The volume of advertising we consume on a daily basis is overwhelming, so many of us believe we’ve developed an immunity to advertising’s persuasive powers. As a result, when I tell people I work in marketing I generally get questions like this:
“I never buy things because they’re in ads, why do you bother?”
That questions—and others like it—are based on a false premise: That the purpose of an advertisement is to convince us to buy a particular product. Advertising isn’t that directly effective.
The idea that advertising can “convince” people to buy a product by explaining why it’s superior to competitors—known also as the “strong” theory of advertising—has been thoroughly debunked. Advertising, in reality, is a weak force that simply reminds consumers that a particular brand exists in an attempt to nudge them into buying it next time they’re shopping in that category.
In a nutshell, the purpose of any advertising is to reinforce associations between product categories and specific brands. It’s why you think of McDonald’s and Coca Cola when someone asks you to name a fast-food restaurant or a type of soda.
Humans are programmed to be more trusting of things we recognize. The same psychological force that makes babies racist also makes us likely to buy the same toothpaste brands for decades at a time.
Most of the things we buy are trivial and inexpensive, so we use mental shortcuts to save time and effort. When choosing something as simple as a soda, we rarely investigate every option available before reaching a decision. Generally, we quickly grab the red can with the cursive white writing and move along with our lives. That every single person knows exactly what brand of soda was just described is a testament to the effectiveness of decades of advertising.
Even when making high-involvement purchases, such as a new car, the effectiveness of advertising is undeniable. Sure, you’re going to decide between the Toyota and Hyandai based on the merits of each, but how did you end up in those two dealerships to begin with? Advertising.
We associate certain attributes with certain brands because those brands have spent years re-enforcing those attributes in their marketing activities. It’s how we all know that Jeep is for adventurous people, Mercedes is for people who want to look rich, Toyota is for ISIS, Hyandai make cheap small cars that still feel overpriced, etc. We use all these association to compile a shortlist of potential brands between which we will ultimately decide.