How Advertising Infects Your Children’s Minds (And Yours)

Contagious ad memes will spread unless you become aware of what drives them.

Posted Oct 30, 2013

Earlier this month a Connecticut middle school banned students from blurting out the catchphrase for a Geico commercial in the hallways. Not surprisingly these transgressions would spike on Wednesdays also known as “Hump Day.” Eleven year olds incessantly remind each other “What day is it?” to a cacophony of “Hump Daaaaaay!…Yeah!” and a chorus of “Woot!” “Woot!” 

Geico spends nearly a billion dollars a year in marketing, a strategy that has produced profound sales growth. Recently the company passed Allstate to become the nation’s second largest seller of car insurance. The brand has a history of delighting audiences with entertaining stories with characters that include cavemen, a gecko, and Maxwell the pig. But why has this one, a seemingly absurd concept of a camel annoying his colleagues, risen to the top to become the most shared ad of this summer and perhaps all year?

The answer lies in the base of our brain and the origins of our evolution. The human brain is the only organ in the body that exists in evolutionary layers. We often falsely convince ourselves that the most recent Neocortex, or “thinking brain,” is running the show because it is the part of our mind that talks to ourselves. However it is the deeper “feeling brains”: our “limbic/emotional system” and the “physical (instinctual) brain” at the bottom that often commandeer our bodies into action without our own awareness.   

In his highly influential, revolutionary book The Selfish Gene, British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme”—a unit of cultural information that is transmitted from mind to mind through imitation and replication in a manner analogous to the spread of genes. Memes replicate like viruses and include tunes, slogans, catchphrases, fashions, styles, and rituals.

Our brain is quite literally a “survival organ” and most of the memes in our culture reflect the deepest, instinctual drives of our reptilian legacy, or what I have coined the Six S’ssurvival, safety, security, sustenance, sex, and status. These themes are so often at the roots of many of the most prolific memes because they are both completely unconscious in origin and utterly important to our own survival. Messages reflecting these six S’s, unwittingly force our attention, which is also why we crane our neck to check out the horrible accident along the highway despite our own protests.

So the real reason “hump day” is a viral hit is simple. While the execution and casting of Caleb the camel is perfect, what’s really driving the viral nature is that the ad is constructed around a metaphor for having sex. Implicit metaphors intimating our deepest strivings bypass critical thinking and strike at the heart and gut, the part that moves people unknowingly to action. I don’t believe the ad was designed with this mind. Great creators intuitively develop a feeling for what works often without their own conscious awareness. And there are a ton of examples of this in action.

Not convinced of the power of advertising memes based upon sexual innuendo? In 1956 Shirley Polycoff, the lone woman writer at ad giant Foote Cone and Belding, penned the titillating ad slogan, “Does she . . . or doesn’t she?” a campaign for Clairol that would forever shift the fashion sensibilities of American women. Almost overnight the slogan would become a national catchphrase, helping to transform hair coloring from an exotic, low-class aberrance to a social norm. The incidence of hair coloring skyrocketed from 7 percent to about half of all American women within a decade!

And more recently Nike’s brilliant and deservingly lauded “Just Do It” campaign transformed culture and the brand as sales increased from $877 million in worldwide sales to $9.2 billion in ten years. The artfully vague slogan reportedly inspired people to not only buy their shoes and become better athletes but also to rescue someone from a burning building or leave an abusive spouse, etc.

But before the campaign launched, the expression “do it” already existed as a pervasive meme and euphemism for “having sex.” In 1968 the Beatles released the song, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” McCartney reportedly wrote the song after he saw two monkeys copulating on the streets of India. By 2008 a book was published called Just Do It, which chronicled the trials and tribulations of a man and his wife seeking to have intercourse for 101 consecutive days.  The decision to bootstrap their brand expression on a preexisting meme for sexual reproduction was a smart move that I believe was also made intuitively and not through conscious design. But it helped to put the brand at the pinnacle of marketing and at the height of public consciousness. And if you were to ask any consumer in focus groups why they purchased Nike shoes they would never admit to this influence because they simply don’t know. The idea alone seems absurd, but advertising has very little to do with rationality.

There’s also no coincidence that arguably the two most pervasive marketing memes of all time (that went viral without the Internet) piggybacked on one of our most basic survival needs: having enough to eat. Both of these memes cautioned and queried people about the scarcity of basic food staples through their simple slogans. I am referring to Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” and the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got milk?”—Two advertising taglines identical in structure and similarly potent in effect.

These memes didn’t imply sex, but rather all of the remaining five of my Six S’s— survival, safety, security, sustenance, and status. How does status fit into the mix? For over 99% of human evolution it was access to food such as meat that conferred status in hunter-gatherer societies, not access to money. This explains why so many people mindlessly post pictures of their meals on Facebook to their digital tribes.

In the 1980s the catchphrase “Where’s the beef?” quickly found its way into the breadth and depth of American culture, capturing the mood of the time. The slogan showed up everywhere from water cooler conversations to presidential debates, making the diminutive octogenarian Clara Peller, who was featured in the ad, a national icon. The ubiquitous presence of that slogan and its influence in advertising was perhaps surpassed only by another campaign for yet another basic food source with an uncannily similar inquiry, “Got milk?” This catchphrase began in the early 1990s and remains an active meme and international icon, becoming what few would argue is the most imitated and parodied slogan in American advertising history.

Still not convinced? In the 1980s, Americans discovered that the availability of food, even if it is simply a condiment, especially when coupled with a message of economic status, is able to drive a brand to widespread awareness and cultural interest. The campaign generated national attention when two British chauffeur-driven aristocrats politely shared a jar of the fancy mustard, punctuated by the phrase “Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?” Again, the structure is identical—scarcity of food.

And more recently marketers for the movie the Hunger Games discovered that the most popular form of social media for their campaign was the meme: “We Found Bread in a Toastless Place.” If you believe that Rihanna’s hit song “We Found Love (in a Hopeless Place)” was causing it to go viral, you’d be missing the foundation on which it was built.

Like selfish genes whose sole purpose is replication, memes appear also to be guided by their own viral intentions, evolving organically through clever and not-so-clever mutations. Recently I pulled up to my local chicken rotisserie restaurant only to discover a giant sign on the plate glass window boldly pronouncing: “Got Chicken?”

Under the obsessive inclinations of our physical brains, these memes perpetuate effortlessly without regard for rationality. As Dawkins puts it, we humans are merely “lumbering robots” programmed in service of the replication of our selfish genes, or in this instance, our selfish memes.

For more information about why you really buy and do stuff, check out my book Unconscious Branding or follow me on twitter.