Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ads Don't Work That Way

There's a meme, particularly virulent in educated circles, about how advertising works — how it sways and seduces us, coaxing us gently toward a purchase.

The meme goes something like this:
Rather than attempting to persuade us (via our rational, analytical minds), ads prey on our emotions. They work by creating positive associations between the advertised product and feelings like love, happiness, safety, and sexual confidence. These associations grow and deepen over time, making us feel favorably disposed toward the product and, ultimately, more likely to buy it.
Here we have a theory — a proposed mechanism — of how ads influence consumer behavior. Let's call it emotional inception or just inception, coined after the movie of the same name where specialists try to implant ideas in other people's minds, subconsciously, by manipulating their dreams. In the case of advertising, however, dreams aren't the inception vector, but rather ideas and images, especially ones which convey potent emotions.

The label ("emotional inception") is my own, but the idea should be familiar enough. It's the model of how ads work made popular by Mad Men, and you can find similar accounts all across the web. A write-up at the Atlantic, for example — titled "Why Good Advertising Works (Even When You Think It Doesn't)" — says that
advertising rarely succeeds through argument or calls to action. Instead, it creates positive memories and feelings that influence our behavior over time to encourage us to buy something at a later date.
"The objective [of advertising]," the article continues, "is to seed positive ideas and memories that will attract you to the brand." (...)

This meme or theory about how ads work — by emotional inception — has become so ingrained, at least in my own model of the world, that it was something I always just took on faith, without ever really thinking about it. But now that I have stopped to think about it, I'm shocked at how irrational it makes us out to be. It suggests that human preferences can be changed with nothing more than a few arbitrary images. Even Pavlov's dogs weren't so easily manipulated: they actually received food after the arbitrary stimulus. If ads worked the same way — if a Coke employee approached you on the street offering you a free taste, then gave you a massage or handed you $5 — well then of course you'd learn to associate Coke with happiness.

But most ads are toothless and impotent, mere ink on paper or pixels on a screen. They can't feed you, hurt you, or keep you warm at night. So if a theory (like emotional inception) says that something as flat and passive as an ad can have such a strong effect on our behavior, we should hold that theory to a pretty high burden of proof.

Social scientists have a tool that they use to reason about phenomena like this: Homo economicus. This is an idealized model of human behavior, a hypothetical creature (/caricature) who makes perfectly "rational" decisions, where "rational" is a well-defined game-theoretic concept meaning (roughly) self-interested and utility-maximizing. In other words, a Homo economicus— of which no actual instances exist, but which every real human being approximates to a greater or lesser extent — will always, to the best of its available knowledge, make the decisions which maximize expected outcomes according to its own preferences.

If we (consumers) are swayed by emotional inception, then it seems we're violating this model of economic rationality. Specifically, H. economicus has fixed preferences or fixed goals — in technical jargon, a fixed "utility function." These are exogenous, unalterable by anyone — not the actor him- or herself and especially not third parties. But if inception actually works on us, then in fact our preferences and goals aren't just malleable, but easily malleable. All an advertiser needs to do is show a pretty face next to Product X, and suddenly we're filled with desire for it.

This is an exaggeration of course. More realistically, we need to see an ad multiple times before it eventually starts to rewrite our desires. But the point still stands: external agents can, without our permission, alter the contents of our minds and send us scampering off in service of goals that are not ours.

I know it's popular these days to underscore just how biased and irrational we are, as human creatures — and, to be fair, our minds are full of quirks. But in this case, the inception theory of advertising does the human mind a disservice. It portrays us as far less rational than we actually are. We may not conform to a model of perfect economic behavior, but neither are we puppets at the mercy of every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a billboard. We aren't that easily manipulated.

Ads, I will argue, don't work by emotional inception.


Well then: how do they work?

Emotional inception is one (proposed) mechanism, but in fact there are many such mechanisms. And they're not mutually exclusive: a typical ad will employ a few different techniques at once — most of which are far more straightforward and above-board than emotional inception. Insofar as we respond to these other mechanisms, we're acting fully in accordance with the Homo economicus model of human behavior.

The guiding principle here is that these mechanisms impart legitimate, valuable information. Let's take a look at a few of them.

First, a lot of ads work simply by raising awareness. These ads are essentially telling customers, "FYI, product X exists. Here's how it works. It's available if you need it." Liquid Draino, for example, is a product that thrives on simple awareness, because drains don't clog all that frequently, and if you don't know what Liquid Draino is and what it does, you won't think to use it. But this mechanism is pervasive. Almost every ad works, at least in part, by informing or reminding customers about a product. And if it makes a memorable impression, even better.

Occasionally an ad will attempt overt persuasion, i.e., making an argument. It's naive to think that this is the most common or most powerful mechanism, but it does make an occasional appearance: "4/5 doctors prefer Camels" or "Verizon: America's largest 4G LTE network" and the like. Older ads were especially fond of this technique, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion when advertising hit its modern stride.

Perhaps the most important mechanism used by ads (across the ages) is making promises. These promises can be explicit, in the form of a guarantee or warrantee, but are more often implicit, in the form of a brand image. When a company like Disney makes a name for itself as a purveyor of "family-friendly entertainment," customers come to rely on Disney to provide exactly that. If Disney were ever to violate this trust — by putting too much violence in its movies, for instance — consumers would get angry and (at the margin) buy fewer of Disney's products. So however the promise is conveyed, explicitly or implicitly, the result is that the brand becomes incentivized to fulfill it, and consumers respond (rationally) by buying more of the product, relative to brands that don't put themselves "out there" with similar promises.

There's one more honest ad mechanism to discuss. This one is termed (appropriately) honest signaling, and it's an instance of Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, "The medium is the message." Here an ad conveys valuable information simply by existing — or more specifically, by existing in a very expensive location. A company that takes out a huge billboard in the middle of Times Square is announcing (subtextually), "We're willing to spend a lot of money on this product. We're committed to it. We're putting money where our mouths are."

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox). The same way an engagement ring is an honest token of a man's commitment to his future spouse, an expensive ad campaign is an honest token of a company's commitment to its product line.

So far so good. All of these ad mechanisms work by imparting valuable information. But as we're well aware, not every ad is so straightforward and above-board.


Consider this one for Corona:

Whatever's going on here, it's not about awareness, persuasion, promises, or honest signaling. In fact this image is almost completely devoid of information in the most literal sense. As Steven Pinker defines it, information is "a correlation between two things that is produced by a lawful process (as opposed to coming about by sheer chance)." In this case, the image is so arbitrary that it can't be conveying any information about Corona per se, as distinct from any other beer. Corona wasn't specifically designed for the beach, nor does 'beach-worthiness' emerge from any distinguishing features of Corona. You could swap in a Budweiser or Heineken and no "information" would be lost.

So instead of conveying information, this ad looks like a textbook case of emotional inception, i.e., creating an arbitrary, Pavlovian association between Corona and the idea of relaxation. The goal, presumably, is to seed us (viewers, consumers) with good memories, so that later, when shuffling down the beer aisle and spotting the Corona box, we'll get the inexplicable warm fuzzies, and then: purchase!

Except I don't think that's what's happening here. I don't think this Corona ad — or any of the thousands of others just like it — is attempting to get away with inception. Something else is going on; some other mechanism is at play.

Let's call this alternate mechanism cultural imprinting, for reasons that I hope will become clear. It's closely related to, but importantly distinct from, emotional inception. And my thesis today is that the effect of cultural imprinting is far larger than the effect of emotional inception (if such a thing even exists at all).

Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser "says" something about you. But you aren't in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It's then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a "chill" person? Then bring Corona to a party. Or maybe "chill" doesn't work for you, based on your individual social niche — and if so, your winning (EV-maximizing) move is to look for some other beer. But that's ok, because a successful ad campaign doesn't need to work on everybody. It just needs to work on net — by turning "Product X" into a more winning option, for a broader demographic, than it was before the campaign.

Of course cultural imprinting works better for some products than others. What a product "says" about you is only important insofar as other people will notice your use of it — i.e., if there's social or cultural signaling involved. But the class of products for which this is the case is surprisingly large. Beer, soft drinks, gum, every kind of food (think backyard barbecues). Restaurants, coffee shops, airlines. Cars, computers, clothing. Music, movies, and TV shows (think about the watercooler at work). Even household products send cultural signals, insofar as they'll be noticed when you invite friends over to your home. Any product enjoyed or discussed in the presence of your peers is ripe for cultural imprinting.

For each of these products, an ad campaign seeds everyone with a basic image or message. Then it simply steps back and waits — not for its emotional message to take root and grow within your brain, but rather for your social instincts to take over, and for you to decide to use the product (or not) based on whether you're comfortable with the kind of cultural signals its brand image allows you to send.

In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it's not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it — and know that they know that they know it... and so on.

So for an ad to work by cultural imprinting, it's not enough for it to be seen by a single person, or even by many people individually. It has to be broadcast publicly, in front of a large audience. I have to see the ad, but I also have to know (or suspect) that most of my friends have seen the ad too. Thus we will expect to find imprinting ads on billboards, bus stops, subways, stadiums, and any other public location, and also in popular magazines and TV shows — in other words, in broadcast media. But we would not expect to find cultural-imprinting ads on flyers, door tags, or direct mail. Similarly, internet search ads and banner ads are inimical to cultural imprinting because the internet is so fragmented. Everyone lives in his or her own little online bubble. When I see a Google search ad, I have no idea whether the rest of my peers have seen that ad or not.

In a way, cultural imprinting is a form of inception, but it's much shallower than the conventional (Pavlovian) account would have us believe. An ad doesn't need to incept itself all the way into anyone's deep emotional brain; it merely needs to suggest that it might have incepted itself into other people's brains — and then (barring any contrary evidence about what people actually believe) it will slowly work its way into consensus reality, to become part of the cultural landscape.

Unlike inception proper (which I don't think actually exists), cultural imprinting is fully compatible with the Homo economicus model of human decision-making. It leaves our goals fully intact (typically: wanting the respect of our peers), and by imprinting itself on the external cultural landscape, merely changes the optimal means of pursuing those goals. The result is the same — we buy more of the products being advertised — but the pathways of influence are different.

by Kevin Simlar, Melting Asphalt |  Read more:
Images: Mad Men and Corona