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The Psychology of Advertising: 5 Surprising Techniques


To encourage you to buy their product, companies may try to elicit a certain emotion. This is known as the psychology of advertising.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly surrounded by attempts to sway our thinking and persuade us to take certain actions.

Where do these messages come from? Advertisements.

The commercials that air during our favorite tv shows or on the radio, the sponsored posts on our social media feeds, and the images we see in magazines or billboards are all types of ads we encounter daily. And each of these ads uses psychology to entice us to buy a company’s product or use its services.

So, how do they do it?

The average American is faced with as many as 10,000 ads every day. While that gives advertisers endless opportunities to get their products or services in front of our eyes, it can make it difficult to stand out from the crowd.

This is where psychology can give ads the edge they need to stay top of mind with consumers.

The psychology of advertising focuses on building empathy towards a product or service to help you become more inclined to buy or use it.

Research from 2021 suggests that the physical aspects of the ads we see — including people, images, and even colors — can influence how we relate to the ad itself. This, in turn, affects how we might feel about the brand or product behind the ad.

Advertising is centered around impacting our behaviors in order to get us to buy a particular product, use a specific service, or give to a certain cause. To do this, advertising professionals use a variety of psychological strategies and techniques to influence our preferences and opinions.

These strategies include:

Using cute animals

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Who hasn’t stopped scrolling their social media feeds to watch a cat video or look at a funny dog meme? Animals often bring about positive feelings, and advertisers know this.

Using animals in an ad may make us more likely to pay attention to what we’re seeing. It can also trigger warm or happy feelings, so that we associate the ad with positive messaging.

On the other side, seeing animals in distress can spur us to action. When we see homeless dogs or cats struggling, many of us are moved to donate time or money to help them find safe and loving homes.

Infusing humor

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Laughter can release endorphins — the hormones our brain releases to bring positive feelings — and make us feel happy. This is why many ads use funny situations or humor to communicate their message. If a commercial makes us laugh, we’re more likely to remember it — and the brand or product it featured.

Preying on fear

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This technique can backfire if not used properly because fear can turn us away from a product or brand. However, using fear in a way that elicits excitement or calls us to action can be an effective marketing strategy.

For example, prescription drug medications utilize fear by sharing the dangers or side effects of certain illnesses. They then offer a solution through their medication, which may influence you to discuss this option with your doctor.

Creating excitement

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Many ads try to create a buzz by building hype around their product. This gets you excited about what you’re seeing, and this excitement then trickles over into how you think about the product or brand itself.

Think of amusement park commercials that show people having fun, riding roller coasters, and enjoying an activity-filled day. This creates excitement around the park and lets you believe that you can recreate this excitement if you visit.

Tugging on the heartstrings

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While many ads are funny or exciting, some find ways to tug at your heart. This can be subtle, like showing a family spending quality time together over a certain brand’s food, or can be more direct, such as depicting people who need support after a disaster.

However they try to touch your heart and engage feelings of empathy, this technique can work by springing you to action. For instance, you might buy that brand of food the next time you plan a family dinner, or you might consider that charity when making an end-of-year donation.

Color is a powerful tool, both in life and in the marketing world. Different colors or hues can elicit different feelings from audiences. We may associate certain colors with different moods, memories, or feelings, and seeing certain colors can affect how we think and how we feel. For instance, blue can make you feel calm, while red might cause agitation or anger.

Research from 2017 has found that color can not only influence our perception of a product but also help create brand recognition. For example, coffee drinkers may associate a certain shade of green with the Starbucks brand without actually seeing the company’s logo or other identifying markers.

Commercials are an exceptionally great way for advertisers to get their messages across in an interactive way. In thirty seconds or less, commercials can tell us a story — and sell us on it.

With their video format, commercials can use a variety of tactics and techniques to touch our emotions, make us laugh, or help us relate to the people or scenarios they depict. We can see products in action — used by people like ourselves — or get a sense of how a service can help make our lives better in some way.

Some commercials can even stay in our minds for years, becoming a part of our cultural mindset. For instance, consider the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) commercial that featured the Sarah McLachlan song “Angel.”

Though these ads aired in 2007, they’re still often the first thing that comes to many of our minds when we think of shelter animals needing a loving home. The ASPCA not only used a popular song and animal images to get its message across but also tugged at our hearts to create empathy for users.

Another commercial that got people thinking was Dove’s popular “real beauty” campaign. Instead of featuring professional models in their ads, the company highlighted that their product is for anyone and every one by showcasing bodies of all shapes, sizes, and types.

This was a newer concept in advertising when these commercials aired, and it helped create excitement around Dove’s products by relating to the diverse consumers who use them.

Cognitive psychology is the science of how our mind processes information. Advertisers use cognitive psychology to influence our thoughts and convince us that we need to buy or use their product or service.

2019 research suggests that ads often rely on memory to do this. By tapping into common experiences that people have, ads can help us recall pleasant moments in our lives — which we then associate with the brand or item the advertisement highlighted.

Social psychology is another technique that advertisements use to persuade viewers. This type of psychology is based on our interactions with others.

Ads often use social psychology by showcasing how a brand or product can help us have better experiences or relationships with those around us.

For example, a commercial for a tropical vacation spot will often feature groups, couples, or families doing fun activities together on a beach, making viewers think that booking a trip there as a group can create similar happy situations for themselves.

Advertising is about getting you to buy a certain product, engage with a certain brand, or perform a certain action. To be successful, many advertisers use psychology to get their messages across and achieve their goals.

From showcasing the right colors to using strategies such as showcasing cute animals or making you laugh, the advertising world uses many techniques to reach you.

The next time you see or hear a commercial, consider how it makes you feel: do the colors elicit a certain emotion? Do the images pull at your heart? Did the scenario make you laugh? If it does, that’s the psychology of advertising at work.

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