What is important in life is important in advertising. The only difference between NEWS in real life and in advertising is the degree of arousal or impact.
--BY ABHAYA PANDAY
No, this discussion is not about news in advertising. At a time, when news itself doesn’t contain much news, it is over optimistic to expect news in advertising. For that matter, there isn’t much advertising in advertisements either. Unfortunately, creative people have lost the ability to make advertisements that are both entertaining as well as persuasive. Between persuasion and entertainment, advertisers and advertising agencies have opted for the latter, hoping that something about the advertisement may stick in the minds of the audience, preferably the brand name. News and advertising, both, to a large extent, have lost their functional roles such as informing, educating and persuading the masses.
The NEWS that I am referring to is the recurring themes in advertising i.e. Novelty, Emotions, Women, and Sex. These themes will be found across cultures and time. Why is it that advertisers worldwide seek novel ideas (naya kisimko ad) even though most may end up choosing the same old tried and tested formula. Why do they want emotions in them? Want women (especially beautiful women) or sexually appealing imagery, even if the product has nothing to do with either of the two? It’s because these themes have apparently worked for those who have tried them, probably without knowing why. The answer cannot be found in the standard consumer psychology textbooks.
The Blank Slate
The theory that dominates the various disciplines of social science and policy making is Social Constructivism, which believes that much human phenomena are due to socialisation. The central argument of this theory is that the human mind is a blank slate (tabularasa) devoid of any innate predispositions (talent, aptitude, personality traits, preferences etc). Analogically, this theory views the human brain as hardware, without any preinstalled software at birth. As such, human behaviour (including consumption behaviour) is the result of the writings (downloading) on that blank slate. And who writes on this slate? It is your parents(either through instructions or behaviour) peers, teachers and of course the media! You indulge in a bad behaviour? That’s because you got a bad education from your family, peers, teachers or the media. And how do you correct a bad behaviour? By wiping the bad education or experience from your mind and replacing it with a good education. Do you like eating creamy chocolates, juicy momos or burgers? That’s because you got a bad education. The remedy lies in providing you with a good education. But the ironyis, weren’t you already aware of the good education? Didn’t you know that eating those fatty products causes all sorts of health problems? Of course you did. That means your bad behaviour has triumphed over your good education. So much for the theory of social constructivism.
Evolutionary Consumer Psychology and NEWS
Evolutionary Consumer Psychology (a sub discipline of Evolutionary Psychology)posits that not all consumption behaviours are socially constructed or a result of our culture. Some behaviours are rooted in our evolutionary history and embedded over time in our biology. Evolutionary Consumer Psychology (ECP) is a relatively new field pioneered and spearheaded by Dr. Gad Saad, a marketing professor and a bestselling author. So how does ECP explain our penchant for fatty food? For that, one should not hold the alluring TV commercials as the culprit, but travel far back in our evolutionary history. More than a hundred thousand years back we, the homosapiens, lived the life of hunter gatherers in the African Savannahs. We hunted animals and gathered nuts and fruits for our dietary needs. But animals and nuts were not freely available. Therefore, we not only faced caloric scarcity but also caloric uncertainty (we didn’t know when we would get our next meal). As a result, evolution favoured taste buds that had preference for high caloric and fatty foods, which could be stored in our body for rainy days. Needless to mention that evolution selects those physical and mental traits, which helps us either in our survival or in our reproductive success. If you look at the list of top 10 global fast food restaurant chains spanning a decade, you will find one similarity: they sell high caloric food, that appeal to our taste buds. So it doesn’t take much to figure out that the selection of taste buds that prefers high caloric food was aimed at our survival.
Similarly, our ancestors were attracted towards novelty (either novel animals, fruits or places) because novelty could either aid in their survival or pose a threat. A novel animal could either be a prey for them or a predator, novel fruits or nuts could either be poisonous or nutritious, a novel place would either be dangerous or safe. They had to be alert towards novel sources of food or habitats in order to maintain and enhance their survival. Novelty seeking, some economists suggest, is one of the major driving forces of the modern economy. The economic growth demands that more and more people consume more and more goods and services. But if goods can last for decades, how does the economy push people into buying the same kind of stuff frequently? By innovating new (i.e novel) product categories and services or introducing newer versions of the old stuff quite regularly, catering to our evolved fetish for novelty. This is the key to economic growth, among other factors.
Similarly emotions evolved as an adaptation/solution to the recurring problem we faced in evolutionary history. Let’s take the example of fear (one of the many emotions). Our ancestors constantly faced predators or hostile environments. If our ancestors didn’t have fear, they would not be fearful of animals higher in the food chain. Instead of running for their lives, they would be heading towards the animal, only to become a prey. That would mean the end of survival. So, the emotion ‘fear’ evolved as a solution to the problems(predators or hostile environments) we faced recurrently in our history. Similarly, if our ancestors didn’t have happiness or joy, they would not seek a mate for sex. End of reproduction. Emotions also aid in decision making, especially when you have to decide under the conditions of uncertainty and time limitations. Generally, buying behaviour can be classified into two types 1) habitual buying: you buy the product or service without much deliberation and 2) buying under uncertainty: you are not habituated to the product and you do not have much information or knowledge about the product and you don’t have much time or patience to acquire all the relevant information. Even if you somehow gathered all the time and patience, you probably don’t have the computational ability to make a mathematical judgment about the various options under consideration. Emotions help you choose a product under these conditions. You choose an option that you think will make you feel better. According to eminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, any given choice evokes in you either a positive emotion or negative emotion or keeps you emotionally neutral. The choice that generates the greatest intensity of positive emotion is the choice that you will, in all likelihood, end up with. Emotions, it can be argued, have come as a great gift of evolution to the modern marketers. Otherwise what sense does it make to buy an iphone 7 or Samsung Galaxy Note, when one can buy a functionally comparable mobile phone at one tenth of the price? The iphone or the Samsung apparently gives its owner a sense of pride or some other positive emotion. There are other evolutionary reasons as to why people engage in conspicuous consumption(such as expensive mobile phones or cars etc), but the theory that explains this type of behaviour (signaling theory)is outside the scope of this article.
Not attracted towards women (or men) and sex? Again end of reproduction. Social constructivists argue that beauty is a social construct. ECP argues that this is partially true. Some aspects of beauty are universal, irrespective of culture. In his book, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, Dr. Gad Saad presents researches carried out in different cultures to support his claim that some aspects of beauty are universal, such as facial symmetry, unblemished skin, youthful skin, lustrous hair and a certain waist to hip (WTH ) ratio. These are the features in women that men across cultures find attractive irrespective of race or skin colour or weight (in case of WTH ratio). Similarly what do women prefer in a man? Tallness, deep voice, square jaw line and high status besides inner qualities. These preferences of sexes are congruent with the second theory of Evolutionary Psychology- sexual selection. According to this theory, women and men prefer those traits in the opposite sex that help them in reproductive success (genetic continuity) in the mating market.
Why NEWS in advertising?
But the question still remains: why NEWS in advertising? We highlighted so far that NEWS has served an evolutionary purpose in our history and continues to influence our lives, but why NEWS in advertising? The answer is simple: advertising is the reflection of life. What is important in life is important in advertising. The only difference between NEWS in real life and in advertising is the degree of arousal or impact. Looking at a smiling baby in real life evokes joy in you in a much greater intensity than a smiling baby in advertisements. NEWS in real is important in our survival and reproduction. NEWS in advertising simply reflects this reality of life so that the purpose of products, services and advertising can be aligned with the most fundamental of human goals. Broadly speaking, advertising has three purposes 1) to attract attention 2) to help the audience store the advertising message to long term memory 3) to help the consumers decide in favour of the brand. NEWS helps in all these processes. It not only attracts people’s attention, it heightens their state of awareness. Memories formed under aroused conditions are longer lasting. All of us who have experienced last year’s earthquake quite vividly remember everything that happened around us that day. Third, NEWS helps in decision making, mainly because they make advertising more memorable. Though decision making is a complex process, top of the mind recall is a major factor for brand choice. Moreover, the depiction of NEWS in advertising signals to our primitive brain that it contains messages of evolutionary importance, and therefore, should be pursued with interest. Of course one has to be careful in using NEWS in advertising in the modern world. Irrelevant novelty, inappropriate emotions, unnecessary sexual imagery amounting to vulgarity and portrayal of women as mere objects can do more harm to the brand than good, no matter how important NEWS is from the evolutionary perspective.
Novelty in advertising, as in life, though stimulating, may not always be persuading. Emotions, though adaptive, may not always be advantageous. Beautiful women, though attention grabbing (to both men and women), may not always be portrayed in an appropriate manner. Sex may not always be productive. This is a fact that advertisers need to consider seriously before using NEWS indiscriminately. Having said that, what one should keep in mind is that our physical and mental characteristics evolved at a time when we lived in jungles living a life of hunter gatherers. Whether we like it or not, they are present-in whatever form- in our biology as evolutionary legacies and continue to influence our behaviour. Beneath the evolutionary recent brain -which produces sophisticated ideals of the 21st century- lies the huge mass of an emotional and instinctual brain, which responds to situations as if we still lived in the jungles. It looks at objects and events either through the lens of survival or reproduction. Therefore, products and services and a host of our consumption behaviours (including consumption of advertising) serve either our evolutionary needs for survival or our need for reproduction. Of course, we may not be consciously aware of this because much of what happens in our brain goes unnoticed to our conscious brain. The arguments I have presented so far fall within the theory of ECP. Of course one can always disagree with the tenets of ECP and present alternative theories of NEWS in advertising, which are scientifically based. The problem with social science is that it has no absolute truths. The beauty of social science is that it can simultaneously accommodate multiple truths. However, theories that lack scientific explanation or have been developed simply for the sake of simplicity or convenience or to suit the norms of the 21st century, failing, however, to reflect our actual behaviour will always leave us puzzled, as our penchant for juicy momo does.
Panday is a freelance Creative Director and a winner of 6 Crity Advertising Awards.