As citizens of capitalist, free-market societies, we tend to celebrate choice and competition. However, in the 21st
century, as we have gained more and more choices, we have also become greater targets for persuasive messages from advertisers who want to make those choices for us.
In Sold on Language, noted language scientists Julie Sedivy and Greg Carlson examine how rampant competition shapes the ways in which commercial and political advertisers speak to us. In an environment saturated with information, advertising messages attempt to compress as much persuasive power into as small a linguistic space as possible. These messages, the authors reveal, might take the form of a brand name whose sound evokes a certain impression, a turn of phrase that gently applies peer pressure, or a subtle accent that zeroes in on a target audience. As more and more techniques of persuasion are aimed squarely at the corner of our mind which automatically takes in information without conscious thought or deliberation, does 'endless choice' actually mean the end of true choice?
Sold on Language offers thought-provoking insights into the choices we make as consumers and citizens – and the choices that are increasingly being made for us.
From the Authors: Five misconceptions About the Effects of Advertising
|Coauthor Julie Sedivy |
It’s easy to feel as if we’re in control of the choices we make. But as cognitive science is discovering, much of our own thinking remains hidden from our conscious awareness. Sold on Language
explores the science of language and persuasion, along the way popping some illusions about how we respond to advertising. Here are a few common misconceptions:
- I don’t pay attention to ads, so they don’t affect me.
You are bombarded by ads, most of which you push to the edges of your attention. But it doesn’t mean you aren’t processing the information in them. Think of your visual system: You have clear, detailed vision (called central vision) in only a very small area where you’re aiming your eyes, but your peripheral vision still sends signals to your brain. When you’re devoting your full attention to a message, you process it in more detail and more skeptically. Peripheral thinking kicks in when you choose not to pay full attention to an ad. It relies on more superficial cues so when you think you’re tuning out an ad, you’re more likely to be persuaded by “truthiness” than by truth.
- If I don’t believe an ad, it doesn’t affect me.
Lies are more effective than you might like to think, even when you know they’re lies. For example, in 2000, John McCain’s run for the Republican Party nomination was badly damaged by false insinuations that he’d fathered a child outside of marriage. Studies have found that people form a poor impression of someone whose name was linked in any way with unsavory behavior--even if it was to clear that person of wrongdoing (for instance in a headline such as “Andrew Winters not Connected to Bank Embezzlement”). And there is a “sleeper” effect of skepticism: A message that is rejected when it’s first heard comes to seem more believable over time. It’s as if the message itself outlives your rejection of it.
- Subliminal advertising doesn’t work.
In 1957, James Vicary claimed to have lured crowds of movie-goers to the snack bar by flashing the commands “Eat popcorn” and “Buy Coca-Cola” for fractions of a second. In the end, Vicary’s controversial “experiment” turned out to be a likely hoax. But recent actual research reveals many ways in which attitudes and behavior can be tweaked by unconsciously perceived information. For example, scientists have seen people shift political attitudes when exposed to the subliminal image of a flag, perform better on a creativity test after watching a subliminal logo for Apple rather than IBM, and yes, under the right circumstances, to crave a specific drink when subliminally “primed” with the product’s name. But there’s no unique or magical power to messages that are too brief to be seen; their effect is just one aspect of the human tendency to suck up, process, and act on as many cues in the environment as possible, without necessarily being aware of having done so.
- Today’s consumers are more sophisticated about evaluating advertising than they used to be, and therefore more resistant to its effects.
Advertising has adapted in interesting ways to public skepticism. One trend has been to move away from ads where the audience passively receives a message, and towards ads where the audience actively re-creates its meaning. For example, one ad for Durex condoms contains no real language at all; it simply has a price tag attached to the company logo ($2.50) and another attached to the image of an elaborate baby toy ($140), leaving the viewer to connect the dots. Implied meanings are especially useful when stating them outright would meet with a lot of resistance. Think of Apple computer’s groundbreaking “1984” commercial. Many understood the ad to mean that Apple was going to liberate people from the soul-sucking conformist corporate culture of then-dominant IBM. Of course, Apple couldn’t come right out and say this. But it could lead viewers to draw this conclusion themselves.
- The age of mass marketing and consumer conformity is dead, and people now make more choices as individuals.
Consumers now often use products as a way to express their personalities and values, and it’s easy to mistake this as a sign of individualism. But paradoxically, this trend reflects the fact that consumers are now more malleable to messages that focus on group identity—it’s just that the groups consumers are identifying with are smaller and tighter. The brand itself becomes a symbol of a group identity, and everything about the message—its music, its choice of spokesperson, the words or accent that are used—serves to reinforce this social identity. Whether you drink Pabst Blue Ribbon or Heineken is not just about individual taste and preference; it’s about signaling which tribe you belong to.