Perception, Persuasion, and Promotions in Media (Part 2): An inside look at how advertisers affect your buying decisions through media manipulation


“Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need”

Will Rogers

The Case Study

The 1970s was host to a showdown. One with no romanticised Wild West connotations, but a competitive rivalry in the world of business. The participants were legendary direct marketer Lester Wunderman and Madison Avenue[1] firm McCann Erickson, and the reason was the Columbia Record Club account. Wunderman is widely considered the creator of modern-day direct marketing, and amongst his list of credentials are the advent of the magazine subscription card, the toll-free number and loyalty rewards. McCann Erickson has offices in over 130 countries and was named “Global Agency of the Year” in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Amongst its achievements is the now-famous Mastercard slogan “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Mastercard”.

In the 1970s, as now, Columbia was one of the largest mail order clubs in the world, and from its inception in the 1950s to the showdown in the 1970s Wunderman presided over the advertising. This was set to change though, as Columbia decided to hire McCann to devise a series of television commercials to support the direct-marketing print ads that Wunderman was creating. While the idea itself was clearly beneficial, Wunderman took exception because he resented losing even a small part of the business to a competitior; understandable considering he had been in charge for twenty years. He also lacked the belief that McCann’s advertising would be productive and increase sales revenue, so to bring the issue to a head to proposed a test: Columbia should run his adverts in TV Guide and Parade magazine in twenty-six separate media markets across the USA, McCann would run its ‘awareness’ television commercials in thirteen of those while Wunderman ran his television commercials in the other thirteen. Whoever’s television appeals generated most awareness in response to the magazine adverts would be awarded the entire Columbia account – meaning if Wunderman lost, he would sacrifice not just the small percentage he was fighting for, but his entire stake. The results were tabulated a month later, and while McCann’s markets rose 19.5 per cent, Wunderman’s rocketed by eighty per cent. It was a landslide victory for the experienced advertiser.

Wunderman’s success was not merely because his adverts were better – in fact, they may not have been better at all. McCann took the usual routes of advertising and employed them well; he even outspent Wunderman four-to-one to ensure his commercials reached the widest possible audience. Wunderman, on the other hand, was aware that successful marketing is not just telling lots of people about your product, nor is it just making them want it: it is making them believe they need it. And so Wunderman devised his advertising campaign to exploit this and focused on reeling in consumers rather than offering them the product.

The real key to his success was a subtle form of persuasion to entice the public to put confidence in his advertising. The proverbial trick-up-the-sleeve, referred to by Wunderman as the “treasure hunt”, was a gold box. More specifically, every TV Guide and Parade advert contained a small gold box in the corner of the order coupon, and his firm followed this with a series of television commercials explaining the “secret of the Gold Box”: if viewers could find the gold box in their issues then they could write in the name of any record on the Columbia list and receive it for free. The fact that every issue had the gold box is irrelevant because the readers were not being cheated, they really did receive the records. Wunderman’s long time objective quelled any anxiety of taking an initial loss. By giving readers something for nothing, they jumped at the chance and made Wunderman’s campaign a success. As he put it himself, the gold box “made the reader/viewer part of an interactive advertising system. Viewers were not just an audience but had become participants. It was like playing a game. The effectiveness of the campaign was startling. In 1977, none of Columbia’s ads in its extensive magazine schedule had been profitable. In 1978, with Gold Box television support, every magazine on the schedule made a profit, an unprecedented turnaround.”

What the competition really shows is that the power of suggestion and persuasion is far superior to other methods. McCann, for instance, is a firm renowned for its creativity and it spent four times as much money on media time as Wunderman did – their adverts were on prime-time television, while Wunderman’s were on at times when most people were sleeping. McCann knew that a huge part of advertising was making your message reach as many people as possible and focused the campaign accordingly. Undeniably, their strategy far outdid that of Wunderman. Yet they lost spectacularly, because Wunderman’s campaign went beyond reaching a certain number of people – he made sure that the ones it did reach acted upon it. McCann made the message widely known, but that does not guarantee people will like it. Wunderman opted for the ‘quality over quantity’ technique; he was aware that reaching a million people will be useless and wasted money if only one per cent acted upon it, but reaching 100,000 people with an advert that will make the majority react will be far more successful.

The Takeaway

Reaching consumers is not the hard part for advertisers; even a small budget will allow the product or message to reach some degree of the population. The truly difficult part is creating an advert that will grab the attention of the potential consumer, and provide a message that they will remember and act upon. It is precisely for this reason that marketing strategists conduct mini-experiments with a test panel to determine what ideas resonate with the target market, although there are of course preconceived ideas about what makes a successful advert: humour, advanced graphics and/or celebrity endorsement.

As mentioned at the start of this article, a key part of advertising is the power of persuasion. A researcher’s ability to tap into the potential consumer’s psyche – without them being aware – can be the difference between success and failure. Proof of this is all around us, from how we respond to subconscious body language to the impact of campaigns. A prime example of this can be found in media moral panics, or warnings of an epidemic. The elements that make these things successful can be just as apparently trivial as Wunderman’s gold box. The psychologist Howard Levanthal conducted an experiment in the 1960s to see if he could persuade a group of college seniors of Yale University to voluntarily receive a tetanus vaccination. As John Hallward explains in his book Gimmel!: the human nature of successful marketing, ‘Levanthal wanted to study the effects of “high fear” versus “low fear” messages.’ The students were separated into two groups and each was given a booklet explaining the dangers of tetanus, how vaccination was important, and that free inoculations were being offered at the university’s health centre. The booklets were slightly different, with the ‘high fear’ one containing graphic images – including a child having a tetanus-induced seizure and victims with urinary catheters and nasal tubes – and highly-descriptive language to present tetanus in a very negative light, while the ‘low fear’ one lacked the pictures and descriptive language. Group one received the ‘high fear’ booklet while group two received the ‘low fear’ one. The aim of the study was simply to see whether the different presentations of the booklets impacted the students’ attitudes differently i.e. whether the ‘high fear’ message scared the students into getting vaccinated more than the ‘low fear’ one.

Predictably, the ‘high fear’ group one were much more convinced of the dangers tetanus presented and were accordingly more convinced of the necessity of vaccination. Despite this, however, just three per cent of the ‘high fear’ group were actually motivated enough to get an inoculation. This is the same figure as the ‘low fear’ group, showing no difference in the campaigns in terms of actual success, even though the ‘high fear’ group had higher awareness of the perils of tetanus than the ‘low fear’ group. So, then, for ninety-seven per cent of both groups the lessons (or fear) did not translate into action. For some reason, the contents of the experiment did not stick with the students.

In the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, the author describes the ‘Stickiness Factor’ as a thoroughly imperative factor for any successful campaign, and were we ignorant to its existence it would be all too easy to conclude that Levanthal’s booklet was not explaining tetanus properly. For instance, one might wonder whether attempting to scare the students was the appropriate course of action, whether there was a social stigma surrounding tetanus that persuaded the students to admit they were at risk, or maybe that the idea of an injection was scary. Whatever the reason may be, it would be a certain universal agreement that with only three per cent of each group receiving vaccinations there was a long way to go to increase the numbers.

Yet the ‘Stickiness Factor’ does offer an explanation quite different. This offering is that the booklet and experiment had nothing wrong with it per se, but rather it was just lacking its own gold box; the small feature that would take it from somewhat effective to totally successful. Indeed, when Levanthal repeated the experiment he included a small change: an inclusion of a map of the campus which clearly showed the health building circled, with a list of vaccination times. Levanthal’s own gold box increased the vaccination rate to a sizeable twenty-eight per cent. This small detail eradicated the possibility of students not getting vaccinated because they didn’t know where and when they could get inoculated.

Interestingly, the number of students who opted for a vaccination was equal in both the high and low fear groups, meaning that the differences in presentation of the booklets were irrelevant. The students, as seniors, were old enough to know the dangers of tetanus and that a vaccine existed; they did not need graphic pictures to encourage them to protect themselves. Moreover, they would have been at the university long enough to know where the health centre was located and most probably did not even use the included map. Therefore, the real reason for its success is most likely the simple fact that it was more personal. The fear and graphic imagery was fruitless, what the students really responded to was the knowledge of what time they could go to get a vaccination at a time suitable for them.  The addition of the map and timetable helped the students to plan their day, akin to a secretary handing the boss his daily schedule. Because we are bombarded daily with an onslaught of advertising messages we learn to filter them out, so the new presentation of the booklet made the students accept it as something to slot into their timetable. In this way, they were no longer feeling forced to visit the health centre, but made the choice to do so. Making them feel like they had the choice of whether or not to receive a vaccination made the booklet memorable, and that made it successful.

Yet another relevant example comes from the work of Dan Ariely, a visiting professor at MIT. An advert for subscription to The Economist offered three options: 1) a one-year subscription to all online content as far back as 1997, for $59; 2) a one year subscription to the print edition of The Economist for $125; and 3) a one-year subscription to both the print version and all online articles of The Economist as far back as 1997 for $125 – the same price as option two. When this was shown to 100 people, the majority wanted option three, the combo deal, and nobody wanted option two. So with that knowledge, option two was removed as it was considered pointless keeping it if no one wanted it. The adjusted offer was sent out to a further 100 students and this time the results differed: whereas previously option three was most popular and option one least popular, this time around the results reversed. So we can see, therefore, that option two did actually serve a purpose after all. The premise is that we are not fully aware of our preferences or what we want and as such are easily influenced. When the advert was sent out with only two options, people saw a cheap option and an expensive option. When all three options were offered, however, they saw a cheap option, an expensive option, and what they considered a bargain. Option two encouraged people to buy the combined subscription. This subtle difference accounted for thirty per cent in sales revenue, which means that advertisers can influence their revenue by clever marketing. In essence, then, what has been shown is that we are not totally in control of our opinions, but are very impressionable by external factors i.e. how something is presented drastically alters how we perceive it.

The lesson from these examples is universal to all advertising, and indeed all campaigns. That lesson is simple: it is not the amount of exposure a campaign or advert receives but how well it relates to its target audience. Nowadays, almost forty years on from Wunderman’s advertising campaign in question, we can see proof of this every day. The content of adverts are moving increasingly further away from the product they are trying to sell, instead using the principle of relating to something they feel is important to the target audience. This causes the advert to be memorable to the consumer, which in turn prompts them to buy the product. One example is how the adverts for facial products focus on the confidence levels of those who need them by saying those with clear skin are more confident and will be successful with the opposite sex. To the self-conscious adolescent, this will encourage them to buy the product.

Our capitalist society has reached such proportions that we are bombarded constantly by people or companies trying to convince us to spend our money on their product, be it a book or the latest technological innovation. The scale is so large that the past decade alone has seen a rise in television adverts from six to nine minutes, and continues to grow annually. The New York-based consultancy company Media Dynamics now estimates that the average American is exposed to 254 different commercial messages each and every day – a bombardment of various companies and individuals attempting to convince us we need their product. More alarming is the fact that this figure is a twenty-five per cent increase from the mid-1970s. This is easily fathomable though, because in the mid-1970s the primary mediums for advertising were magazines, television and radio. In the twenty-first century we now have literally millions of websites hosting adverts or producing pop-ups, cable systems offering over fifty channels of programming, the aforementioned increase in television advertising, and an almost overwhelming number of magazines – the numbers of which are increasing rapidly – each full of adverts and promotional information.

All of this increased advertising produces a problem for businesses; it is known as the ‘clutter problem’. This problem has, inevitably, made it increasingly hard for any single message to stand out amongst the others. With a seemingly infinite amount of adverts being thrown at us each and every day we are bound to switch off and it takes something very special to grab our attention. Coca-cola paid thirty-three million dollars to sponsor the 1992 Olympic games, yet only twelve per cent of television viewers were aware that they were the official Olympic soft drink. A further five per cent thought it was Pepsi who was sponsoring. In fact, one advertising research firm produced a study which discovered that when there are four or more different fifteen-second commercials in a two-and-a-half-minute timeframe, the effectiveness of any one of those commercials sinks to almost zero – making the time and money invested in it borderline wasted.

Yet the work of Levanthal and Wunderman has shown there are simple, cost-effective ways to enhance the effectiveness of adverts. This has been reinforced in another study, which took a large group of students for what they were told was a market research study by a company making high-tech headphones. Each student was given a pair of headphones and told the company merely wanted to test how well the headphones performed when in motion. Accordingly, one group was told to nod their heads vigorously, the second group was told to shake their heads, and the third group was told to remain still. Each group listened to songs by Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles followed by a radio editorial arguing that their university tuition fees should increase from $587 to $750. When this part of the experiment was complete, the students had to answer a short questionnaire. The questionnaire masked the true purpose of the study by asking questions about the sound quality of the songs and the effect the shaking had, if any. Tucked away innocently at the end of the questionnaire was the question the researchers were most interested in: ‘What do you feel would be an appropriate dollar amount for undergraduate tuition per year?’ Incredibly, the group who remained motionless felt that $582 was about right – a figure almost identical to the rate they currently paid, highlighting their neutrality. The group who had to shake their head vehemently disagreed with a proposed increase and felt it should fall to about $467 a year, while the group who nodded their head found the editorial proposing an increase very persuasive and wanted it to rise to an average of $646.

What the study shows clearly is that the subtle tactic of making the students move their heads – or remain still – triggered their response to the proposed tuition fee increase. The reason for this is very simple: we associate nodding our head with agreement and our tacit approval of something, while shaking our head shows discontent. Remaining still shows our opinion is rather flexible and we do not have strong opinions either in agreement or disagreement. Thus, the study proves once again that subtle persuasion is unsurpassable as a means of influencing behaviour.

According to Gladwell, another example of advertising prowess can be seen in ‘Market Mavens’. The word itself, Maven, derives from the Yiddish and describes a person who accumulates knowledge. Economists have spent much time in the past ten years studying Market Mavens for the obvious reason that the people with most information are most important to a marketplace. One example of this is supermarkets, or more specifically how supermarkets trick the buying public into thinking they have reduced their prices by advertising ‘Low Prices In Store’ when really the prices have not been adjusted at all. The only difference is that the featured product will appear more prominently within the shop, thus attracting more people’s attention to it. Research has shown that when supermarkets employ this technique the product sales increase drastically, in a similar scale to if they were genuinely on sale. The cleverness lies in the deception: whilst the product has not adjusted in price, the store has not explicitly said that it has either; rather, they merely advertised it was a low price. The public, however, invariably interpret this to mean lower price. Despite there being no outright lie involved, it is disturbing because the supermarkets are directly targeting our line of reasoning in that they know we, the buying public, are attracted to what we consider bargains. In this way, the supermarkets appeal to our materialistic side by indirectly tricking us. The disturbing part is that if we really fall for this as intended, there is no reason for supermarkets to ever lower their prices because the public will increase their profit margins by being lured by a sign declaring low prices. Of course, supermarkets, like most stores, do lower their prices and offer sale periods. One reason for this is undoubtedly because management does not want to take the risk that a customer will notice the prices have not been lowered and promptly tell all family and friends to avoid the store. These people are known as ‘price vigilantes’ or ‘Market Mavens’ and they are responsible for keeping the marketplace honest. Despite their existence, we can still see how the subtle persuasion techniques of an advert impacts on potential consumers: by offering us one thing but making us believe it is something else, we compliantly purchase. 

The common factor amongst the four examples in this study is that the success depended on subtle persuasion of the audience. Firstly, the audience was defined. Secondly, the message applied to them directly. The headphone study is perhaps most alarming however, as it shows that our decision making can be manipulated purely by how we connote things i.e. shaking our head during an advertisement makes us think of ‘no’ and thus our opinion is negative. There are clear implications of this for advertisers in that they now have field-tested evidence of how to improve their campaigns and drive up sales. The dream scenario has now been placed in front of marketers: they have direct knowledge of how to minimise expenditure while simultaneously maximising sales and profits.

Wunderman demonstrated that consumers like participation, while Levanthal showed they like a personal touch and clear instructions on how, where and when they can get the product in question. The supermarket sale offers highlight that we believe what we see – even though prices haven’t been lowered, we believe they have because we are told as much. Ariely’s work showed that presentation matters; our decision to buy or not buy can be essentially made for us depending on how the offer is presented. Finally, the headphone study showed our opinions can be moulded by merely associating positive, negative or neutral movements with an advert. Therefore, advertisers can limit advertising to their target audience and improve the odds of success by being as clear as possible to how the product is obtained and why they need it. They can also see that by offering participation success can be heightened further, and if they are able to create a situation like the headphone study whereby they have contact with their consumers then they can subconsciously persuade a sale.

In almost every industry there are accepted truths, or conventional wisdom that guide decisions and actions. And in almost every industry, including advertising, many practitioners and marketers are unwilling or unable to observe the world systematically because they are trapped by their beliefs. For example the gaming or casino industry is rife with conventional wisdom, some so widespread that it is known outside the industry as well. The common misconception is: casinos have to build ‘Las Vegas style’ theme parks filled with restaurants and entertainments in order to attract high rollers and punters. Data driven research has shown that it is simply not the case and profit margins can be maintained or even increased without such ‘lavish’ enticements.

In management, managers tend to espouse the virtue of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Research has shown that highly rated managers treat their subordinates individually and “do unto others as how they would like it” instead. To quote the author, “Everyone is an individual, and how I’d like to be treated or managed may not necessarily be the same for you or anyone else”

One deeply held belief in the advertising industry is that adverts have to be highly graphical in order to be visually engaging and effective. The findings from the Levanthal experiment proved that whatever extra persuasive muscle of high graphic adverts can be rendered virtually ineffective when other factors are taken into considerations. Another belief is that advertising on radio and television is among the best ways to build customer traffic and revenue, which often overlook other more effective methods such as digital signage and Transit-TV.

What has been demonstrated repeatedly is that ‘consumer/audience management’ is of paramount importance to advertisers. Evidently, such management of consumers is very easy and very effective, a seemingly foolproof measure to achieve success (if you know what you are doing). To paraphrase Professor Ariely, “…we wake up in the morning and we feel we make decisions, we decide what to wear, when we go shopping we think we decide what to do, when we see an advert we think we decide what to buy, in fact much of these decisions are not residing within us, they are residing in the person who designed the advert the person who designs the advert will have a huge influence on what we end up doing.”

Perhaps if Will Rogers was alive today he would have said “advertising is the science of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”


[1] The term “Madison Avenue” is often used metonymically for advertising. The north-south avenue in the borough of Manhattan in NYC became identified with the advertising industry after the explosive growth in this area in the 1920s. Madison Avenue is the “Wall Street” of advertising.

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~ by David Wong on November 4, 2009.

2 Responses to “Perception, Persuasion, and Promotions in Media (Part 2): An inside look at how advertisers affect your buying decisions through media manipulation”

  1. Impressive article. It is amazing how the context of an offer will impact our decision. The MIT / Economist offer is a great example.

    Question, why are advertisers “manipulators: when they use smart persuasion strategies – but the same pejorative term is not used to describe an altruistic compliance request?

    As a professional magician, I’m fascinated by the manipulation of perception. I really enjoyed this post. (But I prefer light backgrounds and larger, dark text).

    • You are right when you mentioned altruistic compliance. Perception is everything and it can manipulate our choices easily.

      For example, we pay a premium for ice creams that are packaged in a ‘tub’ rather than those that come in a square box or at the end of a stick, even though all three are the excact same composition, and double blind experiements have been carried out to confirm this.

      I guess the answer to your question is “Would I complain more loudly about it if I found out that a charity ‘manipulated’ me to donate more money than I would have, compared to, if I found out that a company ‘manipulated’ me into paying more for something I don’t really need”

      The world ‘manipulate’ does not neccessary carry a negative connotation here. I guess it is open to interpretation.

      Since you are a magician interested in Perception and Persuasion, I would suggest you look up (google/youtube) a guy called “Derren Brown” he is known for such skills.

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