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SEP2019
Ausgabe 5/2019, Seite 24 | 19-09-24-1

Advertising: a Triad of Emotions, Reason and Responsibility

No Logos!?

There are several sides to advertising: rational and emotional. Ethical aspects come into it as well. That's why Patrick Fagan asks us not to forget about the principle of reason – denoted with the ancient Greek term “logos” – and not to put emotions above everything else.
Foto: © harunyigit – Fotolia
Logos, /ˈlɒɡɒs/, noun: the Jungian principle of reason and judgement.

Life seems increasingly chaotic. On 10 April, Theresa May announced that the British people wouldn’t get the Brexit they had voted for, with the leave date being ominously pushed back to Halloween. Shortly thereafter, London was flooded with signs proclaiming extinction and rebellion. Unsurprisingly, polls show that trust in institutions – like politicians, religion and the media – is crumbling, and anxiety is epidemic. This is all to say that times are changing. Western society feels increasingly lacking in structure, order and reason – that is, logos. Instead, impulse and emotion dominate.


In the Fast Lane: Emotions

Take ‘fake news’, for example. Research has shown that news stories are more effective when they’re emotional, particularly when they tap into anger. People will believe a news story based on whether or not it fits their pre-existing views, and FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) shows that the negative-affect-processing part of the brain switches off when an incredulous story comes from a liked source. In other words, news – which should be the epitome of logical information – thrives on base passions.


When Morals – Should – Step In

The zeitgeist is summed up by a quote from American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was critical of critical thinking: “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
It’s easy to blame politicians, but there could be a plethora of sources responsible. For example, research shows that marital disruption is linked to all sorts of behavioural control problems, and a shocking 26 out of the 27 deadliest mass shooters have come from single-mother households. Also smartphones are likely contributing to rising levels of narcissism and impulsiveness, and in turn, an atmosphere of emotional pleasure-seeking over considered restraint.


Advertising and Nudging

However, one source is germane: advertising. Advertisers have long made appeals to emotion, and contemporary advertisers appear to have abandoned logic altogether, opting instead for singing kittens or sexual innuendo. Furthermore, marketers have recently become obsessed with the idea of ‘nudging’ – that is, tapping into subconscious rules-of-thumb (social proof, for example, is the nudge that says, “If everyone else is doing it, it must be good”).
Such emotional advertising strategies are undoubtedly effective. For instance, a study of submissions to the IPA Effectiveness Awards found that the most emotional ads achieved 60 % more business effects (such as market share gain). Similarly, academic research has been unequivocal in the persuasive power of nudges for consumer behaviour. As an illustration, Alka Seltzer applied anchoring with their jingle “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” and their use of two fizzing tablets on their packaging, to imply that consumers needed to take two tablets rather than one, thus boosting sales.


Consumers Do Act Logically

There are two caveats. The first is that emotional appeals are not a panacea for advertising. Consumers can – and do – make logical decisions. When one considers the sales elasticity of the four Ps of the Marketing Mix, promotion is the weakest element, while product is the most important. Furthermore, the replicability of subconscious effects outside (or even inside) the lab is often poor, and research is fairly consistent in showing that, although people rely on emotion and heuristics under conditions of time pressure, cognitive load or apathy, they otherwise tend to make ‘good’, preference- consistent (i.e. logical) decisions. In essence, people are more rational than advertisers seem to give them credit for.



It’s All About Responsibility

However, the second, and perhaps more important, caveat is an ethical one. Even if emotional appeals work, is it right to use them? As an analogy, putting nicotine in consumables will make them sell, but that is no excuse to do it. The fact is that the media have a huge responsibility for the minds of their audience. In Albert Bandura’s famous “Bobo the Doll” study, children were shown to mimic violent behaviour they saw onscreen, hitting a clown doll with a mallet if that’s what was shown on TV. Since then, a plethora of research has demonstrated the negative causal effects the media can have on minds and behaviours – with violent films, for example, inducing aggression.
In some respects, advertisers appear to recognise this power that they have over audiences’ perceptions of reality, and have taken steps to act responsibly. For example, the body types promoted as normal in adverts can affect unhealthy eating habits (with, for instance, ads with overweight models resulting in more chocolate eaten, in one study), and as a result, advertising associations have produced guidelines on body image, and certain types of body imagery have even been banned on London Underground adverts.



Emotional Priming – Impulsive Reactions

In the same way, advertisers perhaps ought to be more responsible in disseminating emotional appeals. Research has shown that emotional priming makes people more impulsive and less rational – for example, pictures of panda bears increase charity donations, and cookies with cute faces on them increase the choice share for unhealthy over healthy snacks. The ads we see on TV, on public transport, in newspapers, and elsewhere, affect us: being bombarded with emotion will make us act emotionally.



Doubts, Anyone?

To put it simplistically, there are two paths people can take in decisions and in life: the impulsive, pleasure-seeking path of vice, or the ordered, purpose-seeking path of virtue. The former has been consistently linked to negative life outcomes, while the latter is linked to higher wellbeing. In its most striking form, conscientiousness is a significant predictor of lifespan.
So, advertisers, please stop, you’re quite literally killing us. When you saturate the landscape with appeals to impulse, you are priming an emotional way of thinking, leading to worse outcomes for the individual and for society as a whole. Perhaps it’s time to return to logos. ■
Patrick Fagan is Chief Science Officer at the behavioural science consultancy Capuchin. He is a part-time lecturer and has published a book on communications psychology called Hooked, with Pearson Business. He has 10 years’ experience applying psychology to commercial outcomes for big-name brands; and, since being Lead Psychologist at Cambridge Analytica, has been leading the cutting edge of blending behavioural science with data science.
capuchin.cc



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