Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes that is an ad. – Howard Gossage
Have you ever felt your attention suddenly yanked away — while walking, maybe even driving on the freeway, certainly while scrolling your phone — all because…
…of an advertisement?
Bus stop posters. Signs on the side of semi-trucks. Videos on social media made to appear like any other post.
You know what they’re meant to do: make you buy, click, share now! And even though you know these ads are trying to “trick” you into doing something, how do they still do it? Is there one type of advertisement that is more persuasive than the others?
To answer those questions, let’s take a peek at the history of advertising.
SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME
As long as people have been trading goods, there have been ads.
Admittedly, they weren’t quite in the form you think of today. They almost all consisted of painted signs in store windows, or free sample or salespeople. Advertising in its more modern form really begins in the late 1600s. With the widespread use of the printing press.
And soon, where there were newspapers, there would be newspaper ads.
But even still, in the late 1700s, these print ads were more like informational pamphlets. For example, they would explain what coffee was or what it could do. Most notably, they didn’t promote a specific manufacturer of the good. That’s because “brands” as we know them today (Folgers coffee, Domino sugar) didn’t exist.
But then came the Industrial Revolution.
In the 1800s, companies started to mass produce their products and distribute them across the nation. Suddenly, brands emerged as different companies wanted you to buy their product and not others. And with this, another fundamental of marketing would soon appear: the jingle.
NEW TYPES OF ADVERTISING
In the early 1900s, radio — shortly followed by radio advertising — spread widely across the world. No longer were ads constrained to hand drawn pictures and text. As some advertisers at the time proclaimed: radio gave advertisers “the latchkey into every American home.”
Not only did marketers invent jingles during this time period (an actually effective way to help consumers remember a brand), but they created entertainment programming. This is to say that companies like Proctor & Gamble made full-length, daytime radio dramas to promote their products. In fact, this is where the term “soap opera” comes from (soap being one of P&G’s flagship products).
Of course, radio would soon be outplaced by the even more impressive television ads of the 1960s. And when cable TV came about two decades later, advertising took a new turn. With hundreds of channels, advertisers could create ads for certain types of consumers. They could show gardening ads to those who watch gardening shows, alcohol ads to people who watch sports.
And just as cable advertising was getting into full swing, it was soon outplaced by a new type of advertising once more. The internet.
In October 1994, the first internet banner ad makes it appearance. And four years later, internet advertising was a $1 billion industry. Largely, because it allowed for the most persuasive form of advertising to be applied to everyone.
Now, let’s be clear. Even the most persuasive advertising can’t make anyone everywhere do exactly what it says. But better advertisements do lead to greater influence. And there is one type of advertising that is better than all others. Matched advertisements.
For example, imagine an ad were trying to sell you running shoes. If it knew you were an extrovert, it might speak to how the shoes are great for running groups, or it might use images with colorful versions of the shoes. If you were an introvert, it might talk about the comfort of shoes for peaceful runs, or it might show them in more muted colors.
Generally, the more an ad can match the consumer – their personality, their values, their motivation behind the purchase – the more effective it is.
In fact, in research I and colleagues conducted, we simply told ChatGPT (an AI program) to design ads depending on people’s personality types. Then, we showed these ads to people and found exactly what matching research has found for the last 75 years:
When the ads matched the consumer’s personality, it made the participants like the brand more, more interested in purchasing it, and willing to spend more money to get it!
PREPARE YOURSELF: BEWARE OF YOURSELF
These matched ads are so persuasive for two primary reasons 1) They “feel” right, like they fit us, and 2) They seem relevant and important. Together, when you see one of these matched ads, they ultimately make you pay more attention the ad, which can make it more effective.
So just be wary when an advertisement catches your attention too well. Because there’s a very good chance that advertisers designed it specifically to be effective to people like you.
Everyday Psychology: Probably one of the best places to experience these matched ads is on the internet — and particularly, your social media account. Because these companies have so much information about you (as well as that same information about your friends — who it knows you’re associated with), it can design ads that are particularly tailored to your interests. In fact, one of my colleagues has shown how she can predict a person’s personality simply through limited information about their Facebook likes. But the algorithms don’t stop there. They will also take into consideration your GPS (showing ads for restaurants that in your area), your time of day (showing you “better pillow” ads at night), and countless other factors.
Tungate, M. (2007). Adland: A Global History of Advertising. Kogan Page Publishers.
Matz, Sandra C., Jacob D. Teeny, Sumer Vaid,* Gabriellea M. Harari, and Moran Cerf, “The Potential of Generative AI for Personalized Persuasion at Scale,” under review (preprint available at arXiv: https://psyarxiv.com/rn97c)