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Psychology and Advertising

Psychology and Advertising

I recently met with Brendon Knott, a Clinical Psychologist with Esteem Psychology and the brains behind Newcastle Comedy, both being long standing psyborg® clients. We chatted about how psychology is used in advertising and how advertising effects the psyche.

We took a peak behind the curtain of advertising where we discuss how advertisements use communication to stir emotion with the intent to change human behaviour. We also look at how psychological techniques are used by brands to move people’s behaviour towards their products.

Advertising is used to stir emotion

Advertisements are created to make people feel something and/or change people’s behaviour in a way that benefits the company. From a psychological point of view, advertisers use specific stimuli in their advertisement to elicit certain emotional and behavioural responses within consumers. These responses are technically called ‘stimulus functions’.

For example, if we see a cup of coffee as the feature of an advertisement we see that it is made up of various stimuli; the colour, shape and smell associated. When people view the stimuli associated with a cup of coffee most peoples immediate response is similar, but we also have more unique reactions that develop from personal experiences with coffee. For example the coffee cup may remind you of a coffee date you have later that day, or the smell imagined from the ad may remind you of your father as he drank a coffee every morning. In advertising, companies tap into these stimuli and familiar experiences, enhance them and create stories around them so you engage with the intention to sell more product.

Advertisers can influence consumers by attempting to elicit a positive emotional state, or by attempting to tap into more aversive emotional states. An advertisement may feature images of happy families, big smiles, desirable people, or people having fun or experiencing social reinforcement, which may all elicit positive emotions. In the same way, advertisers may play on negative emotions, trying to bring the consumer’s behaviour under aversive control.

In behaviour under aversive control, the threat or presence of an aversive stimulus influences behaviour. In the case of advertising, the threat of social exclusion, the threat of not being accepted or not being judged as cool or beautiful may be potent motivating factors. People with pre-existing anxieties or insecurities in these areas may be even more vulnerable to this type of advertising, believing that the product being advertised may provide them with the emotional relief of these fears and anxieties.

Advertising tries to appeal to the majority

Advertisers choose to use generic universally appealing elements to sell products. For example they use actors in adverts that are desirable, good looking and well groomed because consumers want to be like them, or see themselves as becoming more like them if they were to use the product or brand. So toothpaste ads have good-looking people who have straight, white teeth with a perfect smile. Advertisers want consumers to believe that they will have a smile like that if they were to buy this product. As a consumer, when you go to the shop and see two toothpastes side by side, probably containing the exact same ingredients, yet you choose the product from the advertisement with the belief that it is the better product that will give you the best outcome, often paying an extra 50% for a product that will give you the same outcome as it’s competitor.

This is interesting, as it means that consumers do not usually make choices based on the actual quality of a product or its actual superiority over other products. This information is often not even available to consumers (especially as advertising companies are unlikely to be overly truthful in this area). Most often it is other factors which come to bear on the decision to choose one product over another. Some of these factors may be in the consumer’s awareness, and some may not be noticed at all (see my blog article on the Neuroscience of Branding for more information about this point).

Advertising uses rule governed behaviour

Rule governed behaviour is a psychological term used to describe the human capacity to learn something new, or to engage in a behaviour without having any prior experience or learning with that behaviour. An example might be if someone tells you “You should try this new drink, it’s absolutely amazing!”. If you go ahead and try the drink, this is an example of rule governed behaviour, as you have no prior learning which confirms that the drink is amazing. We do not simply follow any rule given to us by any person however, and we must see the person presenting us with the rule as being credible in some way to maximise the chance that we will follow the rule. Rule governed behaviour is one of the most common behavioural strategies advertisers utilise to get consumers to engage in a new behaviour (i.e. buying their product if they have not done so before).

So just imagine this, you want to buy some pain medication and a new product hits the market, there is an advertisement of an old, homeless looking man who looks like he might have ‘had a few’ that day recommending the medication. Would you buy it? The majority probably wouldn’t. Our brain automatically sees this as being not credible and dismisses the product, but if we shave the mans 3 day growth, give him a wash up and put a white coat on him, he now looks like a pharmacist or Doctor. Would you buy it from him now? We have all been culturally shaped to learn internal rules about doctors, and scientists being smart, informed and trustworthy. Therefore, the more advertisers can make their actors look like doctors or scientists, the more likely they are to possess enough source credibility to prompt us to follow the rule laid out in the ad. A credible looking person selling a product they appear to have knowledge about, of course we are more likely to buy this product.

Interestingly, advertisers could grab anyone and just make them look the part. This applies not only to doctors and scientists, but also to other forms of source credibility. For example, using an adult authority figure may have lower source credibility to an audience of children or teenagers. For this audience, source credibility might be established by using children or teenagers made to most closely resemble the peer group of the audience. In either case, if the consumer’s behaviour is directed towards buying the product, with no prior experience of the product, it is as a result of rule governed behaviour.


People also respond better when they can relate to a person, if they can’t relate to a person in an ad they are less likely to use the product. So adverts aimed at a certain societal class will often use actors and make them look/speak in a way that aims to that specific socio-economic group.

For example an advertisements for Myer which is aimed towards a more astute market advertise in a way that makes their products seem more exclusive. People are dressed in designer clothes and speak in a sophisticated manner.

Compare this to a Kmart advertisement which is aimed at a broader socio-economic group, they display their items as affordable and people are jumping around being silly. There are countless differences yet both advertisements work for the market they are trying to reach and therefore relatable.


Familiarity is also a big seller! Familiarity is the reason why advertisers pay Hollywood actors the big bucks to be in ads, because consumers watch movies with these actors in them, so consumers have a sense of ‘knowing’ the actor. As actors are generally desirable people, therefore familiarity with the actor along with the goal of becoming more like them will and does sell more of the product. George Clooney is coming to mind at present, at least once a day I am seeing a certain coffee ad with him as the ‘star’. It must be working for the company as I think they are up to at least the 5th round of adverts with him in them; all of them pretty much giving the same message, if you have this product in your hands you will pretty much be as desirable as George Clooney! No I am not joking, watch the ads, you can be as cool as George! The latest of the Nespresso adverts also casts Jack Black, the coffee makes him as cool as George Clooney, truly!

While researching some of these advertisement I found that Mat Damon was paid a whopping 3 million dollars for 20 seconds in the add! That is $150 000 a second! Obviously using those familiar actors sells product or the company wouldn’t do it. Honestly after watching a few of the ads I have fallen victim and want a Nespresso coffee machine now! I could be as cool as George.

Another way familiarity is used to sell products is when companies use the same actors (not necessarily famous ones) over and over so we become familiar with that actor advertising that product. The same works with product brands and ‘slogans’ i.e ‘Maybe your born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline’, our brains like familiarity, so the more we see/hear something the more we respond and begin to trust. Advertisers need to make brands familiar and use consistency in their branding to draw in customers.

Strange as it may sound, this advertising strategy actually taps into our ancient, evolutionary survival mechanisms. Our brains learn to associate familiarity with safety. When we are exposed to something new, for the first time, we often experience higher levels of anxiety, uncertainty or nervousness.

Lets wind back the clock 100,000 years and think of our distant ancestors. If you were a caveman and you came across a new cave, what would you do? Would you dive right in without a care in the world? The current thinking from evolutionary psychologists would suggest that the cavemen who dived right in probably didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes to us. Who were the cavemen that survived? Most likely, they were the ones who saw the new cave, and felt a sense of fear, knowing that there could be danger inside. These cavemen sat and watched the cave, did not approach it, and maybe over time, after a few days of not seeing any nasty predators coming in or out of the cave, they might have gotten a few of their tribe to come with them for a cautious look. Even after spending a few days in the cave, the caveman might still have worried whether a predator might be coming back. After a few weeks, and months however, the fear would gradually dissipate. Daily exposure to the cave being safe, over and over again, increased the familiarity with the cave, and reinforced the notion that it was safe. We apply the same kind of learning to new people, which can easily be seen in the behaviour of children around strangers, and how this gradually changes over time as their anxiety decreases and the person becomes more familiar and trusted. With increased familiarity, we are more likely to approach novel people and situations. The main point here, is that our brain directly equates familiarity and safety, unless our learning history tells us otherwise. From an advertising perspective, the company wants you to ‘approach’ their product, or make behavioural moves towards it, and familiarity is a great tool to elicit this response.


We also like authenticity these days. The reason I say ‘these days’ is because looking back to my grandparents generation they seemed to use very unrealistic ‘fake’ stereo-typing. I’m talking about those adverts with the perfect housewife with the beautiful dress and perfect hair using her ‘Hoover’ vacuum cleaner having the house looking perfect. I do not for one minute believe the woman of the 50’s looked that good while cleaning, and I just have to draw your attention to the high heals, the advertisers have a woman vacuuming in high heals… no more needs to be said.

Audiences these days are a little more savvy too. Even though current advertising uses the same strategy of trying to convince consumers that they would be happier if they bought the product, they would certainly be much more subtle with that message, as opposed to “You’ll be happier with a HOOVER!”.

These days our adverts are more authentic and real. This helps us relate to the situation the ad is giving us and more likely to use the product. I am thinking about those washing powder ads (I can’t remember the brand), that has a man show up to a random woman’s door (sorry to burst your bubble but these are staged and not really random) and she finds her sons white footy shorts covered in grass stains (there were many other examples but this is the one I am remembering) and the mother puts the powder on them, gives it a little scrub and WOW! The stain is gone.

Now every mother that has a son/daughter who plays a sport (or even just gets grass stains) can relate to that ad! The thing I also noticed in these ads was the fact that the house wasn’t perfectly clean, there was washing on the floor and while the mother did still look nice, she was in every day clothes, so no high heals while doing the washing, in fact she was probably bare foot! This is very different to the dolled up house wife of the 50’s. Nowdays these ads are more likely to sell products and more people can relate to them. Authentic, real life situations make ads more relatable and now with the rise of social media and the ability to peer into our friends lives, this is becoming event more important.

Psychologically speaking, the concept of relatability taps into the psychological processes of stimulus generalisation, and natural reinforcing contingencies. That sounds like a bunch of psycho-babble but the concepts are very straightforward.

Stimulus generalisation refers to the fact that human learning is often quite general. For example, if you get bitten badly by a dog, then you will most likely develop a sense of fear and nervousness when you are around ANY dog, not just the specific one that bit you. When we learn to respond to a specific stimuli, this learning tends to generalise to any stimuli that are similar enough to the original.

The concept of natural reinforcing contingencies relates to the fact that for learning to generalise from an artificial context (such as an ad) to our daily lives, the kinds of reinforcement we experience in the artificial context should be similar to those we experience in our daily lives. For example, the consequence of using the washing powder to clean mud off the footy shorts is a consequence we would find reinforcing and even if we don’t have children who play sport, the example is similar enough to any experience of cleaning dirty clothes to generalise for most people. If we are able to relate to the people or situations in the ad, and if the situations and consequences they experience are similar to the situations and consequences that we experience in our lives, the learning from the ad is more likely to generalise into our daily life.

Relevance is important

Behaviours are not always equally reinforcing, meaning that advertisements will not always be equally effective, even for the same person. So a fast food ad may have zero affect on someone if they have just consumed dinner, where as seeing the same ad the next day when they are famished could result in a completely different behaviour. The same can be applied to anything, so seeing ads about a gardening service may have no affect until you are in need of a gardener. This is where target marketing becomes relevant, positioning the advertising in context of where people are looking for or are in the vicinity of the product for sale.

Therefore advertisers can time ads to be more relevant. For example a billboard ad may be set up 10 minutes before you arrive at the place, this means 10 mins to think about it and decide you are in fact going to stop there! Or a radio ad that sells something aimed at stay at home mums may be played around school drop off and pick up times, or TV ads may be shown during certain programs to sell a product that relates to what is being watched, i.e. car advertisements being played during the Bathurst 5000. All these circumstances are strategically thought out to get the best consumer response.

This strategy takes advantage of the psychological concept of Establishing Operations (EOs). Establishing Operations are stimuli which temporarily alter the reinforcing or punishing properties of certain consequences. As we said, feeling full temporarily weakens the ability of food to act as a reinforcer, whereas a strong feeling of hunger temporarily strengthens the capacity of food to be reinforcing.

Advertising works

These are just a few of the strategies advertisers use to tap into our psyche to change consumer behavior and sell their products! Advertisers use emotion, stereotypes, rule governed behavior, relatability, familiarity, authenticity and relevance to engage us and change our behaviors.

I have found while researching this topic that many of these things work! I want a coffee machine, and kind of want to remember what company sells the washing powder that gets out grass stains so I can buy some! I am concerned that some ads using the desirable people of the world leave us feeling a little inadequate but I think this is just because we put this pressure on ourselves.

Advertisers will continue to use whatever strategy works to sell their product and I hope you are now more aware of what is going on behind the curtain!

Daniel Borg

Daniel Borg

Creative Director

psyborg® was founded by Daniel Borg, an Honours Graduate in Design from the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. Daniel also has an Associate Diploma in Industrial Engineering and has experience from within the Engineering & Advertising Industries.

Daniel has completed over 2800 design projects consisting of branding, content marketing, digital marketing, illustration, web design, and printed projects since psyborg® was first founded. psyborg® is located in Lake Macquarie, Newcastle but services business Nation wide.

I really do enjoy getting feedback so please let me know your thoughts on this or any of my articles in the comments field or on social media below.

Cheers Daniel