Is advertising manipulative?

Professor Laura Crosswell breaks down strategies some advertisers use to mislead consumers to sell their products

Advertising is in nearly every form of media, from newspapers to videos.

8/23/2018 | By: Laura Crosswell |

Advertising is more calculated, sophisticated, and personalized than ever before. If you look closely though, you will notice some time-honored techniques that still appear in ads today.

Here are a few tricks of the trade that motivate consumer behavior:

  1. Simplicity. Research shows that as our choices increase, so do our levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction. Advertisers simplify complex issues, often as either/or scenarios, to make decision-making less daunting.
  2. Emotion. Advertisements appeal to emotion rather than reason. Promotional material for a sleeping medication might show friends enjoying dinner together or a father engaged in family activities rather than focusing on the product itself. Ads are designed to remove thinking from the equation.
  3. Color. Color substantially influences immediate consumer judgments. Advertisers will use specific color strategies to shape brand perceptions and purchasing behaviors (i.e., Apple using white to convey clean, simple design).
  4. Deals. People are more emotionally invested in avoiding loss than earning reward. Flash deals and pseudo-urgency ads tap into our loss aversion and fear of missing out.
  5. Basic human needs. Advertisers appeal to basic human needs (such as food or sex) to trigger consumer cravings. Clever tricks like substituting glue for milk in cereal commercials, adding dish soap to soda for surface bubbles, or meticulously gluing sesame seeds to a hamburger bun make products appear more appetizing and drive feelings of unmet needs.
  6. Symbolism. Advertisers use symbolic codes to establish brand connections to certain values or identity systems. A laundry detergent label might feature a smiling baby wrapped up in a soft blanket to encourage product associations with safety/love/good parenting.

In sum, advertisements influence us in ways we don’t always realize. But knowledge is power! Stay informed, do your research, and attend to the ways in which commercial messages try to manipulate your purchasing behaviors.

Laura Crosswell

Laura Crosswell is an assistant professor in health communications at the Reynolds School of Journalism. Her research focuses on the cultural implications of consumerism and persuasive texts with a specific concentration on public health messaging. Her research is showcased in Politics, Propaganda and Public Health: A Case Study in Health Communication and Public Trust.


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