Are We at the Mercy of Advertising?

Do ads work through conditioned associations?

Posted May 16, 2018

When J. B Watson was kicked out of academic life, he turned his skills in classical conditioning to advertising. Contemporary marketers continue to treat us like salivating dogs, or blinking rabbits. Can we resist?

Humans can be Conditioned

Watson and others demonstrated that the classical conditioning techniques Pavlov developed in his work with dogs could be applied to humans. They believed these techniques would make advertising more effective.

Watson's best-known experiment involved conditioning fear in an unfortunate infant referred to as “Little Albert.” In this unethical procedure, harmless objects such as stuffed toys were presented just before a very loud sound that frightens babies. Before long, Little Albert howled in fear as soon as the stuffed animal appeared.

Applied to advertising, the conditioned stimulus is the product. The objective of the ad from a conditioning perspective is to get the audience to form a connection between the product and a positive experience.

This might be conditioning people to associate a sports car with sex by pairing it with sexy models. A positive experience can also take the form of triumphing over something unpleasant. Examples include ads for detergent, or weedkiller where the dirt or the weeds are depicted as disgusting monsters.

The power of conditioning was illustrated clearly in the Little Albert demonstration. It also works for adults using very adult motives.

One remarkable confirmation involved another ethically-challenged experiment. The researchers established a sexual fetish in unsuspecting young college men (1).

The conditioned stimulus was a pair of black fur-lined boots that predicted the appearance of nude pictures from pornographic magazines.

Before long, most of the men experienced sexual arousal when shown the picture of the black fur-lined boots without the nudes. So conditioning is potentially a powerful tool. Marketing pursued Watson's conditioning approach. Unscrupulous admen and adwomen like those depicted in the AMC series "Mad Men" (available on Netflix) plied their trade in the real world.

Clearly, it is possible to associate consumer products with deep-seated feelings and experiences. How well does that work for marketers?

TV as a Panacea for Marketers

On the surface, the television medium was a perfect vehicle for conditioning audiences. We can all recite the advertising jingles of our childhood and, from an early age, children get hooked on advertising gimmicks and mottos from alphabet soup to the tiger character on breakfast cereal. Indeed, such cartoon emblems are considered so effective in marketing sugary cereals that they were banned in Chile on health concerns.

In the past, TV was a perfect medium for classical conditioning because it delivered a captive audience of experimental subjects, so to speak. This golden age of marketing declined with the rise of streaming and networks today find that major sporting events are the only live event where audiences are willing to tolerate ads. That is one reason that contemporary sports franchises like the NFL have so much money in them.

Soap operas are so called because they provided a venue for peddling products like soap during daytime TV. These productions are expensive because they have costly stars and viewership suffered from competition. Hence the emergence of reality TV where actors are paid in the currency of fame or notoriety and products being sold are placed on the set or worn by actors.

Conditioning on the Internet

Many reality TV stars parlayed the attention they garnered into successful marketing careers online. Remarkable examples of this include the Kardashian family who is said to be famous for being famous.

Although broadcast media seemed ideal for conditioning the audience, all was not well. Business executives often questioned whether heavy advertising costs added to their bottom line. One problem is a lack of audience interest and attention.

There is no point in marketing cleaning products to people who do little or no cleaning. Similarly, the majority of an audience is unlikely to care about breakfast cereals for children.

Marketing to individuals who already express an interest in the product is the holy grail of advertising, permitting Facebook and Google to mint money.

Interest is assessed by algorithms that track clicking history and create targeted lists to order for advertisers.

One burning question remains. No doubt ads can condition our emotional responses but do they generate sales? After all, salivating during a pizza commercial is not the same as going out and buying a pizza.

Reviews of the evidence suggest that advertising does produce modest increases in sales (2). Even if it did not, advertising would be a justified expense because it helps to build brand strength over the long term so that Brand X keeps Brand Y from growing.

Sex Sells, or Does it?

If marketers can associate their products with positive emotional experiences, then large ad budgets could be justified. Fortunately, the emergence of search ads on the Internet provided researchers with an opportunity to conduct actual experiments.

In one such effort, researchers created ads promoting local businesses on Yelp (3). When this was done, traffic on the business sites increased. After the ads were withdrawn in a key test, their web traffic declined.

Interestingly, the most effective ads were those that targeted interested consumers and their effectiveness increased with the relevance and usefulness of the information they provided, as opposed to emotional engagement. Perhaps Watson sent advertising in the wrong direction after all.


1 Rachman, S., and Hodgson, J. (1968). Experimentally induce sexual fetishism: Replication and development. Psychological Record, 18, 25-27.

2 Kim, P. (1992). Does advertising work: A review of the evidence. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 9, 5-21.

3. Weijia, D., and Luca, M. (2017). Do search ads really work? Harvard Business Review, March-April, 26-27.