Trapped in advertising: how we let ourselves be fooled

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Trapped in advertising: how we let ourselves be fooled
Trapped in advertising: how we let ourselves be fooled

"Advertising controls us and makes us buy more and more" - sounds like another conspiracy theory. However, scientists confirm that this is largely true. Knowing how perception works can actually convince a person to buy something they don't need at all.

Black Friday

The holiday comes to us

In the fall of 2016, Londoners once again noticed how early Christmas came to the city. No, the holiday itself still comes on the night of December 25, but Christmas decorations appear in store windows already in November. Journalist Jason Karayan examined the schedule followed by shops on Oxford Street, one of the busiest streets in the British capital.

Every year glowing garlands are lit up there earlier. If in 2000 this happened on the twentieth of November, then today the holiday lights light up at the very beginning of the month. In 2015, the illumination started on November 1. Karajan concluded that if the dynamics continue, by 2020, window displays will be decorated in October, and a century later, Christmas on Oxford Street will begin to be celebrated in July. “Here it is, the blue dream of traders,” the journalist comments.

Perhaps Karayan's prediction will come true even faster. For example, some shops in Australia open the Christmas shopping season in September, as Halloween is not as popular there as it is in the Northern Hemisphere. This phenomenon in English-speaking countries is called Chistmas creep - "spreading Christmas".

The New Year's mood in early autumn is absurd, but why do shops keep doing this? Christmas decoration is a classic marketing ploy. The special festive atmosphere always pays off. In 2013, the holiday season brought in 19.2% of revenues for the American trading industry. From Christmas trees alone, U.S. stores have made more than a billion dollars, and that's not including artificial trees. Stores across the country hired an additional 768,000 workers to cope with the influx of shoppers and were still in significant gains.

Maybe all this is connected with the special attitude of the British and Americans to Christmas, with their local traditions? No, there is something more in common between holidays and shops - remember that the Russian New Year is not lagging behind Western "colleagues". Who among us, looking for purchases in November, has not seen shiny tinsel and tangerines?


Sense and Sense

The holiday season is a great demonstration of how marketers work with all five senses. Bright showcases for the eyes, Jingle Bells for the hearing, the aroma of spicy pastries for the sense of smell. Taste and touch also did not stand aside, for them “seasonal” dishes and whole installations of pleasant to the touch little things in the salesrooms are created.

This type of product promotion is called sensory marketing. It directly affects the sensations and, as a result, the emotional state. Stimuli evoke feelings and images in our minds instantly, even before we have time to rationally comprehend what kind of object is in front of us.

The first impression about any product, as well as about any subject in general, is complex. At first, we perceive the object as a whole, without separating visual image, sound and tactile sensations. This perception is called cross-modal. A moment later it will become clear: here is the color of the packaging, here is the rustling of the wrapper, and here is the structure of the material of the thing. But at the first moment we perceive a single image, and it is easy to put this quality at the service of commerce.

Oxford professor Charles Spence has been studying these connections between our senses for decades. He runs the Cross-Modal Research Laboratory. Spence and his colleagues are constantly conducting experiments that seem strange at first glance: they look for the perfect crisp crunch, listen to the hiss of soda, and distribute the same coffee in different colored mugs to the "experimental" ones. For his work on chips, Spence even received the famous Ig Nobel Prize. It is awarded for "achievements that make you laugh first and then think."

And so it happened - with the help of his unusual experiments, Spence discovered many working patterns. He found that the color of the packaging affects the perception of taste. In his early experiments, he used strawberry mousse. Dessert seemed to the respondents 10% sweeter on average if it was served in white rather than black dishes. Then Spence found striking confirmation of the fact that our vision is everywhere looking for familiar structures. Customers of the store were twice as likely to choose the juice at which the edges of the label "looked" up, like the corners of a mouth in a smile. If the label was frowning and the edges were pointing down, sales fell.


Sugar or no sugar for you?

Charles Spence proved that breaking the laws of cross-modal perception leads to commercial failure. For years, the scientist has been collecting a collection of "sensory errors" - products that have failed in the market because of the wrong packaging or name. Topping the list is Coca-Cola in an unusual white can. She appeared in stores in 2011. The designers planned in this way to draw attention to the problem of protecting polar bears and send a percentage of sales to a charitable foundation, but the idea failed miserably. Coca-Cola received letters from outraged fans of the drink: they claimed that the company had changed the composition of the water without warning anyone. “Our favorite cola is not as sweet as it used to be,” they said.

Of course, the company did not change the formula of the drink - it would require huge costs to find and agree on new proportions. But the color of the packaging really influenced consumer perception, and Charles Spence found a simple and compelling way to prove it. He invited the focus group to try salted popcorn from a red bowl. Most of the study participants confidently stated that they ate sweet corn.

Spence does not hide: 75% of research in his laboratory is ordered by large companies. They take into account the slightest peculiarities of perception, so as not to repeat the history of the "white" "Coca-Cola". But despite the commercial focus, the work of the Cross-Modal Research Laboratory benefits not only corporations. Now that more or less exact patterns of dependence of the taste of food on the color of packaging are known, manufacturers will be able to add less sugar to products and compensate for this not with substitutes, but with design details. This becomes especially important when you consider the speed at which obesity and diabetes are spreading. Since 1980, the number of obese people worldwide has doubled.

Another charitable initiative of Spence is helping cancer patients. Chemotherapy is sometimes accompanied by nausea and a metallic taste in the mouth. Spence's lab is developing ways to make these reactions less intense: special lighting modes, audible stimuli, and even special serving of hospital meals.


Think like a customer

Think again about the Christmas decoration of the shops. Its functions are obvious: the festive decor creates a special mood, and the mood boosts sales. But how and by how much does it increase? How many percent does Jingle Bells add to revenue and can you earn more if you turn on “A Christmas tree was born in the forest” instead? Salespeople always need specific numbers.

Traditionally, marketers have used methods specific to sociology: surveys and focus groups.These techniques have been giving stable results for half a century, but they have a number of disadvantages. Their effectiveness directly depends on the qualifications of the moderators - those who conduct the research. The questions may not cover all important points, and the answers are always subjective, so it is easy to misinterpret the results of the survey.

In search of objective and accurate data, marketers turned to scientists. So, in the early 2000s, a new interdisciplinary area of ​​research appeared - neuromarketing. This field studies how people respond to marketing incentives using neuroscience techniques. Neurophysiology, cognitive neuroscience, neurolinguistics - all these areas of brain research have been in demand by large corporations.

Neuromarketing uses a variety of methods today. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows which areas of the brain become most active when a person sees an ad. Electroencephalography (EEG) allows you to determine which stimuli trigger the strongest response. Biomarkers are also taken into account: fluctuations in body temperature, heart rate and respiration, increased pressure. Another important method is oculography (eye tracking), tracking the trajectory of the gaze.

Usually several methods are applied at the same time. When neuromarketing took its first steps, this is how we managed to describe the impact of discounts on shoppers. When a bargain price tag falls into the field of view of a person, the pulse accelerates sharply, the activity of the forebrain increases. The indicators of the electrical activity of the skin are growing - the autonomic nervous system reacts. Psychologist David Lewis, in his book Neuromarketing in Action, writes: "For many consumers, being able to buy a coveted fashion item at a low price creates a brain surge like winning the lottery or even sniffing a cocaine track."


Deception or prospects?

Neuromarketing is a relatively young industry, therefore, it often becomes the object of criticism. The most frequently asked question is: is it true that neurophysiological research deserves more credibility than the usual surveys and the method of focus groups? And if so, how much? There is no definite answer to this question. Sometimes the results of neuromarketing experiments completely contradict the conclusions of traditional research. But often this is not a mistake, but a reason to look at the situation in a new way.

This situation arose in the late 2000s while working on an advertisement for Cheetos. Focus group participants were asked to watch a video with the following story: in the laundry one woman makes a rather rude remark to another and leaves, leaving the last word. To this, the second pours a packet of bright orange corn sticks into the dryer with the laundry, which her interlocutor inadvertently left unattended. In the course of the survey, the study participants stated that they condemn both the woman's act and the advertisement itself.

However, EEG monitoring of their condition showed the opposite. Based on the brain activity data, most viewers were delighted to see a scattering of orange dust in the dryer. Perhaps they felt something very familiar in this situation, because everyone was faced with rudeness in the queues. In addition, such an act disrupts the usual course of life, revives a boring life.

Why did people answer exactly the opposite during the survey? The researchers suggest that the interviewees simply did not want to appear ill-mannered in front of interviewers and other group members. Marketers saw behind this contradiction a global conflict between the norms of decency and the desire to add a little clutter to everyday life. They made a whole series of commercials in which people behave, frankly, like a pig: for example, stick corn sticks in the nose of a sleeping neighbor.The campaign was an extraordinary success, in 2009 its creators received the prestigious advertising award - the Ogilvy Prize.

All critics of neuromarketing agree that its methods are not yet perfect. Too many factors influence physiological reactions, it is impossible to single out those that are associated solely with the intended purchase. Neuromarketing specialists often find themselves in the position of Sherlock Holmes. Once the great detective almost accused an overly agitated lady of a crime, and then it turned out: she was worried only because she did not have time to powder her nose in time.

However, as the case of the corn sticks advertisement shows, neurophysiological research can indeed help in finding out-of-the-box solutions. Criticism only reminds: you cannot unconditionally trust this method. Alas, the level of technology is growing slower than the number of people who want to earn extra money on the fashionable marketing trend.


Neuromarketing and sensory marketing are far from the only modern technologies for product promotion. Marketers know how to raise prices correctly, what slogans "catch", what the target audiences expect. Scientific methods help to refine and systematize this knowledge, so large corporations will turn to it more and more. What remains for us as consumers? Probably, all the same, all the pros and cons should be weighed when it comes to big purchases. And, of course, remember that the choice is always ours.

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