mail

I screwed up my email because, using Thunderbird, i didn’t compact my inbox folder regularly. Combined with an old version of TB which didn’t prompt me to do this, it was all a bit disasterous. Anyway, I wrote this Matlab script to take all the deleted but not removed mails from a mailbox file and make them undeleted/visible again. If this doesn’t make sense, either read about disappearing mail and recovering corrupted folders in Thunderbird or just be grateful that you don’t need to know

%use this at your own risk!
fid=fopen('In_box'); % In_box is my mailfile
fid2=fopen('In_box_new', 'wt'); % In_box_new is the new mailfile
while feof(fid)==0
tline = fgetl(fid);
if ~ischar(tline), break, end
if isempty(regexp(tline,key))==0;
tline=['X-Mozilla-Status: 0011'];

tline=[tline '\n'];


Cool the Towers!

[Local news warning]

This is Go, pestering you again. We promise we’re nearly done. But, once more, we need your help.

Now, most of you will have been bombarded with our emails before. Remember the Cooling Towers at Meadowhall? Yeah you do. We wanted to turn them into Sheffield’s own Angels of the North. Super-scale public art. Many of you nominated them for Channel 4’s Big Art Project (, and up against competition from all over the country, thanks to you, we were the MOST NOMINATED SITE. Merci Beaucoup. We made it down to the last 30ish and they came up to have a poke around and a bit of a film. It all went well, but now it’s getting really exciting…..

Out of the thousands of sites nominated, we have now made the final final short short shortlist, from which 6 sites will be chosen to actually be turned into art. The towers will definitely be on the program, but we just need one last push to make it actually happen.

This is where you come in.

Channel 4 are coming up with a full film crew and the site selection team on Thursday 9th March. We need to get AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE in one place on that afternoon to visibly show the support that this project has. We don’t know exactly where in Sheffield this will be yet. But if you email us back then we will mailout to you all the details as soon as we have them ourselves.

This is not something that “somebody else will do, so you don’t need to bother”. This means you. Please email us back and clear your diary for that afternoon. We are so close to making this happen. Time to pull out all the stops.

Your city needs you.

Get in touch with GO at go [dot] sheffield [at] gmail [dot] com


where do implicit associations come from?

The Implicit Association Test [1] is a sorting task which reveals something about our automatic, non-deliberate, associations [2].

The part of the test which betrays our automtic associations is a combination of two simpler sorting tasks. Both simple tasks involve sorting words and pictures into categories which are assigned to the left and right (by pressing the E and I keys, which are on the left and right of your keyboard). One task is to sort words (like ‘love’, or ‘failure’) into the categories ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The other task varies depending on what you want to detect automatic associations about. In the ‘race IAT’ the task is to sort pictures of the faces of white americans and the faces of black americans. The race IAT isn’t the only version, but it is the most (in)famous (you can also do the IAT on fat vs thin, arab-muslim vs non-arab-muslims, for different US presidents and in many other variations). The compound task involves sorting both words and pictures to the left and right where each side has two categories assigned to it – so ‘good’ and ‘black american’ on the left, and ‘bad’ and ‘white american’ on the right, for example.

What the IAT test does is compare your times for sorting good words when the ‘good’ side is also the ‘white’ side to when the ‘good’ side is also the ‘black’ side (and vice versa for sorting bad words, and for sorting white and black faces to the good and bad sides). By doing these comparisons the test can detect any evaluation of ‘white’ or ‘black’ as positive or negative that is affecting your time to classify the words or faces to the correct side. So, for example, if you take significantly longer to sort good words to the ‘black’ side than you do to the ‘white’ side then the result is an automatic preference for ‘white americans’ over ‘black americans’ [3]

What the Racial IAT indicates is that most Americans have an automatic preference for whites over blacks. Two things are important about this. First it isn’t really clear what mechanisms lie behind the effects found in the test (‘Voodoo’ is one suggestion!), nor is it clear what they mean [4]. Second, the automatic preference shows up for most people, even in those who consciously express no race preferences and even in many black americans.

Now where did this automatic preference come from? It certainly can’t be deliberate attitudes, since the bias shows up in people (including many black americans) who have explicitly anti-racist attitudes. Some suggestions have been made, like they are the residual of previously held explicit attitudes, or the result of a ‘cultural bias’ (whatever that means) [5], but I think a strong, and more likely causal [6], possibility is that that these preferences are the result of systematic exposure to particular associations (i.e that white = good and black = bad). Associations can become established in memory merely by the repeated co-presentation of two things (conditioning), there doesn’t need to be any logical connection between the two. So if on television the adverts for flash cars and happy domestic scenes always feature white folks and the the crime shows more often have black folks as the bad guys you’re going to absorb those associations.

The researchers running the project imply as much in an answer in their FAQ

…it is very possible to possess an automatic preference that you would rather not have (and the researchers who developed this test are convinced that they, too, fall into this category). One solution is to seek experiences that could undo or reverse the patterns of experience that could have created the unwanted preference. But this is not always easy to do. A more practical alternative may be to remain alert to the existence of the undesired preference, recognizing that it may intrude in unwanted fashion into your judgments and actions. Additionally, you may decide to embark on consciously planned actions that can compensate for known unconscious preferences and beliefs.”

(My emphasis).

The interesting thing for me about the hypothesis that these automatic preferences develope from repeated exposure to particular associations is that you do not need to believe the associations on any deliberate level, nor do you need particularly to pay attention to them, all you need to do is to have them as part of your environment. In that way our Implicit Associations reflect a part of our minds which belongs as much to the environment of our experience as to ourselves – and, additionally, is as much common to everyone who has shared our environment as it is unique to our individual minds.

And this relates to advertising. Adverts are ubiquitious. Advertising shapes the statistical content of the stimuli we are exposed too, however much we decide to give ourselves certain experiences. Does the IAT give us a glimpse of the consequences we reap from an unclean mental environment? [7]

[1] You can get all the research papers here. How wonderful

[2] I nearly used the word ‘unconscious’ here but couldn’t quite bring myself to. I’m afraid that if i say it three times the ghost of Freud will appear!

[3] e.g. here or here

[4] Here’s one example of an intepretation

[5] The residual of childhood preferences? discussion at cognitive daily. Review Article Sources of Implicit Attitudes (2004)

[6] That’s the problem with much psychology research. You can find factors associated with some phenomenon, but it’s far hard to find what is truly causing it

[7] Guardian article about the clean mental environment movement

[Cross posted at]


total surveillance mission creep

At the end of last month, a leaked letter from Andy Burnham, the Home Office minister, revealed that the identity cards for which we will involuntarily volunteer will contain radio frequency identification chips(8)

If you read George Monbiot’s articles on his website they come with references!


email loss

I use my email inbox as my To Do list. Every email in there that i’ve read and haven’t filed represents something that i need to do – someone to reply to, something to sort out, etc.

Yesterday, like a fool, i managed to delete my inbox. I’ve only got a backup from the 5th of February. So, if you emailed me about anything between now and the 5th of February and i didn’t get back to you please email again – you were in the To Do list, but now i’ve no way of remembering. Likewise, if there’s anything I said i’d do, now is a good time to remind me (what probably happened before was that I said i’d do something and emailed myself so that i had the reminder tagged in my inbox).

Moral: be very careful when moving essential data files


an engine of excitement

She used to say, “The only frontier you have left is the world of intangibles. Everything else is sewn up too tight.”
Caged inside too many laws
By intangibles, she meant the Internet, movies, music, stories, art, rumours, computer programs, anything that isn’t real. Virtual realities. Make-believe stuff. The culture
The unreal is more powerful than the real.
Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.
Because it’s only the intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.
But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.
If you can change the way people think, she said. The way they see themselves. They way they see the world. If you do that, you can change the way people live their lives. And that’s the only lasting thing you can create.
Besides, at some point, the Mommy used to say, your memories, your stories and adventures, will be the only things you have left.
At her last trial, before this last time she went to jail, the Mommy had sat up next to the judge and said, “My goal is to be an engine of excitement in people’s lives.”
She’d stared straight into the stupid little boy’s eyes and said, “My purpose is to give people glorious stories to tell.”

Chuck Palahnuik, Choke


links for the 15th of Feb 2006


selling dreams

This is the business of selling dreams. Success comes to those who ensure that their customers can dream, or at least reach a special state of mind slightly detached from reality, free of obligation to be pleasured and reassured. A company can lure its customers into such a special state only if it understands the customer’s salient psychological traits

From Selling Dreams: How to make any product irresistible, p171 by Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni (with Kip Longinotti-Buitoni)


the joy of fishes

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu
Were crossing Hao river
By the dam.

Chuang said:
“See how free
The fishes leap and dart:
That is their happiness,”

Hui replied:
“Since you are not a fish
How do you know
What makes fishes happy?”

Chuang said:
“Since you are not I
How can you possibly know
That I do not know
What makes fishes happy?”

Hui argued:
“If I, not being you,
Cannot know what you know
It follows that you
Not being a fish
Cannot know what they know.”

Chuang said:
“Wait a minute!
Let us get back
To the orginal question.
What you asked me was
‘How do you know
What makes fishes happy?’
From the terms of your question
You evidently know I know
What makes fishes happy.

“I know the joy of fishes
In the river
Through my own joy, as I go walking
Along the same river.”

Chuang Tzu, translated by Thomas Merton


neuroscience and advertising

As well as semiotics and cognitive psychology there is another tool for understanding advertising – neuroscience! Enter neuromarketing [1]. Neuromarketing promises to tell you how your brain responds to branding, or which adverts during the superbowl are most effective (Vaughan did a great job on this one, here, and here), or how alert people are during normal television adverts (“there may well need to be more ads created.” concludes the executive who commissioned the study!)

Neuromarketing leaves people saying things like

But the brain doesn’t lie, and the ad industry is just waking up to the potential of neuroscience. The brain’s seven defined regions – each affecting a different aspect of brain function – literally light up the screen if stimulated. Each one contributes to different cognitive activities; reasoning, analysis, long or short-term memory, high or low involvement processing, emotion, meaning etc.
(Tess Alps, in the Guardian)

The appeal of neuromarketing is the illusion of being able to access some more fundamental explanatory basis for our actions. People may lie to market researchers, or may even deceive themselves, but – we hope – ‘the brain doesn’t lie’. As psychologist and marketing guru Gerald Zaltman said existing methods don’t go nearly far enough in helping [advertisers] move to a closer understanding of their customers [2]

Sadly for marketing science, a straight description of what the brain is doing is of limited use – the marketing implications crucially depend on how you interpret that activity. And the interpretation depends on your theories and assumptions about the mind. If your assumptions are dubious (see the superbowl study) or just wrong (see the Tess Alps quote above) then you’re not going to get anything more than a pseudo-scientific smokescreen.

Perhaps the real appeal of neuromarketing to advertisers is betrayed by this quote from Jonathan Harries, the creative director at advertising agency FCB:

It is very hard for our clients to buy gut feel because every time they approach [a campaign], their jobs are on the line. Neuroscience promises to measure the gut feel, and that is exciting for us. It makes it easier for us to sell what we believe is right [2]


[1] Enjoy the marketing of neuromarketing first hand at

[2] Inside the Consumer Mind : What neuroscience can tell us about marketing, Wendy Melillo, Adweek; Jan 16, 2006; 47, 3

[Cross-posted at]


It’s just a ride

The world is like a ride in an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly coloured and it’s very loud and it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time and they begin to question: “Is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say, “Hey, don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”

And we kill those people.

Bill Hicks


when choice is demotivating

Here’s a way to make people buy more of your stuff – give them fewer options. Douglas Coupland called the bewilderment induced by there being too many choices ‘option paralysis’ (‘Generation X’, 1991). Now social psychologists have caught on (‘When choice is demotivating’, 2000, [1]). Offer shoppers a choice of 24 jams and they are less likely to buy a jar than if offered a choice of 6 jams. Offer students a choice of 6 essays, rather than 30 essays, for extra-credit and more will take up the opportunity if there is less choice of essay titles – and, what is more, they write better essays. Students given a similar choice of free chocolates (a restricted choice compared to an extensive choice) made quicker choices (not too suprising) and were happier with the choices they did make once they had made them.


[1] Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. 2000. When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.

[Cross posted at]


links 9th of Feb 2006


advertising influences familiarity induces preference

We probably like to think that we’re too smart to be seduced by such “branding,” but we aren’t. If you ask test participants in a study to explain their preferences in music or art, they’ll come up with some account based on the qualities of the pieces themselves. Yet several studies have demonstrated that “familiarity breeds liking.” If you play snippets of music for people or show them slides of paintings and vary the number of times they hear or see the music and art, on the whole people will rate the familiar things more positively than the unfamiliar ones. The people doing the ratings don’t know that they like one bit of music more than another
because its more familiar. Nonetheless, when products are essentially equivalent, people go with what’s familiar, even if it’s only familiar because they know its name from advertising

Barry Schwartz. ‘The Paradox of Choice’ (2004)

I think the essential point is correct, but there is a sort of sneaking condescension here: All of you people (the ‘test participants’) only like the things you like because you’re familiar with them, not because of any rational or emotional affection for them (that’s just ‘some account’). What’s more – we (the psychologists) have done experiments which show (admittedly only in some circumstances) that familiarity leads to liking; and from this we’re prepared to generalise to all other circumstances you’re involved in. I parody, but I’m sure you see what I mean.

The fact that we tend to like the familiar isn’t too surprising. There’s even a good evolutionary reason for preferring what worked before – if it didn’t kill you last time, why risk doing something else this time? The single most useful thing you can measure to predict what someone will do in the future is not what they want to do, nor is it what they say they’ll probably do, nor what their friends and family will do, but simply what they did last time – such is the power of habit (For more on this see Hack #74 in Mind Hacks).

But the interesting thing about advertising and branding is the process of it making something familiar to us and us taking this as an indication of preference. In other words, we don’t properly take into account that the brand is not familiar to us for any good reason.

Psychologically it’s not too surprising that this should happen. The study [1] which revived the subliminal perception field involved this mere exposure effect. Participants were shown meaningless shapes for time-spans below the perceptual threshold and subsequently they preferred those shapes to other not previously displayed shapes – even though they had not consciously perceived either set of shapes before.

However, is there any evidence that this kind of familiarity effect can be shown to compete with, or even over-ride, actual good reasons for liking or disliking a brand? Perhaps people are happy to use a fairly arbitrary guideline (familiarity) for unimportant decisions, or decisions where the choices are all pretty good, but when more is at stake familiarity is relegated down the table of influencing factors?


[1] Kunst-Wilson WR, Zajonc RB (1980). Affective discrimination of stimuli that cannot be recognized. Science, 207(4430):557-8.

[Cross posted at]


they want your mind, not your attention

In the comments to an earlier post on advertising, Helen said

We tend to take in less information than advertisers thought or hoped: generally about three seconds worth. Also the more they try and bombard us the quicker we ‘shut down’….we have become very selective in our information uptake and processing. [Experiments have] also found that products were negatively rated if the advert was particularly intrusive/annoying /or stopped us doing something (eg those pop ups on the internet). Maybe we will have less intrusive but more effective advertising in the future on the basis of this…? Be thankful that right now it may be annoying but that you automatically cut it out after three seconds so has little effect on you.

I think Helen is thinking of this article from New Scientist Is advertising flogging a dead horse? (24 December 2005). Which contains quotes such as

They used a camera embedded in a pair of glasses to record people’s gaze as they glanced at ads during a shopping trip or journey to work. After analysing the recordings and questioning the subjects, they found that most of the ads made no impression at all: only around 1 per cent could be recalled without prompting. It seems that although we may be looking at brands and advertisements all day long, most of the time we’re not taking anything in.

Which makes the dangerous assumption that if you can’t consciously and spontaneously recall information you didn’t absorb it at the time and aren’t affected by it now (there’s an example of an experiment showing otherwise here: music, wine and will).

Later in the article, the corollary of this assumption is explicitly spelt out:

In short, the reason most advertising doesn’t work is that we’re in a chronic state of attentional overload. Unless advertising is presented in a way the brain can absorb, it is simply not seen

Sure, if you want people’s focal attention, their conscious deliberation and their active support then it is going to be harder and harder when they are bombarded by a million different messages and a million different demands on their time. But although adverts may work this way – or some adverts at least – that doesn’t mean that all adverts do. Some kinds of advertising may work better when you’re not paying attention and when you’re not consciously deliberating about the values they are inculcating in you.

Relevant link: Guardian article about the healthy mental environment movement


music, wine and will

You go to the supermarket and stop by some shelves offering French and German wine. You buy a bottle of French wine. After going through the checkout you are asked what made you choose that bottle of wine. You say something like “It was the right price”, or “I liked the label”. Did you notice the French music playing as you took it off the shelf? You probably did. Did it affect your choice of wine? No, you say, it didn’t.

That’s funny because on the days we play French music nearly 80% of people buying wine from those shelves choose French wine, and on the days we play German music the opposite happens

This study was done by Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester [1]. They played traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them. Similar experiments have shown that classical music can make people buy more expensive wine [2], or spend more in restaurants [3].

Is this manipulation? There’s no coercion, all the customers are certainly wine buyers who are probably more or less in the mood to buy some wine. But they have been influenced in what kind of wine they buy and they don’t know that they have.

What would be the effect, I wonder, of having someone stand by the shelves saying to the customers as they passed “Why don’t you buy a French wine today”? My hunch is that you’d make people think about their decision a lot more – just by trying to persuade them you’d turn the decision from a low involvement one into a high involvement one. People would start to discount your suggestion. But the suggestion made by the music doesn’t trigger any kind of monitoring. Instead, the authors of this study believe, it triggers memories associated with the music – preferences and frames of reference. Simply put, hearing the French music activates [4] ideas of ‘Frenchness’ – maybe making customers remember how much they like French wine, or how much they enjoyed their last trip to France. For a decision which people aren’t very involved with, with low costs either way (both the French and German wines are pretty similar, remember, except for their nationality) this is enough to swing the choice.

This priming affect is, I believe, one of the major ways advertising works [5]. Simply by making it more likely for us to remember certain things, we are more likely to make decisions biased in a certain way. There’s no compulsion, nobody has their free-will wrenched from their conscious grip. There’s just an environment shaped a certain way to encourage certain ideas. And how could anything be wrong with that?

Refs & Footnotes:

[1] Adrian C. North, David J. Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick? (1997). In-store music affects product choice. Nature, 390, 132.
Adrian C. North, David J. Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick? (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selections. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 271-276.

[2] Areni, C. S. and Kim, D. (1993). The influence of background music on shopping behavior: classical versus top-forty music in a wine store. Advances in Consumer Research, 20, 336-340.

[3] North, A. C., Shilcock, A., and Hargreaves, D. J. (2003). The effect of musical style on restaurant customers

advertising quotes

Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth?

For while there is clearly a mask, there is nothing behind it; it is a surface which conceals nothing but itself, and yet in so far as it suggests there is something behind it, prevents us from considering it as surface

J.L.Baudry (Afterimage, No. 5, Spring 1974, p.27)
quoted in Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising(p.71)


experimental psychology of advertising resources

A few places where you can enjoy the intersection between experimental psychology and marketing research are at:


The Food and Brand Lab (was ‘The Illinois Food and Brand lab’, but has now moved to Cornell) found at

The Bangor University: The Experimental Consumer Psychology research group – see this article in New Scientist about Jane Raymond’s research Is advertising flogging a dead horse? (New Scientist, 24 December 2005).


The Association for Consumer Research

Society for Consumer Psychology


Journal of Consumer Psychology

The Journal of Consumer Behaviour (defunct?)

Journal of Marketing

Journal of Marketing Research


Psychology and Marketing

[Cross posted at]


Cognitive psychology & advertising

Here’s another approach to understanding how adverts work – cognitive psychology, as discussed in this Wired article from 2002 (thanks Lauren!)

You’ll probably not be surprised that I’ve lots of sympathy for experimenal psychology as a method for understanding adverts (as opposed to, say, semiotics). A conventional experimental cognitive psychology approach to understanding something about advertising would be:

1. Have an idea, e.g., I think Factor X makes people buy more stuff
2. Come up with an experiment which involves two situations which are identical except for the presence/absence of Factor X.
3. Include some measure which is a good enouch approximation for the behaviour ‘buying’ (it could be actual purchases, or it could be something like memory for the product, or extent of positive feelings for the product, which we just assume will convert into sales)
4. Do the experiment, write up the results, let the rest of the (psychology) world criticise your experiment
5. Do follow-up experiments to re-test your idea and counter criticisms.

Or something like that anyway. Here’s an example from the Wired article:

One example: At the University of Texas at Austin, cognitive science professor Art Markman gave a group of hungry people a few bites of popcorn. Another group got no food. Then he showed his volunteers pictures of products


Decoding Advertisements

[Cross posted at]

Judith Williamson’s ‘Decoding Advertisements’ is a classic look at the semiotics of advertising – about how adverts construct and promolgate meaning, necessarily involving the customer in a system of signs and symbols, as a token in that system. It’s a great book and, in some sense, a forerunner of Naomi Klein’s book on Brands, No Logo

I’m going to talk about it because it is exactly not what I am interested in in terms of advertising and psychology.

The first advert discussed in the book (shown below, p18 in the book) is an advert for car tyres. The advert shows a car stopped just before the end of a jetty; the text reports how they drove the car 36,000 miles and then did an emergency stop to test the quality of the tyres. They stopped fine – in other words, ‘these are good tyres’. But – aha! – says Judith Williamson – that is just the overt message of the advert. The covert message of the advert is captured in the image


The outside of the jetty resembles the outside of a tyre and the curve is suggestive of its shape: the whole jetty is one big tyre…The jetty is tough and strong, it withstands water and erosion and does not wear down: because of the visual resemblance we assume that this is true of the tyre as well. In the picture the jetty actually encloses the car, protectively surrounding it with solidity in the middle of dangerous water: similarly, the whole safety of the car and driver is wrapped up in the tyre, which stands up to the elements and supports the car. Thus what seemed to be merely a part of the apparatus for conveying a message about braking speed, turns out to be a message in itself, one that works not on the overt but almost on the unconscious level; and one which involves a connection being made, a correlation between two objects (tyre and jetty) not on a rational basis but by a leap made on the basis of appearance, juxtaposition and connotation.

Is this true? Do the qualities of the jetty occur to us and transfer to the tyres? Does this happen covertly, on an ‘almost unconscious level’. Does this magic bypass the normal rational monitoring of our thoughts? Well, it could be true, maybe. But also, something like it could be true – maybe the image really plays the role of a phallic symbol and suggest to the viewer thoughts of masculine strength and durability. Or maybe something contradictory but similar in style is true – does the image suggest danger, when the tyres are meant to make you feel safe, so that really it is a bad advert. Or maybe people just like to look at a nice picture of a jetty in the sea. Or maybe they like the curves of the jetty, and this makes them feel positive about the thing they see at the same time (the logo of the tyre manufacturer). All of these things could be true – I don’t believe Judith Williamson has any more idea than us which are true, and this is why I’m not interested in the semiotics of advertising at the moment.

The argument advanced in ‘Decoding Advertisements’ misses a critical step. Can it be shown that covert visual imagery affects consumer’s buying behaviour? I don’t doubt that covert visual imagery exists, nor even that in some circumstances has an effect, but does it have an effect in adverts? Till the whole class of influences talked about is demonstrated to be in operation, why should I believe these analyses of adverts are any more than psychoanalytic-spook stories?

So, while I’m alive to the use of decoding adverts using semiotics, the first stops on my investigation into adverts will be

  • the experimental evidence which shows that adverts do have an effect

  • and

  • the experimental evidence on what sorts of things affect behaviours

  • By ‘sorts of things’ I mean general categories like ‘new information’, ‘social influence’, ‘status’, ‘sex appeal’, ‘positive emotions’ – all things that at first glance seem more likely to be factors in adverts’ success. I’ll leave the fine, critical-theory, detail for later, and until I can be persuaded that, in an advert, a jetty is more than just a jetty.


    Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars. You can get a flavour for the book from this discussion, which includes examples. Judith Williamson is a flag on the fantastic semiotics black run.


    Is there a science of advertising?

    Does advertising work? If it does work, how does it work? And given this, should we be worried about what advertisers do? These are, broadly, the questions I’m interested in and the topics I am going to be posting about for the next month. Aside from sheer curiousity, I’m chairing a discussion on the topic of advertising and psychology on March 6th at Cafe Scientifique, Sheffield.

    Here’s the blurb:

    Do adverts work? How do they work? And is it a problem?

    Most of us don’t think we’re particularly affected by adverts, but it can’t be for nothing that the advertising industry in the UK spent