Advertisements : How do they persuade us ?
Advertisements are part and parcel of our lives. Perhaps, they are one of the most decisive and, at the same time, imperceptible factors moulding and channelling our “purchasing habits,” so to speak. On the face of it, advertisements promote products and services; they create demand by dint of inducing and increasing consumption. Yet, the ways in which they convey their messages have a profound effect on all aspects of our lives: our happiness, our culture, family and interpersonal relations, business, stereotypes, wealth and status, individuality, and so forth. According to Leiss et al. (1990: 1), advertising is ‘a “privileged form of discourse”’, in that it can attract our attention, insinuating itself into our thought processes and carving out a niche in our lives. As we shall see, advertisements succeed in selling us a lot more than merely products; in fact, they contrive to reconstruct our relations to things and other people—in short, they interfere with our sense of identity, they equate us with things, and manipulate us. Williamson’s observation succinctly encapsulates their power: ‘Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves’ (Williamson, 1978: 13). In the present study we are concerned with how advertisements, or rather ‘ad men’, to quote Packard (1957), persuade us to buy their products, and exploit our “hidden” needs—both processes taking place beneath our level of awareness. In searching for more effective ways of persuading people to buy goods, a great many merchandisers or ‘probers’ (Packard, 1957) turned to psychologists in order to gain insights into the deepest recesses of the psyche and the factors that motivate people, and then to capitalise on their expectations and fears. Equipped with this knowledge, ad men nowadays exert a remarkable influence on people’s habits and conceptualisation of the world and themselves in relation to values—values which are, in great measure, determined by the marketplace. Packard (1957: 14), perhaps one of the most vehement critics of “the hidden persuaders” who have ensnared us by appealing to our unconscious or subconscious needs, eloquently captures the “state of the art”:
The symbol manipulators and their research advisers have developed their depth view of us by sitting at the feet of psychiatrists and social scientists (particularly psychologists and sociologists) who have been hiring themselves out as ‘practical’ consultants or setting up their own research firms.
These ‘motivation analysts’ have definitely become our shamans who, ‘having helped to inspire the fear of the devil [in us], [they offer] redemption’ (Bolinger, 1980: 2) by means of the products they sell. They are not only interested in moving their merchandise off the shelves; they are actually seeking out powerful communicative cues, ‘a discourse through and about objects’ (Leiss et al., 1990), which will weld together people, products, and cultural models. In view of this, ‘we no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just an auto, we buy prestige’ (Packard, 1957: 15). The sale of ‘self-images’ (ibid.) is now the norm. Advertisements barely focus on products alone; it is the prospective buyers that they make “overtures” to—which is mirrored in the language used and in such features as the colours in the ad, its layout, and so on (we will consider some of these aspects in due course). As Ewen (1976, cited in Leiss et al., 1990: 23) notes, advertisers have effected a ‘self-conscious change in the psychic economy’ by inundating the marketplace with suggestions that consumers should buy goods in order to enter realms of experience previously unfamiliar to them. Gradually then, advertising has become a ‘highly organized and professional system of magical inducements and satisfactions’...
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