Persuasive Techniques in Contemporary Advertising

Ad agencies and product companies often argue that the main purpose of advertising is to inform consumers about available products in a straightforward way. Most consumer ads, however, merely create a mood or tell stories about products without revealing much else. A one-page magazine ad, a giant billboard, or a thirty-second TV spot gives consumers little information about how a product was made, how much it costs, or how it compares with similar brands. In managing space and time constraints, advertising agencies engage in a variety of persuasive techniques.

Conventional Persuasive Strategies

FAMOUS-PERSON TESTIMONIALS Major stars used to be somewhat wary of appearing in ads (at least in the United States), but many brands now use celebrity endorsements. A recent Revlon campaign featured both Emma Stone and Olivia Wilde.
© WENN Ltd/Alamy

One of the most frequently used advertising approaches is the famous-person testimonial, in which a product is endorsed by a well-known person. Famous endorsers include Justin Timberlake for Bud Light, Taylor Swift for Diet Coke, and Beyoncé for Pepsi. Athletes earn some of the biggest endorsement contracts. For example, Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose has a $185 million, thirteen-year deal with Adidas, the same shoe company that has a $160 million deal with now-retired soccer star David Beckham. Tiger Woods remains one of the leading endorsers, despite his personal scandals in 2009. Although some sponsors—including Accenture, Gatorade, and Gillette—dropped him, companies such as Nike and Rolex either stayed with him or sought him out in deals that still totaled over $60 million a year in 2014—down from $80 million in 2012.


Another technique, the plain-folks pitch, associates a product with simplicity. Over the years, Volkswagen (“Drivers wanted”), General Electric (“We bring good things to life”), and Microsoft (“I’m a PC and Windows 7 was my idea”) have each used slogans that stress how new technologies fit into the lives of ordinary people. In a way, the Facebook technique of sponsored stories fits this model, since it depends on friends’ endorsements of products rather than the words or images of stars or athletes.

By contrast, the snob-appeal approach attempts to persuade consumers that using a product will maintain or elevate their social status. Advertisers selling jewelry, perfume, clothing, and luxury automobiles often use snob appeal. For example, the pricey bottled water brand Fiji ran ads in Esquire and other national magazines that said, “The label says Fiji because it’s not bottled in Cleveland”—a jab intended to favorably compare the water bottled in the South Pacific to the drinking water of an industrial city in Ohio. (Fiji ended up withdrawing the ad after the Cleveland Water Department released test data showing that its water was more pure than Fiji water.)

Another approach, the bandwagon effect, points out in exaggerated claims that everyone is using a particular product. Brands that refer to themselves as “America’s favorite” or “the best” imply that consumers will be left behind if they ignore these products. A different technique, the hidden-fear appeal, plays on consumers’ sense of insecurity. Deodorant, mouthwash, and shampoo ads frequently invoke anxiety, pointing out that only a specific product could relieve embarrassing personal hygiene problems and restore a person to social acceptability.

A final ad strategy, used more in local TV and radio campaigns than in national ones, has been labeled irritation advertising: creating product-name recognition by being annoying or obnoxious. Although both research and common sense suggest that irritating ads do not work very well, there have been exceptions. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, an aspirin company ran a TV ad illustrating a hammer pounding inside a person’s brain. Critics and the product’s own agency suggested that people bought the product, which sold well, to get relief from the ad as well as from their headaches. On the regional level, irritation ads are often used by appliance discount stores or local car dealers, who dress in outrageous costumes and yell at the camera.



Hey, Super Bowl Sponsors: Your Ads Are Already Forgotten

by Eric Chemi

W ith Super Bowl ad rates averaging $4.5 million per 30 seconds, total spending for commercials during this year’s game approached $337 million. Here’s the problem: Most of those commercials have already been forgotten. A survey of audience respondents conducted by marketing-research firm Db5 for Bloomberg Businessweek suggests they remembered less than 10 percent of Sunday’s commercials. Despite what some so-called expert panels say about why certain ads are more successful than others, it’s likely those results are too biased or subjective to tell us which ads were truly memorable. Db5 surveyed 504 people who watched the game in its entirety, and the results are surprising.

When asked to recall as many companies as possible that had ads during the big game, the average viewer in the survey could name only 5.4 brands. With more than 50 companies buying ads, that means less than 10 percent were recalled. The top winners were Budweiser, Doritos, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and GoDaddy—the only brands with viewer recall rates of more than 25 percent. Just 12 companies saw more than 10 percent recollection rates; the vast majority saw less than 10 percent recall. Even when viewers were given a sample list of advertisers and asked whether they remembered seeing an ad for each company, only 49 percent of those ads were recalled on average.

Daniel Goldstein, Db5’s chief strategy officer, is a former ad executive who has worked on several major Super Bowl campaigns (Pepsi, Doritos, Visa). He says everybody is trying to copy the one-hit-wonder approach of Apple’s famous “1984” ad. ”Apple was the first to prove you could air a commercial only one time, during the Super Bowl, and have it bring you a ton of follow-up attention, praise, and sales,” he says. Since then, that phenomenon has created a monster. Talking animals, talking babies, talking animal babies, big celebrities, bikinis, big-name Hollywood directors—the list of gimmicks is endless. Most of the audience can’t keep up with all the tricks, and almost all the ads are quickly forgotten.

Some trends could have made a difference. Consistency may have been a factor; the most-remembered commercials came from companies who buy Super Bowl ads on an annual basis, such as Budweiser, Doritos, Coke, Pepsi, and GoDaddy. Another theory says that ads can be remembered better with advanced viewings, because they would give audiences more chances to see and process the spot. According to the data, however, that did not turn out to be the case. Ads that were seen for the first time did just as well as previously viewed ads.

The mathematical question for companies: Is 10 percent recall among 100 million people worth $4.5 million? With the increase of media fragmentation, there are so few opportunities to reach so many viewers at once. Goldstein says that this is not a knock against the Super Bowl as a platform for advertisers, but rather a signal that advertisers should not waste such a big opportunity for which they paid big bucks. The one trend that does seem to work is consistently showing up year after year, making the money a worthwhile investment in the long run. If companies want to go big, they should be going big every year.


Data from: Eric Chemi, “Hey, Super Bowl Sponsors: Your Ads Are Already Forgotten,” Bloomberg Businessweek, February 3, 2014,

The Association Principle

Historically, American car advertisements have shown automobiles in natural settings—on winding roads that cut through rugged mountain passes or across shimmering wheat fields—but rarely on congested city streets or in other urban settings where most driving actually occurs. Instead, the car—an example of advanced technology—merges seamlessly into the natural world.

This type of advertising exemplifies the association principle, a widely used persuasive technique that associates a product with a positive cultural value or image even if it has little connection to the product. For example, many ads displayed visual symbols of American patriotism in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in an attempt to associate products and companies with national pride. Media critic Leslie Savan noted that in trying “to convince us that there’s an innate relationship between a brand name and an attitude,” advertising may associate products with nationalism, happy families, success at school or work, natural scenery, freedom, or humor.22


One of the more controversial uses of the association principle has been the linkage of products to stereotyped caricatures of women. In numerous instances, women have been portrayed either as sex objects or as clueless housewives who, during many a daytime TV commercial, need the powerful off-screen voice of a male narrator to instruct them in their own homes.

Another popular use of the association principle is to claim that products are “real” and “natural”—possibly the most familiar adjectives associated with advertising. For example, Coke sells itself as “the real thing,” and the cosmetics industry offers synthetic products that promise to make women look “natural.” The adjectives real and natural saturate American ads yet almost always describe processed or synthetic goods. Green marketing has a similar problem, as it is associated with goods and services that aren’t always environmentally friendly.

Philip Morris’s Marlboro brand has used the association principle to completely transform its product image. In the 1920s, Marlboro began as a fashionable women’s cigarette. Back then, the company’s ads equated smoking with a sense of freedom, attempting to appeal to women who had just won the right to vote. Marlboro, though, did poorly as a women’s product, and new campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s transformed the brand into a man’s cigarette. Powerful images of active, rugged men dominated the ads. Often, Marlboro associated its product with nature, displaying an image of a lone cowboy roping a calf, building a fence, or riding over a snow-covered landscape. In 2014, the branding consultancy BrandZ (a division of WPP) named Marlboro the world’s ninth “most valuable global brand,” having an estimated worth of $67 billion. (Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa, and AT&T ranked ahead of Marlboro.)

Disassociation as an Advertising Strategy

As a response to corporate mergers and public skepticism toward impersonal and large companies, a disassociation corollary emerged in advertising. The nation’s largest winery, Gallo, pioneered the idea in the 1980s by establishing a dummy corporation, Bartles & Jaymes, to sell jug wine and wine coolers, thereby avoiding the use of the Gallo corporate image in ads and on its bottles. The ads featured Frank and Ed, two low-key, grandfatherly types, as “co-owners” and ad spokesmen. On the one hand, as a BusinessWeek article observed, the ad was “a way to connect with younger consumers who yearn for products that are handmade, quirky, and authentic.”23 On the other hand, this technique, by concealing the Gallo tie-in, allowed the wine giant to disassociate from the negative publicity of the 1970s—a period when labor leader Cesar Chavez organized migrant workers in a long boycott of Gallo.

In the 1990s, General Motors also used the disassociation strategy, according to the same BusinessWeek report. Reeling from a declining corporate reputation, GM tried to package the Saturn as “a small-town enterprise, run by folks not terribly unlike Frank and Ed,” who provide caring, personal service.24 In 2009, however, GM shut down its struggling Saturn brand during the economic recession. As an ad strategy, disassociation often links new brands in a product line to eccentric or simple regional places rather than to images conjured up by big cities and multinational conglomerates.

Advertising as Myth and Story

Another way to understand ads is to use myth analysis, which provides insights into how ads work at a general cultural level. Here, the term myth does not refer simply to an untrue story or outright falsehood. Rather, myths help us define people, organizations, and social norms. According to myth analysis, most ads are narratives with stories to tell and social conflicts to resolve. Three common mythical elements are found in many types of ads:


  1. Ads incorporate myths in mini-story form, featuring characters, settings, and plots.

  2. Most stories in ads involve conflicts, pitting one set of characters or social values against another.

  3. Such conflicts are negotiated or resolved by the end of the ad, usually by applying or purchasing a product. In advertising, the product and those who use it often emerge as the heroes of the story.

Even though the stories that ads tell are usually compressed into thirty seconds or onto a single page, they still include the traditional elements of narrative. For instance, many SUV ads ask us to imagine ourselves driving out into the raw, untamed wilderness, to a quiet, natural place that only, say, a Jeep can reach. The audience implicitly understands that the SUV can somehow, almost magically, take us out of our fast-paced, freeway-wrapped urban world, plagued with long commutes, traffic jams, and automobile exhaust. This implied conflict between the natural world and the manufactured world is apparently resolved by the image of the SUV in a natural setting. Although SUVs typically clog our urban and suburban highways, get low gas mileage, and create tons of air pollution particulates, the ads ignore those facts. Instead, they offer an alternative story about the wonders of nature, and the SUV amazingly becomes the vehicle that negotiates the conflict between city/suburban blight and the unspoiled wilderness.

Most advertisers do not expect consumers to accept without question the stories or associations they make in ads. As media scholar Michael Schudson observed in his book Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion, they do not “make the mistake of asking for belief.”25 Instead, ads are most effective when they create attitudes and reinforce values. Then they operate like popular fiction, encouraging us to suspend our disbelief. Although most of us realize that ads create a fictional world, we often get caught up in their stories and myths. Indeed, ads often work because the stories offer comfort about our deepest desires and conflicts—between men and women, nature and technology, tradition and change, the real and the artificial. Most contemporary consumer advertising does not provide much useful information about products. Instead, it tries to reassure us that through the use of familiar brand names, everyday tensions and problems can be managed (see “Media Literacy and the Critical Process: The Branded You” on page 399).

Product Placement

PRODUCT PLACEMENT in movies and television is more prevalent than ever. On television, placement is often most visible in reality shows, while scripted series and films tend to be more subtle—at least some of the time. Apple products are so ubiquitous in movies and television that many viewers have probably become accustomed to the prominent display of its glowing, familiar logo on shows like House of Cards.
David Giesbrecht/© Netflix/Everett Collection

Product companies and ad agencies have become adept in recent years at product placement: strategically placing ads or buying space in movies, TV shows, comic books, video games, blogs, and music videos so that products appear as part of a story’s set environment. For example, a 2015 episode of Modern Family was told entirely through a character’s MacBook Pro and apps filmed on Apple devices, though the idea came from the show rather than from Apple. In 2013, the Superman movie Man of Steel had the most product placements ever for a film up to that time, with two-hundred-plus marketing partners in deals worth $160 million, including those with Hardee’s, Gillette, Sears, Nikon, Nokia, 7-Eleven, IHOP, and the National Guard.

For many critics, product placement has gotten out of hand. What started out as subtle appearances in realistic settings—like Reese’s Pieces in the 1982 movie E.T.—has turned into Coca-Cola’s being almost an honorary cast member on Fox’s American Idol set. The practice is now so pronounced that it was a subject of Hollywood parody in the 2006 film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, starring Will Ferrell.

In 2005, watchdog organization Commercial Alert asked both the FTC and the FCC to mandate that consumers be warned about product placement on television. The FTC rejected the petition, whereas the FCC proposed product placement rules but had still not approved them by the fall of 2015. In contrast, in 2007 the European Union approved product placement for television but requires programs to alert viewers of such paid placements. In Britain, for example, the letter P must appear in the corner of the screen at commercial breaks and at the beginning and end of a show to signal product placements.26



Do Alcohol Ads Encourage Binge Drinking?

W ith clear evidence that cigarettes caused lung cancer, the tobacco industry in the early 1970s chose to pull all TV ads for cigarettes, in part to ward off the planned increase in public service ads that the government and nonprofit agencies were airing about the dangers of smoking. Similarly, for decades ads for hard liquor (called “distilled spirits” by the industry) were not shown in TV markets across the United States for fear of igniting anti-alcohol public service spots warning about alcoholism and heavy drinking, and countering TV commercials. Some ads for hard liquor have reappeared in recent years, but not all channels or shows will air them; often they appear on late-night or specialized programming.

Beer ads, however, have never been interrupted and remain ubiquitous, usually associating beer drinking with young people, sex appeal, and general good times. As such, the debates over alcohol ads continue, especially in light of the ritual of binge drinking that has bedeviled universities throughout the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 4,500 deaths annually result from underage and binge drinking, the latter of which is generally defined as six drinks or more in one sitting.

BUD LIGHT attracted negative attention with a campaign about “turning no into yes,” evoking the language of sexual assault.

A Dartmouth University study released in 2015 and published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics demonstrated that “alcohol ads have led to a risk in underage drinking and binge drinking.”1 The study, “Cued Recall of Alcohol Advertising on Television and Underage Drinking Behavior,” surveyed more than 2,500 young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three in 2011 and then reinterviewed 1,500 of them in 2013.

In 2013, 66 percent of high school students said they had tried alcohol, whereas only 21 percent said they had engaged in binge drinking. However, 29 percent of the fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds reinterviewed after exposure to alcohol ads reported binge drinking. One coauthor of the study said, “It’s very strong evidence that underage drinkers are not only exposed to television advertising, but they also assimilate the messages. That process moves them forward in their drinking behavior.”2 Although the study argues that the efforts by hard liquor advertisers to protect young people from the messages in their ads are ineffective, the Distilled Spirits Council disagrees and said the Dartmouth study was “driven by advocacy, not science.”3

One ethical question raised by the 2015 study has to do with those who work in the ad business and the work they are asked to do. Many reputable ad agencies will ask new or potential employees if there are clients and products that they would not represent. Some agencies might specifically ask newly hired account executives if they would be willing to work for a tobacco or liquor company or if, given what they know about childhood obesity and the low nutrition content in many fast foods, sugared cereals, and popular sodas, they could represent those products.

It might be a useful exercise, then, to ask yourself, Are their products or companies you would not work for or represent in some capacity? Why or why not? Would you be willing to represent tobacco companies that wanted to place ads in magazines or a hard liquor product that wanted to advertise on TV? Why or why not?


Media Literacy and the Critical Process

The Branded You

To what extent are you influenced by brands?

1 DESCRIPTION. Take a look around your home or dormitory room and list all the branded products you’ve purchased, including food, electronics, clothes, shoes, toiletries, and cleaning products.

2 ANALYSIS. Now organize your branded items into categories. For example, how many items of clothing are branded with athletic, university, or designer logos? What patterns emerge, and what kind of psychographic profile do these brands suggest about you?

3 INTERPRETATION. Why did you buy each particular product? Was it because you thought it was of superior quality? Because it was cheaper? Because your parents used this product (so it was tried, trusted, and familiar)? Because it made you feel a certain way about yourself and you wanted to project this image toward others? Have you ever purchased items without brands or removed logos once you bought the product? Why?

4 EVALUATION. As you become more conscious of our branded environment (and your participation in it), what is your assessment of U.S. consumer culture? Is there too much conspicuous branding? What is good and bad about the ubiquity of brand names in our culture? How does branding relate to the common American ethic of individualism?

5 ENGAGEMENT. Visit Adbusters ( and read about action projects that confront commercialism, including Buy Nothing Day, Media Carta, TV Turnoff, the Culturejammers Network, the Blackspot nonbrand sneaker, and Unbrand America. Also visit the home page for the advocacy organization Commercial Alert ( to learn about the most recent commercial incursions into everyday life and what can be done about them. Or write a letter to a company about a product or ad that you think is a problem. How does the company respond?