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Ads work by cultural imprinting, not emotional inception (meltingasphalt.com)
142 points by philh on Sept 20, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 98 comments



There's an excellent book called Rational Ritual[1][2][3] which develops this idea much more fully. The thesis is that common knowledge (I know something, and I know everyone else knows it too) is very powerful and rationally drives people's behavior.

One of the arguments in the book revolves around the absurd pricing of advertising during big public events like the Super Bowl. If advertisers weren't concerned about the common knowledge aspect of their messages, they would air their ads when the cost per viewer is lowest. And you do see this with non-social goods, which tend to be advertised during off hours. But companies producing social goods like beer pay much more per viewer for prime-time and Super Bowl slots in order to get their product into the cultural zeitgeist. If you see something in a Super Bowl ad, you know most other people have seen it too.

[1] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9998.html

[2] PDF of the original 2001 manuscript: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/cpworkshop/papers/Chwe1.p...

[3] http://www.amazon.com/Rational-Ritual-Culture-Coordination-K...


It's not so clear coordination games apply to advertising though. The original applications of coordination games were in modelling economic situations in which there were benefits to mass coordination--events like bank runs and speculative currency attacks where there is an explicit monetary payoff for players to correctly identify and coordinate on a mutual outcome.

With advertising, it's not so clear whether people derive value from buying the same beer everyone is buying (although for certain products, sure). Is someone more inclined to buy a Corona or a bag of Doritos from merely knowing that others have seen the ad?

Then again, if the ad is particularly funny or surprising then knowing that others know about the ad certainly makes it easier to casually converse about the ad with others. Maybe then I'll buy a corona just for shits and giggles, who knows. If this is what is meant by 'entering the culture', then maybe this theory holds water. It just seems like a really expensive way to do it.


I would imagine the cost per viewer for a Super Bowl commercial isn't that high. Super Bowl commercials are expensive because there are so many viewers. In addition to the extra press surrounding them.


Super Bowl ads cost about the same per viewer as prime-time TV slots ($35 per thousand in 2014). Both cost about four times as much per viewer as daytime TV.

Primetime: http://www.tvb.org/trends/4718/4715

Daytime: http://www.tvb.org/trends/4718/4710


With daytime TV you can only reach consumers that are watching TV during the daytime though. That's a lot of potential customers that will never, ever see any of your ads.


I agree that the primary mechanism of ads is to affect the "landscape of cultural meanings" so that a product is associated with a broader meaning or image, but I don't think this is so different from the Mad Men philosophy, or that making purchasing decisions to feed your external image is so much more rational, and more relevant, than feeding your self-image.

Maybe you choose your household cleaners just to impress your guests. You wear Axe Body Spray because of what it communicates about you ("Hey girl, I'm wearing Axe Body Spray right now"). I don't need bystanders while I drink Corona in order to feel like I'm the kind of guy who'd rather be chilling on a beach far from the daily grind. I'm making a statement to myself about the kind of person I am, one who endorses those values or that fantasy.

There's got to be a way to take the bystander out of the equation. If we want to maintain the idea that we are all rational thinkers -- only "culture" is irrational, or other people's subconsciouses! -- how about: the advertiser is selling us a bit of meaning, thereby increasing the value of the product. Meaning is hard to obtain, and making purchasing decisions based on advertisements is one way for rational individuals to obtain this scarce resource.


A comment to the author of the article:

I don't agree with your point about non-immunity. Cultural imprinting works because it leverages the desire that humans have to portray a certain image or belong to a certain group.

As rational humans, we can eliminate the pull of such ads by building our own understanding about the group the ad is appealing to, and how that ad appeals to the group. Equipped with this understanding, we can find far more effective ways than drinking Corona to portray the image of being chill and relaxed.

Alternatively, we can reconsider our willingness to be included in that group. Once we realize the only thing binding Corona drinkers together is their collective vision of some beach, we might realize that there's more interesting people to drink with.


From the article:

>>>> The problem is that there's no escape, no immunity, from this kind of ad. Once we see it — and know that all our peers have seen it too — it's in our rational self-interest to buy the advertised product.

No it's not. That's where non-immunity falls down. For one thing, peer pressure is still only one factor in choosing a product, and we can still use our rational brains to weigh it against other factors. It only adds to the information at our disposal, but doesn't necessarily outweigh other information.

We might decide that tasty beer is more important than personal image, or that the social impact of our beer choice is either negligible or not worth paying extra for.


Maybe I'm just less aware of what other people do than others, but I find this fundamentally unconvincing (the argument that this explains most of what's usually considered emotional inception, not the existence of the phenomenon in some cases).

> Beer, soft drinks, gum, every kind of food (think backyard barbecues). Restaurants, coffee shops, airlines. Cars, computers, clothing. Music, movies, and TV shows (think about the watercooler at work). Even household products send cultural signals, insofar as they'll be noticed when you invite friends over to your home. Any product enjoyed or discussed in the presence of your peers is ripe for cultural imprinting.

Your choice of coffee shop or fast food communicates something to your peers if you're seen there, which, as far as I know, is often fairly uncommon, depending on your situation. It's nice to be culturally aware, but that doesn't constrain your consumption of music, movies, and TV too much (especially music) unless you watch very little. Nobody notices what brand of sneakers you're wearing... at least, I rarely even look down that far, and I can't believe other people are that different. Household products? Maybe once in a year.

Nor do I find all of the anecdotes convincing.

Bed sheets - sheets themselves may not be the hottest product category, but I've seen many mattress and mattress store commercials. Tempur-pedic, Sleepy's (I have heard that jingle so many times I doubt I will ever forget it), etc.

Gas stations - don't advertise because usually you don't have multiple stations right next to each other. Since the service is a commodity, everyone goes to the closest station.

Why not two-faced - because it's easier to remember something if it's clear, well-defined, and repeated often, and that includes unconscious associations. No need to bring in cultural factors.


Bed sheets - sheets themselves may not be the hottest product category, but I've seen many mattress and mattress store commercials. Tempur-pedic, Sleepy's (I have heard that jingle so many times I doubt I will ever forget it), etc.

Yes, but at least around here, mattress ads actually try to convince you about the quality of their products, by talking about the technology and showing how work. I've never seen an ad that was just a person sleeping peacefully, Corona-style.

Nobody notices what brand of sneakers you're wearing... at least, I rarely even look down that far, and I can't believe other people are that different.

Really? Do you know many teenagers? I don't look at them either, but I can tell you that both my sixteen-years-old brother and most of his friends definitely do.


Gas stations do advertise. Fill in the blank '___ with Techron'. You also see a list of gas stations at an interstate exit sign. http://www.kentucky.com/2011/09/05/1869947/ads-at-interstate... (third immage bottom right.)

Anyway, there are lot's of forms of advertizing. From informative "talk to your doctor about ED" to simply memorable. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVcbasIb8lQ

However, the cultural inception idea is not about some sort of Pavlovian response. You don't actually get to taste what's for sale in a supermarket, so it's an abstract choice. And with little to no information to work off of you make a split second decision after split second decision which is draining. In that situation simple familiarity is worth a lot. Similarly, your not actually going to test drive every car in your price range on the market.

That said, signaling is a big part of advertising. If nobody knows you just spent 20k on a watch it's harder to justify the purchase.


> Anyway, there are lot's of forms of advertizing.

I think this article is specifically referring to branding advertising as opposed to educational, informative, direct response, etc...

re: watch purchases, those that spend 20k on watches are usually people who can appreciate the amazing craftsmanship, mechanics, and art form behind it. Here is a mindblowing video of a Corum Golden Bridge being made. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOdmoGoh3ck

I am not discounting the status symbol of owning a $20k watch...but I could just as easily impress lots of people with a TAG watch for 1/10th the price. or a Patek Phillipe for half the price.


I agree mechanical watches are fun.

However, for comparison Intel is manufacturing at 14 nm which means their features size is ~30 atoms wide. Or ~1 million times more precise than those watches and few people care. High end watches became a status symbol in the 16th century and technology has simply progressed to the point where there low tech by comparison.

Anyway, people who buy 20k watches are generally the kind of people that can afford to buy them. It's simply not a major purchase to most of them.


Its not about the tech perspective of the mechanics, its about the fact that a human being crafted by hand this amazing mechanical watch. Personally, I am blown away that its even humanly possible to craft watches like this Golden Bridge by hand. Its like wearing an original picasso on your wrist.

There are plenty of people that can afford to purchase them that don't as well. I think you need a deep appreciation for the art to be comfortable dropping $20k on a watch even if its a drop in the bucket for you.


> insofar as they'll be noticed when you invite friends over to your home. Any product enjoyed or discussed in the presence of your peers is ripe for cultural imprinting.

While I disagree with the article for other reasons, your post is missing a fundamental point. Your behavior is based on what YOU think these products say about you socially, not whether they actually do say those things.


> Nobody notices what brand of sneakers you're wearing... at least, I rarely even look down that far, and I can't believe other people are that different.

Believe it. Many are.


Perhaps cultural imprinting is as much about reinforcing our self-image as it is about impressing our peers?


Oh man. That's a doozy. Well, uh.

>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.

Yeah. Yeah we are.

It looks like the author of this is just some random engineer without a lot of backround in marketing or persuasion psychology. That's a shame because he's clearly interested in it and it's a really cool field. Like the author, I'm not going to cite specific sources in this comment, but anything in it is probably covered in Cialdini's Influence (a fantastic starting point for persuasion psychology) or Gass & Seiter's Persuasion (which is not as easy to read as Influence but is a better textbook).

First off, advertisements definitely do work via simple association. Humans use liking as a heuristic for virtually all decisions (we decide in favor of things we like), so increasing liking increases purchases fairly reliably. A warmth appeal like a Coke ad with smiling faces will reliably create an association between Coke and positive emotions just because that's how humans are wired. If you activate two concepts together, you link them. This is just how humans work and is the basis of most of cognitive psychology. Many, many things make sense once you start to see things in terms of co-activation and priming.

The author calls this emotional inception, but that's sort of... not a real term, so I'll just call it association, which is the actual term. You do associate Coke with positivity after seeing it often enough. That's the basis on which observational learning works, and observational learning is pretty obviously a thing. If you don't believe me on that you can pretty simply replicate some Banderas experiments with a 6 year old if you happen to have one lying around.

The current cognitive model of persuasion closest to the truth (IMHO) is Kruglanski's Unimodel. But it's too complicated to explain here and the older models will work, so I'll use an older model here for the purposes of explanation. Older persuasion models posited that there were two routes to compliance: the central route, through the target's careful, rational consideration of options, and the peripheral route, through cognitively quick decisions made mostly on factors that are heuristic. This is a natural way of viewing things in a System 1/System 2 algorithms vs. heuristics world (for more on this see Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow).

Humans almost never spend enough time on a decision for it to be considered rational in any way. Humans are wired with a fairly small amount of heuristics and we use those for literally everything. Liking, availability, and conformity are all we can muster in most cases. The author dislikes this, but doesn't offer any reason why it isn't true, and doesn't present any science as to why it isn't true, so... sorry man, but you might just have to accept humans aren't rational. I know it might be difficult to be a libertarian after that, but I'm sure you'll deal.

Because of this, virtually all advertising is targeted at the peripheral route. All of the mechanisms the author discusses are peripheral cues: Associational priming to create liking, mere exposure effects, appeals to authority (sorry, saying 4/5 doctors recommend X is not a rational cue to buy X), brand image, resource expenditure (as if people who buy more expensive engagement rings are less likely to cheat -- I'd bet money the opposite is true!), and finally, what the author calls cultural imprinting, but is actually something like a mix of self-image manipuulation. Because of the mechanisms used for observational and social learning, images that don't actually give us food can create these cognitive links that later do cause us to buy products.

When you see the Corona add, you notice a few things. The first is probably the attractive person of the gender you're attracted to. The advertisers nicely put two of them there, so you could be anything but asexual and have something to salivate over. You notice the open space and clear skies, and the beach, something you probably have a positive association with already with lots of nice sensory cues. Very last, you'd notice the text, which you have to manually process, and you'd notice that it says "Find your beach", which implies that drinking Corona will make you feel similar to these things. The ad has communicated that Corona will make you attractive, calm, and relaxed, which are all nice things on their own. The ad also does, as the author points out, establish another association on the meta-level, between people who drink Corona and people who have these qualities. This isn't terribly different from any of the other aspects of the ad, though, and it's certainly not a different mechanism. Ultimately it all comes down to making associations.

I really hope the author and other interested people get into the actual science behind persuasion. It's a really fun field and it's very rewarding.


After 5 years of getting my degree in psychology the dirty little secret I have found is this: all of the persuasion studies are incredibly appealing to marketers and the general pop and also the researchers who are incentivized by money and reputation. Making deep insights is akin to crack for a scientist.

But the truth is most effects and mechanisms are overemphasized and exaggerated, because it makes a more compelling story. That is not to say that many of the mechanisms and factors that are reported aren't real or influential, it's just that they are over-hyped, over-appreciated or less understood than the academics reporting these studies back to the public care to admit.

You are putting far too much weight on the power of association in advertising. Much of the benefits of branding can be explained in a much more parsimonious manner. If given the choice between a and b, you will probably pick the one that is more familiar to you. Advertising works best if it gets people's attention. If you think people drink Dos Equis because people subconsciously think it will make them as cool as the Dos Equis man, you've been drinking the Koolaid. No, it works because it's funny, memorable and it gets a lot of exposure.


Definitely, this is exactly my understanding based on what I've read on the subject.

Pepsi markets way more than Coke. It's adverts are usually funnier and all around 'better'. However, that only works on a raw customer who's never built an association. I like coke, I think Pepsi is too sweet. If Pepsi is half off and come isn't, sure I'll grab a case of pepsi because it's now an unequal choice.

This is the same for everything. Marketing is only brand awareness. It does not sell a single thing. I will not see an advert for ladies tights and go "oh, as a man I really need a pair of nude tights!" You can market it all you want, run it for every second of every advert break of every day, put a billboard outside every window of my house, play audio on police speakers. I'm not gonna buy a fucking pair of tights.

However, the day I'm at the store and my wife sends me a text and says "I need a pair of tights for tonight" I'm probably gonna remember the company who raided my house in swat gear and strapped me into a chair and Clockwork Oranged me.

On a perfectly level playing field, marketing is an advantage by making the field unlevel. However, between massive conglomerates where everyone on earth knows the competing sides and everyone has tried both, marketing is just maintaining the field. Whomever stops marketing risks being mistaken as no longer around.

It's no different than me picking between two friends of mine who both do roofing. If I haven't seen Bob in six months, I'm assuming he's dead and I just hand it to Joe I saw on Tuesday.

Advertising is just a large scale way of saying "hey, I'm still here! I'm just waiting on when you're ready."

The notion advertising sells anything is absurd. The notion that not advertising costs you sales is very real.


>The notion advertising sells anything is absurd. The notion that not advertising costs you sales is very real.

So in other words, advertising gains sales. Half-full vs. half-empty.


No, not at all.

Advertising doesn't generate additional sales for an existing player it merely maintains the status quo. Not advertising destroys the status quo and loses you sales that existed when people become unaware you even sell a product.


I'd definitely agree that they're over-hyped, that said, they are incredibly effective in aggregate even if the individual effect sizes can be small. They don't need to be incredibly effective, either, just more effective than the competition.


> It looks like the author of this is just some random engineer without a lot of backround in marketing or persuasion psychology. That's a shame because he's clearly interested in it.

Little parenthesis: if you're interested in a subject, make the effort to read about it from well established sources (very often, books). The author of the posted article relies on sources like LifeHacker and pop psychology journalism to build his knowledge and make his claims, but those are clearly shallow, insufficient, and inaccurate.

I feel like this is a problem that the internet has created- it makes it possible to feel knowledgeable in certain topics after reading a lot of informal web pages on a given topic, but very often that content is far from being authoritative. Reading less blogs/pop journalism/etc. and more books from established academics is one of the most beneficial moves you can do for the depth and accuracy of your various bodies of knowledge.


That sounds nice, but in practice it's extremely difficult because academics have very little incentive to make their rigorous research discoverable, much less accessible, to laymen. I agree that arm-chair theorizing is almost always a waste of time, but a layman probably contributes more by trying to bring his own particular expertise (software engineering or whatever) to bear on the problem -- on the off chance that he makes a novel insight -- than by sinking himself in the literature.


Influence is maybe a hundred pages, very accessible, and written by one of the foremost persuasion researchers out there.

You're just justifying laziness. Software engineering does not, in fact, qualify you to comment on human minds, which are very different from software. Presumably you wouldn't accept design advice from a doctor because of some claimed way to bring medical practices to bear on software engineering.


I don't do software, I'm an academic. At least in my subfield, I have a pretty good idea how many unnecessary barriers stand between laymen and the expert wisdom, and how how often experts use their expertise as a way to dismiss outside views without consideration. That's true even though, at the same time, most outside views are a waste of time (as I mentioned).

He's writing a blog post, and you don't need to be qualified to do that.

"Influence" is a fine book and I encourage everyone to read it including the OP. But that does't mean OP did something wrong, or was lazy, by using his finite amount of time to write up his thought.


I find introductory textbooks created for those who study the subject at college / university a nice middle ground.

They are not always cheap or in ebook form so libraries are useful. They require more effort to read than popsci books but you learn so much more and they are considerably easier to digest than academic papers.


>academics have very little incentive to make their rigorous research discoverable, much less accessible, to laymen

This is sad but true. I wonder, in the end, what is the purpose of the scientific journals where academic papers get published? Long ago I hoped that the purpose was to bring the knowledge created to all those who are interested. Why else would anybody publish anything if not to make it available to others. Then I discovered these journals are all paywalled. And in December the Elsevier vs Academia.edu incident happened. I find the situation disappointing.

Knowledge created in academia should be available to everyone to the benefit of mankind. I think that is part of the academic spirit.


There's an issue with pursuing these kinds of newly-discovered interests: You have no idea what they're called. He's calling it "cultural imprinting", but I learned it as "lifestyle advertising". Neither turns up much on the google (well, his does, but it turns up his own article)


Not to mention that the majority of articles written on subjects like these are pushed to the top of the reading charts because they differ with the authoritative narrative you might learn in a textbook.

I feel it is important to realize that this person is posting an article on this subject (and you are reading it) because it strays from the commonly known, not because it is ubiquitous.

Filling your knowledge base with the exceptions is a good way to make yourself knowledgeable on a lot of incorrect or unsupported theories.


yet he managed to lay the current landscape of how ads are perceived just fine. even if he missed the obvious academic term and coined an awful one instead...


The background you provide is helpful but doesn't really seem incompatible with Simler's essay. It seems your reading assumes that the distinction between emotional inception and cultural imprinting is the level of consciousness & rationality implied, but that is not the only interpretation.

Emotional inception vs. cultural imprinting might instead be considered a partition of the subconscious "association" space into first and second order effects, which are of course concurrent, and both of which are "quick" heuristics. Cultural imprinting is then the simulation mechanism underlying self-image manipulation, as you mention.

(as an aside, more Kruglanski references would be helpful, and maybe less ad hominem)


I upvoted this comment, but it would be a lot better without the condescension. Seriously, what does that tone add? You can easily signal your expertise without it.


Expertise? He just blatantly failed at using it.


I feel like you're dismissing the article without responding to its arguments. E.g., why don't we (often) see bedsheet ads in the same style as corona or coke ads? Why don't brands dilute themselves to appeal to more sections of the market?

I also feel like you're using the word "rational" differently to the author. It seems like he's using it to mean roughly "sensible", and you're using it to mean something more like "well-reasoned". We don't spend a lot of time on our decisions, but that doesn't mean we're making bad decisions. If system one is causing us to make good decisions without thinking about it, that seems like it falls under the author's idea of "rational", but not yours.


While some of what you say is true, it actually doesn't do a good job of explaining Brand advertising, which is exactly what the article naively seems to do a pretty good job of. (I have read Influence by the way). The writer states he is coining the term "emotional inception" (which is catchy so why not?) so pointing out it's not a real thing is just a cheap point.

The first points he makes about a lot of advertising simply being true or intended to be true are very valid, and sidestep persuasion theory altogether (since it is chiefly concerned with persuasion via heuristic).

The point about cultural imprinting (or whatever you want to call it) is, again naively quite insightful and explains brand advertising rather well. Of course a lot of this cultural imprinting is simply intended to trigger standard persuasive principles sometime down the line. (Corona is a beer drunk by relaxed, young, attractive people; that's the crowd I want to identify with, so I'll drink Corona -- this is classic social proof, one of Cialdini's six principles. And, incidentally, this works best on people being forced to make a decision that makes little difference, such as pick a beer or laundry soap.)

So the problem isn't so much that the thesis is wrong, as that it is naively right, but is simply explaining the mechanism by which existing theory in fact applies.


I'm pretty sure what the article says isn't incompatible with Cialdini's Influence at all. IIRC he also says that the more publicly an individual takes a position, the more they feel the need to remain congruent with that position in future. When people decide they want to be seen as a certain kind of person, they want to remain consistent with that. That's why if you want to reach a goal, you should tell as many of your friends and family about it as possible so you risk "losing face" if you fail.

I see this article as basically working the same way. Brands advertise "hey, if you're a chilled out guy drink this beer". Someone decides they want to be seen as a chilled out guy, so they go and buy that beer to reinforce the image they want to convey.

> First off, advertisements definitely do work via simple association... A warmth appeal like a Coke ad with smiling faces will reliably create an association between Coke and positive emotions just because that's how humans are wired.

That sounds like if I was bombarded of pictures of people smiling drinking coke I might forget that it tastes like crap and want to drink it.

So perhaps the social experience someone has when they turn up as the "chilled beer guy" is more valuable to them than the other fuzzy associations the advertiser tries to convey - because the advertiser is making associations that don't have much impact compared to the impact of a real life, human interaction. That's what the guy is talking about when he basically says that the flaw of the 'association' argument is that there's insufficient feedback, only visual cues rather than, say, receiving a massage.

So to summarise I think you're overly confident regarding the power of association by ignoring the social proof aspects and consistency of self image that come with knowing that other people have the same brand associations. I think it's entirely plausible that someone would use those associations as a short cut to convey the self image they want to.


>When people decide they want to be seen as a certain kind of person, they want to remain consistent with that. That's why if you want to reach a goal, you should tell as many of your friends and family about it as possible so you risk "losing face" if you fail.

Commitment/consistency pressure is another well-studied technique; more used in sales than advertising for obvious reasons. It's also a peripheral cue rather than a central cue.

I think the article is an attempt to make human behavior in the face of advertising seem economically rational. It's explicitly so, in fact. This just isn't true.

>hat's what the guy is talking about when he basically says that the flaw of the 'association' argument is that there's insufficient feedback, only visual cues rather than, say, receiving a massage.

You are ignoring that observational learning exists. You should study this concept (observational learning specifically) and then come back to this article and make a more informed judgment.


> That sounds like if I was bombarded of pictures of people smiling drinking coke I might forget that it tastes like crap and want to drink it.

It certainly seems that you have made your opinion on coke, and that it's a strong one. Pictures of smiling people won't obviously overturn that, they don't have that large power, but in this case, you are not a target group.

However, imo majority of people don't have that strong opinon, and the less of that they have, the proportionally larger the weak influence of advertising will become.


his point is mostly that just by living around people influenced by those ads you have to assimilate the meaning if only for communication, even if you're not affected/not part of the target demographic


> That's why if you want to reach a goal, you should tell as many of your friends and family about it as possible so you risk "losing face" if you fail.

If only that were the case, that would be grand. The opposite tends to be true more of the time. http://www.psych.nyu.edu/gollwitzer/09_Gollwitzer_Sheeran_Se...


I'm glad you linked to that; I think it's a great study.

Personally, I think there are probably goals more suitable for using social pressure for, and goals more suitable to keep secret. But I've still kept most of my goals secret until I have at least an MVP so I don't fall victim to the short-ciruiting mentioned in the article.


Yeah. Yeah we are.

How do you know? The "science of persuasion" sounds like something I will read about tomorrow in an article about problems with replicating its results.

Not to mention that not spending enough time on making a decision can be rational, as in rational ignorance.


>How do you know? The "science of persuasion" sounds like something I will read about tomorrow in an article about problems with replicating its results.

How can you know anything, spindritf? Indeed.

Attaining any absolute proof is generally regarded as impossible in the philosophy of science due to the problem of induction. As such, science has shifted from logical positivism (requiring verification of ideas as truth) to falsificationism (judging ideas on the amount of evidence in favor of them up to the point at which they become falsified).

Now, the mechanisms I mentioned have been replicated many times, by different researchers, and are mostly between 30-40 years old, but if the pop science press has entirely turned you off anything but LHC results because you pattern-match it to "something that might have problems replicating" you could also reassure yourself based on the massive, billions-a-year advertising industry that is largely based on a combination of artistic talent and these principles. If this doesn't convince you that these results are at the very least operationally useful instead of "true" in some Platonic sense, I don't know what could.

Indeed, heuristics exist because they worked over the course of human evolution. But those heuristics might not be best now, nor are they unable to be manipulated by advertisement.


the mechanisms I mentioned have been replicated many times, by different researchers

Could you offer some references?


No. I'm not going to hold your hand and feed you links. You'll go off and get another link and think that your link is as good as my links.

I mentioned two books in my first comment. Read them. They summarize about a half century of research.


>No. I'm not going to hold your hand and feed you links. You'll go off and get another link and think that your link is as good as my links.

k. Who are you, random pseudo-anonymous hacker news commenter? And why are your links superior?

On the internet, anyone can claim that what they are saying is what is actually correct. And no matter how much they think what they are saying is actually correct, the burden of proof is on them, not the reader, to prove it.


> sorry, saying 4/5 doctors recommend X is not a rational cue to buy X

If we assume for a moment that 4/5 doctors really do recommend X, and that X is something related to one's health, why is it not a rational cue to buy X?


Doctors are human and are subject to the same cognitive biases as everyone else.

What you want is a bunch of statisticians looking at the research and patient outcomes.


If 4/5 dentists (with no financial motivations) were asked "is there one brand of toothpaste in particular that you recommend?" and answered "toothident", then that would be a sensible reason to use toothident.

(If a bunch of statisticians looked at the research and patient outcomes and disagreed, then that would be an even more sensible reason not to. But in lieu of that, we expect dentists to have a reasonable idea what they're talking about.)

What actually happens (or so I hear) is that dentists are asked "do you recommend brushing twice a day with toothpastes such as toothident", and they say yes, because even though they've never heard of toothident, brushing your teeth is a good idea.

So an ad that seys "4/5 dentists recommend toothident" doesn't actually mean that 4/5 dentists recommend toothident, and is not a sensible reason to buy toothident. But the way people interpret the ad is a sensible reason to buy toothident, it's just false.


> If 4/5 dentists (with no financial motivations) were asked "is there one brand of toothpaste in particular that you recommend?" and answered "toothident", then that would be a sensible reason to use toothident.

No! Just because they think it works doesn't mean it does work. Toothident might be the first toothpaste that comes to mind but that doesn't mean it's better than any other toothpaste - and it might be worse than other toothpastes. Perhaps the toothident company just have much better pens and sticky fixit pads than the other toothpaste companies.


Yes, those things might be true. But I don't know anything about the pens and sticky fixit pads of the different toothpaste companies, and I have no reason to expect it correlates (in either direction) with toothpaste quality, so knowing this shouldn't change my decision. It should make me less confident in my decision, but not change it.

Toothident is more likely to be recommended by 4/5 dentists in a world where it is better than other toothpastes, than in a world where it is worse.

So by Bayes theorem, if we see that 4/5 dentists recommend toothident, this is evidence that toothident is better than other brands of toothpaste.

It's not necessarily strong evidence, but it is definitely evidence. (And I do actually think it's fairly strong, if you can get 4/5 dentists to specifically recommend that one without priming them.)


Toothident is more likely to be recommended by 4/5 dentists if it is much better known than the best toothpaste, and advertising achieves that.

Edit- Also dentists are not necessarily particularly rational. I know a dentist who told me that she rejects evidence based medicine and thinks that we should use traditional Chinese medicine instead. She isn't Chinese, she is a British middle-class hippy and when I asked her about the effect on rare species, she said that rare species are never used in Chinese medicine. I then asked her if she supports evidence based medicine when her patients are anesthetized, or does she think the dosage should be guessed and she said she didn't know what that had to do with it. Also, 5 is a tiny sample. From a sample of 5 dentists, 4 might tell you that the second coming of Christ is imminent, but that would tell you very little about either Christ's travel plans, or the opinions of dentists.


> Toothident is more likely to be recommended by 4/5 dentists in a world where it is better than other toothpastes, than in a world where it is worse.

This is false and it is dangerous.

Dentists are not experts in toothpaste; they're not experts in the latest toothpaste research.

A dentist recommending toothident will probably have no idea about whether toothident is better or worse than some other toothpaste.

For a real world example of this see knee arthroscopy for rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors would recommend this surgery over other treatments until placebo[1] controlled trials found little benefit.

"X out of Y experts recommend $THING" would be a terrible reason to chose $THING over $OTHERTHING unless you have imformation about why they recommend it and how they made that decision.


My argument doesn't rely on dentists being experts on toothpaste. It relies on them knowing more than I do about toothpaste, on average.

I can think of plausible mechanisms that would discriminatingly push an unusually good toothpaste to the top of dentists' recommendations. Offhand, I can't think of any that would discriminatingly push an unusually bad toothpaste up there.

By "discriminatingly", I mean that e.g. advertising would work just as well for a good toothpaste as a bad one. But "the evidence suggests that this toothpaste is actually really good" is more likely to show up for a good toothpaste than a bad one. And I can't think of anything which is more likely to recommend a bad toothpaste than a good one.

So if I think there's a 90% chance that toothident is only recommended because of advertising, then I have no reason to think that toothident is particularly good or bad; but if there's a 10% chance that dentists do actually have a reason to recommend toothident, then I should use toothident, because I have no reason to favour anything else.

Certainly there are cases where this goes wrong, but I never claimed it was infallible.


It sounds as though you are assuming that the signal that dentists receive from advertising will be equal for all toothpastes and so the signal from some evaluation of knowledge of toothpaste quality will still be enough to make the better product be the one they recommend.


I'm not assuming that. Advertising is noise, and knowledge is signal. I can't cancel out the noise, I can only observe noise+signal. But I expect the noise to be uncorrelated with the signal, which means that wherever noise+signal is highest is my best bet for where noise is highest.

The more noise there is relative to signal, the less effective this method gets, but it's still better than any other strategy (in this toy model).


What makes you think the signal is stronger than the noise?


It doesn't need to be. My argument never assumed that. I don't know where you get the impression that it did.

Take nine 0s and a single 1, then generate ten random numbers, identically distributed however you choose, and add one of them to each of your starting numbers. Ask someone to pick out where the original 1 was. However you generated the random numbers, their best strategy is to choose the largest resulting number.

Probably tapping out here.


Advertising isn't random or independent of the signal - it's systematic bias.


The ads never mention that they actual asked 100 dentists, found 4 who recommended it, added one of the non recommending ones to make it seem less cheesy, resulting in 4 out of 5 that we picked recommending our product. There is no law requiring a mention of the other 95 opinions.


> A warmth appeal like a Coke ad with smiling faces will reliably create an association between Coke and positive emotions

If it's all just associations, then when I want to feel happy, I would go look at Coke ads, not buy Coke.


Maybe, think of the excitement you get from anticipating a holiday or new phone, the difficult bit would be tricking yourself in to believing it without going ahead with the purchase.


So how come this doesn't work for me? I am not influenced by advertising in the least. I find it all equally annoying.

I'm not being pretentious, but when I look at the stuff I buy (and I'm as materialistic as the next person, slightly obsessed with 'design', and attached to a brand like Apple), none of it I've seen in ads.

Advertising uniformly has the effect of pissing me off and can even turn me off brands. And I'm not a unique snowflake, my wife is exactly the same.

I honestly cannot fathom why any intelligent human being would be influenced by something as unsubtle and obvious as advertising.


The irony of a person being "attached to a brand like Apple" and claiming he is not influenced by advertising is so rich it's hard to take it all in one setting. I may have to ask for a takeout box to take some home with me.


Not that I doubt the efficacy of Apple's marketing in any way, but it's perfectly possible to be attached to a brand for fairly rational reasons. If you have a good history with the company and have had consistently positive experiences/interactions, buying regularly from the same brand can make perfect sense.


Thinking advertising annoys you doesn't mean it doesn't influence you. In fact it probably influences you more then you think - you dwell on it. You think why it annoys you. But at the end of the day "buy Coca-Cola!" was still the last message in your head and you probably spent more time thinking about it.

There was a McDonalds ad on the radio a while back which had a combination of, not unpleasant but slightly annoyingly pronounced voices talking about their breakfast menu. I couldn't stand it. Tended to switch the radio off when it came on. And yet here I am, years later, telling you exactly which brand it was advertising and what it was advertising.


Precisely - advertising, especially for larger brands, is just as much about getting you to buy stuff as it is about awareness.

For example, next time you're on a road trip and you have a choice between mcdonalds and a lesser known chain and you are hungry, you'll be more likely to go to the familiar McDonald's.

Or you might even tell your friends about how much you don't like McDonald's ads, but in the process you just told your friends about McDonald's, thus perpuating the chain.


Isn't that exactly what the article said in its Drano example? If McD wanted to say "guys, we have new breakfast menu", they succeeded. Being remembered for years though is useless for that purpose. If they had to do it in annoying form that may have to do more with justifying ads budgets or seeking artistical fulfillment on the side of the ad makers than with its effectiveness.

Brand recognition is definitely important but I don't think there's anybody in US past the age of 6 that doesn't know what McDonalds is. Well, maybe excluding Amish, but even that not sure. So all that theory "you told you friends about McDonalds" sounds nonsensical - I doubt there is somebody on HN who didn't know what McDonalds is and if there is, this information is probably useless for him as he doesn't have any McDonalds around him anyway and he never traveled anywhere where McDonalds is (because otherwise he'd already know about it). Of course, there's a marginal case of a traveler from a remote rainforest village coming into US for the first time and immediately visiting McDonalds basing on his past HN experience, but come on - does it really happen often enough for McD marketing to spend any time thinking about it?


Knowing something and hearing about it many times a week are two very different things. Why do you think product placement exists in shows/movies/sports/etc? Everybody knows what Nike is.


And what exactly McD achieved by this except fame on HN as a maker of annoying ads? So you eat in McD more in general or breakfasts specifically? If not, that ad failed.


> So how come this doesn't work for me? I am not influenced by advertising in the least. I find it all equally annoying.

Like all knowledge, this is probabilistic. Variance exists and a mechanism that will reliably cause an effect will not cause that effect to the same degree to 100% of the human population. Individual differences do exist.

>I honestly cannot fathom why any intelligent human being would be influenced by something as unsubtle and obvious as advertising.

Then you are ignorant of the workings and mechanisms of a very massive industry and research area. That is not a thing to be proud of.


Thats what a lot of people think. "decoded" a great book about it. http://www.amazon.com/Decoded-The-Science-Behind-Why/dp/1118...


> It's a really fun field and it's very rewarding.

I'll bet it is. ;)

In all seriousness, have you seen tangible benefits in your interactions with others from your interest in persuasion?


This argument is spot on but we resist it because we think we are above culture, too smart for it, that we can reduce everything to science, analysis, and engineering. The opposite is true. Culture is everything. Your brain does not receive ads in a kind of tabula rasa clean room environment. Thanks for articulating this!


"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."

When I was adolescent I went to a(my first) music concert, it was an incredible experience, I even met my first girlfriend there. I was surprised that it was Coca Cola everywhere.

For me this was freedom(from my home environment), adventure, joy, friendship, and even sex.

Way more than pixels on the screen.

Today is not Coca Cola. I do B.A.S.E jumping, love going downhill with my bike and when I go to see or meet the Gods of the trail or Skydiving doing incredible things(them,not me) I see REDBULL EVERYWHERE in the events they participate.

Pixels on the screen are probably not that good, but they affect millions at the same time.

Lots of people watch porn, even when it is just "pixels on the screen".

A significant part of the advertising industry do not use pixels at all, they use text, they are called "copywriters" and what they do is tell stories.


Complete nonsense. Do you really believe that comms majors are being tought cultural inception in undergrad? The Corona ad, like all ads, is a response ne to a brief that is designed to address a business objective. In this case get people to drink Corona not just in the Summer. Hence find your own beach even if you live in Minnesota in the Winter and would normally reach for a winter beer. We don't sit around at agencies with our clients discussing the best way to mind fuck the public. Ads are tested on awareness, purchase intent, brand association and message association. Creatives reach for the stars. Clients and strategists pull them back to earth. Depending on the people involved. Some ads are great. Some suck. Case closed. - Ad Agency Guy (BTW none of us watch Mad Men)


How they're made doesn't explain why they work or not. But having said that if that ad was run in the winter it could be interpreted in a very different way to if it was a summer campaign.


Lots of theory here but surely there's some solid science that can address these ideas?


It's quite simple to suggest an experiment to prove the article's point (which I find very convincing).

Look at an ad for a product you own (e.g. iPhone) that you perceive as conveying some form of emotion. Now, go use that product.

Do you feel the emotion portrayed in the ad?

To make this more scientific, expand the above test to a few hundred people. Query their emotional state with a survey (or possibly by facial expressions, if that's considered an accurate means of evaluating emotional response). Do this for a number of products, ensuring that boring products (e.g. household cleaning products) are included to rule out emotion generated from the intrinsic properties of the product. Then check for the existence/non-existence of a correlation between the emotion felt and the emotion portrayed.


That experiment would not accurately test the emotional inception theory. The theory states that given ads associating a product with a positive emotion, people will eventually feel that emotion when they see the product in the store, and be compelled to buy it. Your experiment tests whether people feel that emotion when they use the advertised product after having bought it. You might assume that these answers would match, but that is a dangerous and unnecessary assumption.

I have an idea for a more accurate experiment. Survey a number of people about what brands of some product they buy, if any. The product should be something that does not currently have many ads for it (like bedsheets), so that cultural imprinting is not a factor. Then send them a weekly email newsletter on some random topic. Each newsletter would also contains ads for a certain brand of that product.

The people would be split into two groups. For half of them, the ad for the product tries to associate the brand with a positive image. For the other half, the ad tries to associate the brand with a neutral image, while otherwise keeping the text the same. This splitting into groups ensures that “honest signaling” is not a confounding factor.

To ensure that the participant opens the newsletter and sees the ads, participants would be asked to search each newsletter for a piece of information and reply to the email with that information.

After three months of the newsletters, participants would be surveyed again about what brands of the product they buy, if any. If emotional imprinting theory is accurate, the participants who were shown the positive images should have increased their purchasing of that brand of product more than the neutral-image participants increased their purchasing.


The article itself sort of suggests a way. Gather data on how much advertisers are spending on television ads. See if there's a super-linear correlation between non-fragmented audience size and ad dollars spent.


All oversimplified models are naive nonsense, especially those which were developed to contradict another oversimplified models.

It is the same flaw as to say 'clouds cannot be of this or that particular shape, they are always of this or that'.

There are too many 'variables' in what we could call the [naive] psychology of a mind or so called Froidian psychology. Any undergraduate cognitivist would tell.

It is not the naive this-OR-that 'logic' according which mental processes work. It is this-AND-that logic.

BTW the author probably should study Wikipedia article about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is, of course, yet another oversimplified model.)


This article Is based on an incorrect assumption of the utility and function of branding ads. they don't change perception...they don't make a new impression...they support a pre existing perception and reinforce it.

Brand perceptions and this cultural imprinting he refers to are driven by word of mouth, media coverage, and third party validation... Once we have a perception- ads reminds us of it.

Yes, ego and peer pressure are strong emotional drivers of purchase behavior but so are dozens of other emotions we satisfy with various purchases.


I've heard of this idea before under the term "Lifestyle Advertising". You don't sell the product, you sell a "culture" that "exists", with your product being a means to signal "membership" in that "culture".

Things to Google:

- LessWrong "Applause Lights" - Burning Man Ten Principles (specifically, Decommodification, Radical Self-Expression, and Participation)

PS - I really like the point about "you need to know that everyone else knows what this means..." - that's a good point!


> It suggests that human preferences can be changed with nothing more than a few arbitrary images.

"You're never alone with a Strand" seems like a reasonable counter.

> Q: Have you ever seen an ad for bed sheets? Can you even name a brand of bed sheet? If ads work by emotional inception, wouldn't you expect to have seen at least a few ads trying to incept you with the idea that Brand X bed sheets are going to brighten your day?

Yes, I do see ads for bed sheets and for bed sheet makers. The author is just looking in the wrong places.


The Ehrenberg Bass Institute has quantitative marketing/advertising/brand results going back to the 50s. If you're interested in the math, I recommend checking out How Brands Grow by EBI director, Byron Sharp.

[1] http://www.marketingscience.info

[2] http://www.amazon.com/How-Brands-Grow-What-Marketers/dp/0195...


>> Q: Have you ever seen an ad for bed sheets? Can you even name a brand of bed sheet? If ads work by emotional inception, wouldn't you expect to have seen at least a few ads trying to incept you with the idea that Brand X bed sheets are going to brighten your day? [2]

By the same theory we should rarely ever see ads for mattresses too, since their "consumption is purely obscure". And yet, I'm bombarded by ads for mattresses everywhere.


I've seen a lot of ads, for example, for household cleaning products (dishwashers, detergents, sponges, soaps, etc.) which are not social at all - they actually even more a-social than bedsheets, your house guests may happen to notice your bedsheets but would rarely know which soap you use to wash your dishes or windows. So while it sounds very persuasive for some products, one may easily poke holes in the concept applied universally.


As the author mentioned at the beginning of the article, ads for household cleaning products work by making promises (if you use X toothpaste, your breath will smell fresher for 24 hours), instead of creating cultural signals (Beyonce drinks Pepsi).


Well there is an element of cultural signaling going on. Washing up liquid like 'Fairy' in the UK usually feature an attractive mother in a middle class white household dealing with the state of their children's (usually boys) clothes after they've come home from soccer practise or school or what have you. The ad isn't saying Beyonce endorses the product, but it is saying that yes! you too can be like this supermom and effortlessly and jovially clean your kid's clothes for school tomorrow, so you look like a neglectful parent thanks to Fairy. Trust Fairy. Live Fairy. Fairy is love. Fairy is life.


I don't buy it. This advertisement, especially the unreleased version narated by Steve Jobs, gives me goosebumps every time I watch it: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzu6zeLSWq8

I had such a strong emotional response to it that I remember watching it for the first time vividly from when I was little.


I would love to read this article in a shorter, more concice format. From the paragraphs I read the author spends most of his time trying to describe the common (mis)conceptions held by a layman in advertising by giving numerous citations and examples, which is weird and repetitive when his argument is that we already know and hold the assumptions.


"You could swap in a Budweiser or Heineken and no information would be lost."

Corona is a lighter beer, which is what you want on a hot beach where you're sweating and thirsty.

Yahoo Answers: Corona - 4.6% Heineken - 5.4% Budweiser - 5.0%


The abundance of laundry detergent, mop, swiffer, and other home cleaning ads seems like a counterexample to the points about bed sheets and gas stations. Toilet paper ads are another counterexample.


Imho a good ad, and more broadly a good brand, both has a cultural imprint piece and a "emotional inception" piece.

Think of Chick Fil A. They've taken a strong stand on same sex marriage. They've made a cultural imprint on you in that you either support or don't support that lifestyle. So far so good right?

However, you also feel something about that. You're either happy or upset about their brand. So not only are you associating that brand with your lifestyle, you're also having a feeling about that brand.


thinking fast and slow is the book for you. nobel prize winner gives the skinny... and yeah, there's actual experiments that show merely familiarity breeds positive responses. NB there's a bit of commentary going on at the moment about the reproducibility of the experiments in this field




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