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How Advertisers Get You to Remember Ads

Are you being manipulated?

In the last couple of columns I have been explaining how stereotyping affects performance. For example if seniors buy into the stereotype that they are supposed to have failing memories they are more likely to have failing memories. How you identify yourself (young, old, male, female, and so on) is a key factor in how you will respond to advertising. Indeed, self-identity creates all kinds of bias, from the sports team you root for to the candidate you want to become President.

Marketing research has established that most consumer decisions are memory based. You buy something because you remember a persuasive ad for it. Thus, advertisers seek to find ways to get consumers to remember their products and services. One obvious way is to repeat the ad over and over. But that costs a lot of money.

One advertising strategy is to target consumers with promotions that capitalize on social identity. The idea is that you will prefer a product that is pitched to your identity. No doubt you have seen the TV ads on reverse mortgages, where a clearly older celebrity makes the pitch. You are supposed to be persuaded by the ad because you can identify with such a person. He’s a senior, you’re a senior. He’s a star, and you can imagine how great it might feel if you were one. In other words, your personal identity is wrapped up in how responsive you are to a given ad. This same principle is at work in ads that use beautiful models to sell clothes and star athletes to sell athletic gear.

Social identity can be threatened when the ad presents events, information, or choices in a way that is inconsistent or negative. A senior, for example, would not be persuaded to consider reverse mortgages if the salesman was a young and gorgeous female model. Recent studies show that these kinds of cognitive disconnect interfere with how consumers encode and remember advertising messages. Advertisers certainly don’t want to create identity-threat ads because consumers will be automatically motivated to forget the ads.

The process of motivated forgetting is being explored by Hong Kong University marketing professor, Amy Dalton and her colleague, Li Huang. When people see or hear an ad that presents identity threat, they are automatically motivated to forget it. It’s a defense mechanism. Naturally, the effect is greatest in people who have the strongest in-group identities. That’s why advertisers have to be really careful in ads that involve such emotionally charges matters as gender, race, religion, or political belief.

In their studies, they use identity linked promotions, such as “Ladies get one drink free,” or “10 percent discount for seniors,” and the like. To enhance attention and encoding, they prime the experimental audience ahead of time to reinforce the intended identity. In one experiment, they primed a social identity, produced identity-linked promotions, introduced social identity-threat, and then tested for memory of the promotions.

For example, experimental subjects were students. Students were primed about their student identity by telling them that the experiment was being performed also with students at other universities. Students then watched 20 print ads for three seconds each and told they would be quizzed on how much they remember of the ads. Identity-linked promotions were created for eight of the ads by stating that “Additional 10 percent discount for Hong Kong University students.” Then students read news reports about their university, either neutral reports or negative ones (in the identity-threat group).

What they found was that identity strength enhanced memory for identity-linked promotions if the identity had been primed. When the primed identity was threatened, ad memory was impaired, reflecting the motivated forgetting effect.

A related experiment tested the role of the news source for neutral and negative-identity conditions. Identity strength increased the resistance to read news from a source that presented an identity threat but not in control conditions. This may explain why some people steadfastly get their news from a single distinct identity source, such as NBC (more liberal viewers) or Fox News (more conservative viewers). Such loyalties minimize identity threat and make the news and opinion better remembered. Obviously, such loyalties contribute to political polarization. In U.S. politics, voters are not identified as people. They are identified as voting blocs (Blacks, Hispanics, seniors, females, millennials, poor, rich, and so on). Often these groups are pitted against each other (as in “the rich exploit the poor, blacks are victims of white racism,” and so on). What politicians exploit is social identity.

While identity politics is old hat, consumer identity research is in early stages. But you can bet there will be more such research, as advertisers have their own motivations: spend less money through fewer ads, make their ads more memorable, and get you to spend more money.


Dalton, Amy N., and Li Huang. 2013. Motivated forgetting in response to social identity threat. J. Consumer Research.

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