Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising

Isabelle Szmigin examines how billboards and commercials lure us into buying certain products

June 28, 2012

Seducing the Subconscious appears to have two objectives. First, it aims to expose how advertising works. Second, it describes a host of advertising case studies from our recent and not-so-recent past and considers how they succeeded or failed, and it is here that Robert Heath is at his best. The combination of his advertising agency experience, years of university teaching and obvious fascination with advertising make for compelling reading. But the underlying rationale of the book, to uncover how we engage with advertising and in so doing develop a model of subconscious seduction, is both less convincing and often too convoluted to really engage the reader.

Heath's argument, built on the work of psychologists such as Herbert Krugman and the economist Andrew Ehrenberg, is that advertising does not change people's attitudes and is therefore not the persuasive tool that some would like to think it is. This theory is now well rehearsed in the discipline of consumer behaviour, so in itself is nothing new. However, the journey Heath takes us on to show how advertising can work is both fascinating and complex. We have been surrounded by advertising for all our lives, it is not a novelty, and we are not inclined to make a special place for it or to give it the attention that advertising agency "creatives" might like. There are, of course, exceptions: Claudia Schiffer taking her clothes off in a 1999 advertisement for the Citroën Xsara ensured the attention of many men. But although sex inevitably makes advertising interesting, here the attention was not directed to the message of the ad and so was unsuccessful; in addition it alienated women who were disappointed that such an approach was still being used on the eve of the 21st century.

So what does work? Heath refers to what he calls emotionally competent stimuli, which include entities such as music, slogans and characters. These trigger our emotions and, once linked to a brand, take on significance and become what Heath calls an emotively competent brand association. For many this will seem like little more than Pavlovian conditioning. However, consider for example the British Airways advertising campaign that began in the 1980s and used the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' Lakmé. Heath describes having played this music in more than a hundred classes and, without exception, his students told him it made them feel relaxed and comfortable. British Airways' trick was to combine this music with an advertisement to launch their Super Club Class service, which was all about wider seats and more comfort. Bingo! An emotively competent brand association.

Another influencing factor is the nature of our relationship with the brand. We have, Heath says, a subconscious attachment to everything we use. We can decode creativity and add it to our existing store of information related to a particular brand relationship. The Cadbury Dairy Milk advertisement featuring a gorilla playing drums to Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight had only a limited impact on the sales of Dairy Milk, but in its wake, Cadbury saw a much more dramatic increase across all its products. The explanation Heath gives is that the advertisement enhanced people's existing attachment to Cadbury in general; in other words, it acted as a positive influence on our relationship with the brand.

Finally, Heath claims that emotional content in advertising can often outmanoeuvre us. Andrex toilet paper is one of the UK's most successful brands. Is it because of the very rational claim made by the manufacturer that the product is "soft, strong and very long"? As Heath notes, it is no softer, stronger or longer than its competitors: the not-so-secret ingredient is a golden labrador puppy. Our subconscious has been well and truly seduced.

Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising

By Robert Heath

John Wiley & Sons, 264pp, £19.99

ISBN 9780470974889

Published 23 March 2012

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