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Jon Flacke
by Jon Flacke
Nov 25, 2015
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Storytelling. Relationships. Connections. Emotion.

I’m guessing that upon reading those words, the first few things that pop into your head likely aren’t advertisements. But that may be changing, at least if advertisers have their way. Take this ad, for example:

Beside the somewhat unsettling nature of that child’s precocious delivery and accent, the video ad is effective at telling the story of a young boy’s idolization of his father and how playing with Legos has bolstered their relationship. 

Or how about this ad:

The gentle twinkling of the piano keys adds emotional weight to the intersecting images of a mother’s love. We witness them carry their children through life; fall after fall and failure after failure, persistent love allows their children to become Olympic athletes. It’s heartwarming, isn’t it? I particularly liked the documentary feel the ad has, with the handheld camera work providing a cinéma vérité feel. Now, we all know that P&G is deeply entrenched in almost every aspect of American life. One might question if they even need to advertise. But they didn’t become one of the largest corporate conglomerates in the world by resting on their laurels so perhaps it’s wise to unpack what is going on beneath the surface of this ad.

Writing for Psychology Today, Peter Noel Murray provides an illuminating look at the influences that determine what we buy and how we make decisions. There is one resounding answer to this question: emotion. Essentially, when we need to make a decision, we draw upon previous related experiences as well as the underlying emotions they produced in order to assign value to our choices. Emotion is so important to the process, in fact, that a study involving people whose synaptic connection between thoughts and emotions have been disrupted by brain damage found that these individuals experience great difficulty in making decisions. They can go through the process of gathering information and conceiving alternate choices but they are unable to make a final decision because they lacked the ability to feel one way or another about their options.  

Murray’s article goes one step further, and reports that functional MRI neuro-imagery demonstrates that consumers eschew information (facts and figures) and instead primarily utilize emotions (feelings and experiences) when making purchasing decisions.  Furthermore, emotional response to an advertisement has a greater effect on a consumer’s intent to buy than the actual content of the ad. In effect, advertisements tap into our shared human experiences and manipulate us into buying Pampers over Huggies. The message is clear: we are better, more caring mothers if we provide our children with P&G products. But it doesn’t stop there.

Through advertising, brands develop “personality characteristics” that are indistinguishable in our sensory-addled brains to those same characteristics we perceive in other people. These characteristics are communicated to us through packaging, buzzwords, and imagery. Similar to how we relate to certain people better than others, so too do we relate to particular marketing tactics better than others. These ads provide a narrative to the products that allow us to relate and connect to them in an ostensibly meaningful way. 

Beyond selling us a product, these ads are selling us an identity. I would presume that I’m not the only person riddled with insecurities that feels a sense of relief when my needs and desires are acknowledged and nurtured. Our identities are enmeshed in every facet of our lives: our clothes, cars, cell phones, and opinions are all meticulously compiled to present our “ideal selves” to the world. Advertisers are quite aware of this and have become successful at cluing us in to our desires through subtle suggestion. 

As our entertainment and access to it diversifies and becomes more compartmentalized and tailored to our specific tastes, you can bet that ads will follow suit. They will develop to be even more accurate and effective at appealing to aspects that make us different rather than that which makes us the same. Though we are, by and large, approximately equal in what we desire out of life (love, happiness, sex) it is the few variances in taste that makes us individuals and composes our identities. Advertisers have an unprecedented ability to engage with consumers on a more direct level, so get used to the idea that a commercial could one day make you cry.