If you are sitting on your couch and you see breaking news that a tornado is headed your way, you would probably be jolted into action and quickly run to the store to stock up on supplies. When you’re in a state of fear, you want to eliminate it in any way that you can. Buying things can sometimes do that; fear in advertising captures a sliver of that jolt of fear to make you purchase, and it’s nothing new.
The origins of this strategy are typically pinpointed to a 1950s Listerine ad for mouthwash. Prior to that point in time, the market for mouthwash simply didn’t exist. Bad breath was what it was—something that was taken care of with regular flossing and brushing, and there was no stigma surrounding it. Like many things, it was just an aspect of being a human being and wasn’t thought to be particularly important one way or the other.
Moreover, at the time, the average person bathed around once a week, and deodorant hadn’t been invented. Laundry certainly wasn’t done on an incredibly regular basis, and people had limited wardrobes. Bodily odors were an accepted part of life. What was the purpose, anyway, if you brushed and flossed? For all intents and purposes, mouthwash wasn’t something people were asking for and didn’t feel that they would need.
So Listerine invented a reason for people to want—nay, need—mouthwash based on fear. Below is how their ad read:
Jane has a pretty face. Men notice her lovely figure, but never linger long. Because Jane has one big minus on her report card—halitosis: bad breath.
The advertisers pioneered the fear-based approach by showing Jane, who was repeatedly rejected and scared of dying a lonely spinster because of her offensive breath. The advertisements focused on how scary the effects of bad breath were and how much they could negatively affect Jane’s life. Even though she was beautiful and lovely in every other regard, this one factor could ruin her romantic prospects. Listerine made bad breath a debilitating disease to which they had the sole solution, and it worked to perfection. In fact, Listerine was going to cure a global epidemic—halitosis. In the end, we all fear being Jane or similar to Jane, so we buy bottles of mouthwash.
Listerine invented a problem, blew it out of proportion, and then presented itself as the answer. This is a path many subsequent advertisers would take. They wanted to position themselves as the path to safety and security from fears that they shoved in your face, and when fear kicks in, human rationality is thrown out the window almost completely. When you’re faced with an incoming tornado, you don’t stop to think about prices of discounts—you just want to find the solution as quickly as possible. There’s sudden urgency, and among the rush, money is no object. This is the perfect storm for advertisers.
A similar example of creating a fearful problem and presenting your product as the solution is how the cleaning products industry has blossomed in conjunction with widespread knowledge about bacteria, germs, and infection. Not much has actually changed in the world, but people are now generally convinced that “antibacterial” soaps, lotions, and sprays are necessary for cleanliness and sanitation.
Did the cleaning products industry create this frenzy, or did it merely capitalize on it? In television commercials, bacteria and germs were presented as miniature demons that would infect your home and spread filth and doom. These worries reached a fever pitch with random outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella, and even SARS (avian bird flu). Today, it is common to see antibacterial soap dispensers installed in public facilities. Again, a threat was invented and the advertisers had the solution—buy my product and sleep easily at night knowing you aren’t subject to bacteria and germs!
Bob Ehrlich, who helped launch the best- selling drug for cholesterol, Lipitor, stated, “Consumers remember basically one thing and one thing only,” with the implication being that customers will only remember what they find scary. The unspoken fear of not a global pandemic but of miniature outbreaks of these invisible minions in your home was all that people needed to pull the trigger on buying more soap. Fear is a powerful salesperson.
Fear is one of the most primal and powerful emotions, and while this isn’t without its benefits, you can see how it can be used to circumvent logic and analysis. Fear puts the priority on self-protection, eliminating threats, and acting with urgency toward perceived danger and asking questions only after the fact. Threats can come in physical, psychological, financial, or even social forms, and advertisers have to choose one to focus on, amplify, and present themselves as the solution.
Let’s suppose you want to sell computers. What are the fears you might be invoking to create a small sense of panic? In other words, what are the worst versions of the negative consequences that could ever occur if you didn’t own a computer?
• You could be jobless. • You will be a social pariah. • People will think you are stupid. • You will miss all career and social opportunities. • You will be seen as unsophisticated and clueless about the world.
Now, none of those are true. But it’s a matter of painting a picture of despair where having a computer is the sole salvation, and suddenly people’s wallets will open. What could your potential advertisement for computers sound like if you want to use fear-based advertising? Something like the following:
Jimmy is amazing and smart, but no one knows it because he doesn’t have a computer and can’t communicate with anyone. He’s generous and kind, but he can never get a job because he doesn’t know how to use a computer. The jail cell is where he’s headed. Buy Acme Computers; it’s the key to avoiding poverty.
There is a final fear that advertisers like to capitalize on: the fear of missing out. Not all fear-based advertising is about the end of the world, but rather, it can be about how good your life can be and what you are not taking advantage of. Here, advertisers don’t create a problem and present the solution— they create an ideal life view and present themselves as the missing puzzle piece. For instance, if someone wants to sell the same product, a computer, they would make an appeal to how a computer is the key to technology, learning, and increasing your satisfaction with life through connectivity.
In either case, fear-based advertising can make people act uncharacteristically because when people are presented with threats, logic leaves them. This is a situation that leaves people vulnerable to the psychology of buying.
Be Like Mike
The final piece of the puzzle in psychological sales tactics is the usage of celebrity spokespeople. It’s not just the fact that we pay attention when we see a celebrity we like. We might be compelled to see a movie because our favorite star is in it, but that draw doesn’t necessarily extend to products in a supermarket.
There are two main reasons celebrity endorsements are so widespread and effective, and the first one is more conventional and expected. The first reason is simply that sex sells, and celebrities often represent a paragon of masculinity or femininity. Women want to be Heidi Klum, and men want to be with her, while men want to be George Clooney, and women want to be with him. Whoever you are, you are going to be paying closer attention to an attractive figure, which means more eyeballs will be on the watch, cologne, or restaurant they are hawking. It might only be a minuscule increase in the probability of a purchase, but these things add up over time.
Sex is one of our very few primitive drives that kept us alive and thriving throughout the history of mankind. Sex and the urge to reproduce, hunger and the urge to eat, and anything else that generally kept us alive and thriving—these are all parts of what scientists like to refer to as the lizard brain, the reason being that lizards are primitive creatures that only have a few things involving survival on their minds.
The lizard brain takes over, and it turns toward impulses that suggest or show sex. Overall, this means it’s tough to ignore messages and advertisements that hinge upon sex because we are hardwired to search for it and seek it out. When there’s an advertisement for cologne that is being sprayed over a tanned woman’s body, it might not be the most clear or informative ad—but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is you are paying close attention to the sexual aspect, and the cologne itself is an unavoidable byproduct for your attention to fixate on.
You might think it’s too on the nose or lacks subtlety, but studies by Dr. Jeffrey Lant have been conducted stating that we require seven distinct touch points (exposures) to a product before we are considered to be ready to purchase. It’s indisputable that the more your eyeballs see something, the more they recognize it, mentally catalog it, and eventually want it.
Sex has been used to sell since the dawn of advertisements, but one of the first documented and widespread uses was in 1885, when W. Duke and Sons began to include trading cards of the female stars of the era on their soap’s packaging. People saw the images and bought the soap to look at the pictures back at home. Did it matter to W. Duke and Sons why people bought their soap? Not at all, so long as the money exchanged hands. There’s a small element of gamification here as well, because people were incentivized to collect the trading cards and spend money in pursuit of that goal.
You might be asking, what if the celebrity being used in the advertisement isn’t sexy? Maybe they are best known for being funny or angry. Surely that negates the benefits of using their image as a spokesperson. That would be true if the only thing that drew us to celebrities was how handsome or beautiful they were. If that’s the case, then why do we like people who are famous in spite of their less-than-supermodel looks?
This brings us to the second reason celebrities are great pitchmen: the halo effect.
The halo effect is a psychological phenomenon where if you see a generally attractive person (this is a subjective measure and can be physical, personality- wise, or simply someone you like), you will rate them more favorably in just about all traits and characteristics. For instance, if you enjoy your best friend’s company, you will be more apt to rate them as attractive, honorable, funny, and creative—even if they are none of those things. The halo effect allows us to project how we feel about a person to the rest of their entire character. Obviously, this is based on an extremely limited number of data points and is overall a bit nonsensical and illogical. Just because you like someone has no bearing on if they are a smart person or not.
But as you may have noticed in this book, our brains enjoy leaping to conclusions based on the most limited of information, and it rarely looks back.
As you can imagine, the halo effect can rear its ugly head in all sorts of contexts. A teacher may treat an attractive or charming student more favorably, and a supervisor may give special treatment to an attractive subordinate. You may even pick your teammates for a sport based on how funny or good at the piano you think they are, assuming they are also physically coordinated and talented. Because the halo effect means that one good trait is supposed to lead to other good traits, the possibilities are endless.
Now, how does the halo effect make celebrities useful to advertisers? If celebrities are famous for one specific trait, we assume that this talent or ability is mentally transferred to other traits, including their taste in products. Our positive evaluations of that celebrity spread to the product itself. We trust the celebrity and their endorsement. We want to experience what they experience. We see them as experts whose leads we want to follow. And sometimes, we just want to be like them.
One of the most famous examples of celebrity endorsers is Michael Jordan, more commonly known as the greatest basketball player of all time. He was also instrumental in taking the fledgling shoe brand at the time, Nike, to worldwide prominence, as well as pitching for Wheaties, Hanes, and Gatorade, among others. People knew him as an amazing athlete, but why were we taking his advice on underwear and cereal brands? There’s no logical reason he should have better taste in those arenas, yet the halo effect makes us subtly assume that the options he pitches are good—decent, at worst. Be like Mike.
Awareness of the halo effect may not inoculate you from its effects. Being sold to is truly a deceptive art, and advertisers are rarely trying to sell you on the features of a product. In fact, that’s probably a good rule of thumb to observe—if an ad isn’t about the features of the product or its literal performance and quality, then it is probably trying to tug on a psychological heartstring. The psychology of buying speaks to human desires and fears. You aren’t buying a product; you are buying life improvements or avoidance of pain. That’s something we’ll all pay for.
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- Brain Blunders: Uncover Everyday Illusions and Fallacies, Defeat Your Flawed Thinking Habits, And Think Smarter (Or Just Less Stupidly) By Peter Hollins
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- Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://www.PeteHollins.com to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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