We think ads "incept" us with associations between products and unrelated states of mind or status symbols, but this isn't true. Kevin Simler explains why.
This meme or theory about how ads work — by emotional inception — has become so ingrained, at least in my own model of the world, that it was something I always just took on faith, without ever really thinking about it. But now that I have stopped to think about it, I'm shocked at how irrational it makes us out to be. It suggests that human preferences can be changed with nothing more than a few arbitrary images. Even Pavlov's dogs weren't so easily manipulated: they actually received food after the arbitrary stimulus. If ads worked the same way — if a Coke employee approached you on the street offering you a free taste, then gave you a massage or handed you $5 — well then of course you'd learn to associate Coke with happiness.
But most ads are toothless and impotent, mere ink on paper or pixels on a screen. They can't feed you, hurt you, or keep you warm at night. So if a theory (like emotional inception) says that something as flat and passive as an ad can have such a strong effect on our behavior, we should hold that theory to a pretty high burden of proof.
We may not conform to a model of perfect economic behavior, but neither are we puppets at the mercy of every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a billboard. We aren't that easily manipulated. Ads, I will argue, don't work by emotional inception.
Almost every ad works, at least in part, by informing or reminding customers about a product. And if it makes a memorable impression, even better.
Occasionally an ad will attempt overt persuasion, i.e., making an argument. It's naive to think that this is the most common or most powerful mechanism, but it does make an occasional appearance: "4/5 doctors prefer Camels" or "Verizon: America's largest 4G LTE network" and the like
Perhaps the most important mechanism used by ads (across the ages) is making promises. These promises can be explicit, in the form of a guarantee or warrantee, but are more often implicit, in the form of a brand image. When a company like Disney makes a name for itself as a purveyor of "family-friendly entertainment," customers come to rely on Disney to provide exactly that
There's one more honest ad mechanism to discuss. This one is termed (appropriately) honest signaling, and it's an instance of Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, "The medium is the message." Here an ad conveys valuable information simply by existing — or more specifically, by existing in a very expensive location. A company that takes out a huge billboard in the middle of Times Square is announcing (subtextually), "We're willing to spend a lot of money on this product. We're committed to it. We're putting money where our mouths are.”
I don't think this Corona ad — or any of the thousands of others just like it — is attempting to get away with inception. Something else is going on; some other mechanism is at play. Let's call this alternate mechanism cultural imprinting, for reasons that I hope will become clear
Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product.
Do you want to be seen as a "chill" person? Then bring Corona to a party. Or maybe "chill" doesn't work for you, based on your individual social niche — and if so, your winning (EV-maximizing) move is to look for some other beer. But that's ok, because a successful ad campaign doesn't need to work on everybody. It just needs to work on net — by turning "Product X" into a more winning option, for a broader demographic, than it was before the campaign.
Any product enjoyed or discussed in the presence of your peers is ripe for cultural imprinting
In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it's not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it — and know that they know that they know it... and so on.
Thus we will expect to find imprinting ads on billboards, bus stops, subways, stadiums, and any other public location, and also in popular magazines and TV shows — in other words, in broadcast media. But we would not expect to find cultural-imprinting ads on flyers, door tags, or direct mail.
An ad doesn't need to incept itself all the way into anyone's deep emotional brain; it merely needs to suggest that it might have incepted itself into other people's brains — and then (barring any contrary evidence about what people actually believe) it will slowly work its way into consensus reality, to become part of the cultural landscape.
Cultural imprinting = shallow emotional inception + common knowledge → inception into consensus reality
Once everyone has seen the ad, it becomes common knowledge that sugary drinks are bad for you (and kind of disgusting), and you'll start to worry what your friends might think if they catch you drinking one. Peer pressure is an extremely powerful force, and if advertising can tap into it even a fraction of that power, it can have a sizable effect.
for an ad to work by cultural imprinting, it needs to be placed in a conspicuous location, where viewers will see it and know that others are seeing it too.
Brands need to be relatively stable and put on a consistent "face" because they're used by consumers to send social messages, and if the brand makes too many different associations, (1) it dilutes the message that any one person might want to send, and (2) it makes people uncomfortable about associating themselves with a brand that jumps all over the place, firing different brand messages like a loose cannon.
The blog Take Back Your Brain advocates "personal marketing," i.e., advertising to oneself. Affirmations and motivational posters seem to be after a similar effect. But if inception is as effective as advertising commentators make it out to be, I'd expect to see a lot more personal marketing than we actually observe.
Then consider joining the 25,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.