Tapping Into the Power of Psychology in Advertising

This is the question which has driven the merger of the art of advertising with the science of psychology for well over a century now. In many ways, advertising and psychology are two fields which grew up together in the 20th Century.


Tapping Into the Power of Psychology in Advertising


This is the question which has driven the merger of the art of advertising with the science of psychology for well over a century now. In many ways, advertising and psychology are two fields which grew up together in the 20th Century. Both focus on behavior, communication, suggestion, emotion, reason, and persuasion. Today, in the age of Big Data and advanced analytics, the two are thoroughly entwined. In this post, we’ll discuss how psychology can be used to create effective ads that pop and convert to sales in a demanding business environment where over 5.3 trillion ads are displayed online each year.

According to statistics in the USC article, “Thinking vs. Feeling: The Psychology of Advertising“, the average person will view 2 million TV commercials in a year. Even kids are bombarded with 20,000 ads per year. In the 1970s we looked at 500 ads per day, now we average a whopping 5,000 ads per day thanks to cell phones, the internet, and social media. Needless to say, new startups and even established enterprises face a daunting challenge when it comes to producing ads which not only stand out from the crowd but result in the sales numbers which mark successful advertising campaigns.

Understanding the fundamentals of psychology in advertising can help immensely, and we’ve got over a century of experience to build on now.


As far back as 1895, psychologist Howard Gale sent a questionnaire to businesses in an effort to learn how folks processed ads from first sight to actual purchase of the advertised item. According to associate editor Margarita Tartovsky’s informative article “The Psychology of Advertising” at PsychCentral, the power of advertising had yet to be recognized by the merchants of Gale’s time. The result was anything but a Big Data response, with only 10% of 200 businesses taking time to respond to Gale’s pioneering effort in the emerging field of demographics.

According to Tarkovsky, the founder of behaviorism John B. Watson was the first scientist to tap into the psychological power of advertising after moving from academic studies of behaviorism to become a pioneer in applied psychology. Watson took his psychological prowess to New York, putting his behaviorist knowledge to work at the J. Walter Thompson agency, one of the largest advertising agencies of its time. Watson believed that the 3 driving factors in any ad came down to three emotions; love, fear, and rage. At first glance these 3 emotional factors may seem to be a bit primitive, but as we’ll see Watson’s psychological intuition turns out to be right on the mark.

If you think “rage” is an emotion which doesn’t apply to effective advertising, just call to mind the outrage which can be provoked by vivid depictions of animal neglect in ads for animal welfare organizations. Fear is a common denominator in commercials in the fight against cancer, where graphic presentations of patients speaking through artificial voice boxes after radical surgery display the fearful consequences of smoking. Most commonly, the fear factor is deployed in a more subtle fashion in numerous ads which use the “fear of missing out on a good thing” strategy.

Love is the theme in pretty much every Coca-Cola commercial since the company “taught the world to sing” in the last century. Love also promotes brand-bonding and loyalty over the long term which is why Coke sticks with their winning love theme in their ad campaigns to this day. The company’s 2017 “Brotherly Love” ad uses the full range of psychological enhancements including poignant story-telling, a memorable emotional roller coaster ride for the viewer, empathic acoustic guitar music, and even subtle patriotic colors.

John B. Watson also believed in strong demographic research and was one of the first to apply scientific methods to advertising. He pioneered concepts we still see today such as celebrity endorsements and happy consumer testimonials, not to mention the pivotal concept of emotion trumping rationalization, or “thinking vs. feeling”. Today, advertisers have the Big Data and analytics technology to precisely measure the psychological effects of ad details such as images, link colors, and border colors. According to the USC article, changing a link color from light green to yellow can boost conversion rates by up to 14.5%. Contrasting the colors of two links in an image works even better, increasing conversions by 60%.


We’ve all seen numerous toothpaste commercials which feature smiling young models with brilliant white teeth. These ads focus on increased “sex appeal” rather than the many hygienic advantages of the toothpaste. By using this particular brand of toothpaste the potential buyer is assured that they too can become part of the popular crowd, one of many brilliant white smiles in happy groups doing happy things such as frolicking at the beach, biking through parks, and meeting that smiling soulmate. There is also a more passive element, the fear of missing out if the viewer doesn’t brush with this brand.

Now compare the joyful presentation above with a cut and dried “4 out of 5 dentists recommend” ad which focuses on the clinical aspects of tooth decay and the proven benefits of fluoride, narrated by a dignified dentist with graphics of cavities and receding gums. According to the USC report, this rational, evidence-supported approach is only about 1/2 as effective as the emotional response approach. Emotion has become so dominant in successful ad campaigns that an entire marketing sector is now on the rise, completely devoted to emotional market research.

So how do advertisers track the emotional responses to various ads? They use the science of “emotional analytics”. An insightful article at business2community.com reports on analytic companies such as Affectiva and Realeyes which use webcams to monitor and analyze facial expressions as ads are viewed. The technology determines and rates various emotional responses and the intensity of each as revealed in the viewer’s facial expressions including:









Today consumer psychology is a specialty, but as consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier points out in his article at Psychlopaedia.org, their mission is not to manipulate consumers into buying what they don’t want. As psychology emerged as a powerful tool in the 1950s consumers were concerned about “subliminal messages” invading the subconscious and provoking them to buy products they neither needed or wanted. As Ferrier says, “It’s important to note that it’s very hard to make people do something they don’t want to do.”

The key for successful ads is to tap into the motivations and desires of consumers and then deliver the products that fulfill them. Ferrier notes that today’s ad market is incredibly cluttered, and brands need to tap into universal emotional needs such as being part of “the in-group”. All shampoo gets hair clean, but your brand needs to get the message across that it provides glamour and style above and beyond the rest.

Another technique is to present up and coming brands as more popular than they might actually be. Consumers today place high confidence in the wisdom of the crowd who have already tried and endorsed the product. Many of today’s digital marketplace consumers place more faith in online reviews than they do a face-to-face recommendation from someone they know personally when it comes to making purchasing decisions about products and professional services.

So now that we’ve established that emotion is the dominant characteristic of the two elements of advertising, emotion and thinking, how do we go about provoking the desired emotional responses which lead to high click-through rates and lucrative conversions from casual browser to an enthusiastic buyer?


Empathy. Surprise. Joy. Creativity. These are the ad elements which attract the sophisticated consumers of the digital age and win them to your brand. The most successful campaigns are those which cause viewers to “bond with the brand”. One of the tried and true techniques for creating empathy is to feature animals, especially puppies, along with a poignant emotional roller coaster ride for the viewer. Even moderate beer drinkers would be inclined to bond with the Budweiser brand after viewing the Superbowl ads which had it all, the Clydesdale/puppy series which launched in 2014.

Superbowl ads come at quite a premium for companies, so naturally, we’d expect the bar to be quite high for those. But how about creativity in everyday graphic ads? Surprise and extraordinary creativity combined in Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Hot and Spicy ads which featured images of the KFC product replacing fire in accelerating hotrods, superhero scenarios, and rocket launches. The creativity of these ads earned them a spot on Adweek’s “The 25 Best Ads of 2018″ list.

Storytelling and empathy are invoked in a NatGeo ad telling the story of a young Syrian refugee who escaped the region in a wheelchair in another Adweek top 25 2018 winner. Greenpeace Canada deployed the outrage factor in their campaign against destructive single-use plastics, with graphic depictions of wildlife choking on plastic straws. The ad was powerful enough to cause Starbucks to convert and “buy-in”. They renounced the use of plastic straws shortly thereafter.

Of course, there are ads that push the envelope too far in the attempt to fulfill motivations and desires, such as the British automotive ad which featured a voluptuous model tossing her panties out the car window. The image was so riveting that viewers never remembered exactly which brand of car was featured in the ad. In the article “Advertising as Science” posted by the American Psychological Association, this scenario is featured as an example of ineffective marketing caused by ignorance of the basic psychological tools of communication and persuasion.


At Activator, we bring 20 years of digital marketing experience to the table along with the powerful digital tools and techniques that enable your enterprise to tap into the power of psychology and develop compelling ad campaigns. Activator Studios can give your ads the psychological advantages your business needs to stand out from the crowd, engage the viewer, and convert potential consumers into loyal customers.

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