What does advertising do?
When you don't pay attention to ads, they affect you.
Posted Aug 31, 2010
The reason that we accept all this advertising is that we assume that we can tune most of it out. If we don't pay attention to the ads, then they won't have that much of an affect on our behavior. Sure, the makers of commercials can try to jack up the volume, but at least we have the right to look away.
A paper slated to appear in the December, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Melanie Dempsey and Andrew Mitchell suggests that the picture might not be so rosy. These researchers did two clever studies that ought to make us think twice about how much advertising we allow ourselves to be exposed to.
We usually assume that advertising functions mostly to tell us about the properties of a product. A particular detergent might advertise that it gets stains out better than competitors, that it smells good, and that it leaves clothes feeling fresh. We believe that these properties are ones that will help us to choose the detergent we want to buy.
However, ads also do other things. One thing they do is to take a product and to put it next to lots of other things that we already feel positively about. For example, an ad for detergent may have fresh flowers, cute babies, and sunshine in it. All of these things are ones that we probably feel pretty good about already. And repeatedly showing the detergent along with other things that we feel good about can make us feel good about the detergent, too. This transfer of our feelings from one set of items to another is called affective conditioning (the word affect means feelings).
So, this experiment put two sources of information in opposition. People had a set of properties about the pens that suggested one brand was better than the other. And the group that did not go through the affective conditioning procedure picked this brand most of the time when asked to choose a pen.
The people who went through the affective conditioning procedure picked the pen that was paired with positive items 70-80% of the time. They chose this pen, even though they had information that the other pen was better. Over the two studies in this paper, the authors found that people chose the pen that was paired with positive objects even when people were given as much time as they wanted to make a choice, and even when the instructions specifically encouraged them to pick the best choice and to say why they were choosing a particular pen.
So, why do we choose things just because we feel good about them? The world is a busy place. It is hard for us to feel confident that we have all of the objective facts about anything, whether it is products, people, or choices of things to do. The feelings we have are often a good marker of what is safe to do and what is likely to turn out well. If we have to make a choice, and one of the options just feels good to us, then we are likely to go with the one that feels good.
Most of the time, of course, that is a good idea. Often, we feel good about something because we have had positive experiences with it in the past. The problem is that we allow advertisers to have access to our mental world. They have paid for the opportunity to slip information to us about what feels good. That information ultimately affects the way we make choices, whether we know it or not.
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