advertising politics psychology

Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech

I really enjoyed the ideas discussed in Susan Hurley’s 2006 article “Bypassing Conscious Control: Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech“. The basic argument is that if we realised that we tend to automatically and unconsciously absorb and imitate patterns of behaviour that we observe, then our views of freedom of expression would be quite different from what they are. Although the presentation of the empirical psychology is sophisticated, the language does tend to slip into conceding that there is a domain of unconscious, automatic influences on behaviour and a separate realm of conscious, deliberative, choice. This is a failure to recognise, in my opinion, that for all behaviour it is causation all the way down (or all the way through, perhaps). But this quibble aside, the article gives evidential and philosophical reasons for us to be more concerned than we appear to be about the mental environment our culture promotes.

I was sad to find out that we won’t be hearing any more from Prof Hurley: Obituary by Andy Clark.

Susan L. Hurley (2006). Bypassing Conscious Control: Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech. In S. Pockett, W. Banks & S. Gallagher (eds.), Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? MIT Press.

advertising psychology

What if an evil corporation knew all about you?

Facebook have announced their first share offer. There was a fairly nuanced discussion on the BBC’s Today programme, which contained the useful maxim: if the service is free then you are the product. We pour personal information about ourselves – our locations, likes, friends and activities – into Facebook and Facebook sells that bit of us to advertisers. John Humphrys managed a grumble about whether we could trust a corporation with all that personal information, but nobody in the discussion seems to be able to raise much by way of concrete reasons not to give Facebook that information about yourself, they just had vague worries. Elsewhere, Cory has talked about the privacy bargain we make with corporations, and the dangers of making that bargain unknowingly or carelessly, but I want to leave that aside for a moment. Imagine a world where everyone was aware of exactly what Facebook were doing – ie selling information about our desires to advertiser. In this case, the vague worry about Facebook crystalises around a psychological question – can we be manipulated by corporations that know our desires? Imagine, if you will, that Facebook is the equivalent of the malevolent demon of Cartesian philosophy, still absolutely evil in intent, but different in that it can only control you through precisely targeted marketing messages, not through direct control of yours senses. Would you still sign up for a Facebook account? Say the Facebook Demon finds out you like lemons. Lemon Products Inc advertise you Lemon Perfume, LemonTech advertise you a lemon squeezer and Just Lemons Inc. offer you 10% off the price of lemons in their stores. Is this a bad world? The answer is only yes if you believe in the power of advertisers to make us do things we don’t want.

advertising politics

A note from the underground

A poster on the London Underground March 2009

academic advertising intellectual self-defence

Manipulation in Education

There is a fundamental power asymmetry in education. Teachers understand what they are teaching, learners do not. Learners, by definition, cannot have a full appreciation of what they are about to learn, of its value and of how it will change them. If they did, they would not be in the position of learners. The only way you can ignore this is if you are mislead into accepting the banking metaphor of education (education as information transmission, teachers as content providers, students as receptacles to be filled).

One implication of this power asymmetry is that the authority and responsibility of the teacher cannot be abdicated. Students should not be left to ‘decide for themselves’. Sure, students can pursue their own path of inquiry, but teachers should be there to persuade and guide them. For a teacher to pretend that they are letting students ‘make up their own minds’ is simply a denial of their role, an obfuscation. Of course it is important that people can decide for themselves, but students’ autonomy is not icreased by a lack of teacher manipulation of their choices. All our choices are conditioned by our past, our environment and by other people. Free choices are still conditioned choices.

A discussion of this in relation to the morality of manipulation is provided by Buss, S. (2005). Valuing Autonomy and Respecting Persons: Manipulation, Seduction, and the Basis of Moral Constraints. Ethics, 115(2), 195-235. doi: 10.1086/426304. Buss only touches on the topic of education in a footnote (no. 71) but the implications of the general argument for education are clear: we cannot avoid affecting other people, manipulation without informed consent of their free chocies is inevitable, and so we cannot pretend that it is possible for teachers to avoid making choices for their students, or that full informed consent of students in the content of their education is desirable or possible.


One occasion where advertisers did not exert editorial control

In the 1970s Philip Knightly and the Sunday Times Insight team were pursuing the story of how thalidomide, which caused severe birth defects, was marketed as morning-sickness pill.

…the Sunday Times advertising manager, Donald Barrett had warned [Sunday Times editor] Harold Evans that Distillers [who had marketed thalidomide in the UK] was the paper’s single largest advertiser, spending £600,000 a year. Then he added, ‘I know that won’t stop you and it shouldn’t.’ Immediately the Sunday Times began its campaign, Distillers cancelled all its advertising….

Quoted from A Hack’s Progress by Philip Knightley, excerpted in Tell me no lies: Investigative Journalism and its triumphs, edited by John Pilger.


television as mythology

For the first time in human history, children are hearing most of the stories, most of the time, not from their parents or school or churches or neighbors, but from a handful of global conglomerates that have something to sell. It is impossible to overestimate the radical effect that this has on the way our children grow up, the way we live, and the way we conduct our affairs.

People think of television as programs, but television is more than that; television is a mythology – highly organically connected, repeated every day so that the themes that run through all programming and news have the effect of cultivating conceptions of reality.

George Gerbner – ‘Reclaiming Our Cultural Mythology’


All Marketers are liars

There’s a video of Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, talking to folks at google (here). He’s entertaining and interesting for about 30 minutes (“chanel costs 2500 dollars a gallon, you don’t need it, you’re buying the story”) about his theories of marketing and why google is wonderful. His new book is All Marketers are Liars has this scathing review in Publisher’s Weekly (found at amazon)

Advertising’s fundamental theorem-that perception trumps reality-informs this dubious marketing primer. Journalist and marketing guru Godin, author of Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, contends that, in an age when consumers are motivated by irrational wants instead of objective needs and “there is almost no connection between what is actually there and what we believe,” presenting stolid factual information about a product is a losing strategy. Instead, marketers should tell “great stories” about their products that pander to consumers’ self-regard and worldview. Examples include expensive wine glasses that purport to improve the taste of wine, despite scientific proof to the contrary; Baby Einstein videotapes that are “useless for babies but…satisfy a real desire for their parents”; and organic marketing schemes, which amount to “telling ourselves a complex lie about food, the environment and the safety of our families.” Because consumers prefer fantasy to the truth, the marketer’s duty is to be “authentic” rather than honest, to “live the lie, fully and completely” so that “all the details line up”-that is, to make their falsehoods convincing rather than transparent. Troubled by the cynicism of his own argument, Godin draws a line at deceptions that actually kill people, like marketing infant formula in the Third World, and elaborates a murky distinction between “fibs” that “make the thing itself more effective or enjoyable” and “frauds” that are “solely for the selfish benefit of the marketer.” To illustrate his preferred approach to marketing, the author relates a grab bag of case studies, heavy on emotionally compelling pitches and seamless subliminal impressions. Readers will likely find the book’s practical advice as rudderless as its ethical principles.


the endowment effect & marketing

The endowment effect is that we value more highly what we already have. It’s a variation on the status quo bias that we talk about in Mind Hacks (Hack #74). This cognitive bias is of particular interest to economists, because it has implications for how eonomies work. If it is strongly in effect then people will trade less than is required to bring about the optimal resource allocation that free market’s are theoretically capable of. The most famous demonstration of the endowment effect directly addresses the operation of the endowment effect in a market trading situation [1] – showing that even though preferences for a small arbitrary item (a coffee mug) are randomly distributed, if you give half of the group one and allow them to trade less trading happens than you would predict. In other words more people want to hold on to their mug now they’ve got one, than people without a mug want to get hold of one. The preferences of the group have been realigned according to initial resource distribution.

This is all relevant to marketing, as well as economics of course. You can see why car-salespeople are keen for you to take a test-drive before you purchase, or why shops are happy to offer a money-back-with-no-questions-asked option. You figure the money-back option into your cost-benefit calculation about whether to take something home, but once you’ve got it home your preferences realign – that item is now “yours”, so you’re far less likely to take it back to the shop, even if it doesn’t turn out to be as good as you thought when you bought it.

Refs and Links:

[1] Kahneman, D., J.L. Knetsch and R.H. Thaler (1990). Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem. Journal of Political Economy. link
Wikipedia: The Endowment effect: : link
Experienced traders can overcome the endowment effect : Economist article
References at

[Cross-posted at]


advertising mammon


(originally from adbusters)

advertising links

A quick and miscellaneous list of advertising links

Metafiler: “Why do companies advertise?”
Stayfree’s media literacy curriculum
Vaughan on does some smackdown on neuromarketing
Guardian special report on loyalty cards
A brief guide to the concept of ‘priming’

Three from the BPS research digest:
When sex doesn’t sell (either because it distracts or provokes negative associations)
Experimental confirmation that music affects the power of (political adverts)
looking for the best option, rather than a good enough option can make you unhappy

Pledgebank: art not ads

Icarus Diving on my decoding advertisements post

Experienced traders seem to overcome the endowement effect (a common cogntiive bias)


Consciousness exists to make itself unnecessary

While we’re thinking about the nature of free conscious choice, this is extremely relevant. John Bargh, in this chapter – Bypassing the Will: Towards Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behavior [1] – takes evidence from several different subdisciplines and argues that consciousness – that thing which gives us our experience of deliberate control – exists exactly to make automatic, ‘unwilled’, behaviours possible.

Bargh talks about cases where the individual


Does advertising erode free will

Ah…now here’s the nub of the argument: advertisements erode free will, they are manipulations designed to subvert conscious judgement (I paraphrase Clay Shirky at Shirky mentions one particular judgement bias, that of super-sizing, but the general form of bias should be familiar to anyone who has been reading Mind Hacks, and/or my recent posts about avertising (like this one). Quoting Shirky

Consider the phenomenon of ‘super-sizing’, where a restaurant patron is offered the chance to increase the portion size of their meal for some small amount of money. This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will


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


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]


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)


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]


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]


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