Introduction to the Psychology of Advertising

How do adverts attract our attention, and how do they lodge themselves in our heads?
29 April 2022

Interview with 

Leslie Hallam, University of Lancaster




What leads us to buy something? From TV to online and sides of busses, adverts are everywhere. We can block out most ads from registering, but there are those few that have the power to tear us away from scrolling social media, which is full of yet more ads. This sent James Tytko down a rabbit hole of trying to understand how they're so powerful...

James - Like everyone, I'm frustrated by ads. They're not just on TV anymore of course they're on social media, news websites, everywhere. At the same time, I'm also fascinated by them. The fact that they are everywhere and increasingly so suggests to me that their effectiveness at this point is unquestionable. During the most recent World Cup, ITV were charging somewhere between £400,000 to £500,000 for 30 second ads during England's semi-final against Croatia. Who could be spending this much money without a guarantee of some sort of return on that investment? I also know that the ads I do see, well they're often bonkers. What does a talking meerkat from Russia have to do with making me more likely to use a certain price comparison website? With all this in mind I wanted to find out what I could about advertising from a scientific standpoint. Why they are the way they are, how we are being influenced by them, and who or what dictates which ads we see. My first port of call was Leslie Hallam, who runs the Psychology and Marketing course at the University of Lancaster.

Leslie - For all of us, we have a kind of orienting response, which is more or less alerted when we are looking at ads. In some cases we pay attention and we realise it's not anything to do with those. Sometimes we continue to pay attention despite the fact that it's not to do with us, if we're not in the target market at all for the product. Other times, it's just a really striking ad and it gets your attention and keeps you there. It's a kind of very basic hard wiring that's being played to form a memory. Tracing our long term memory store, which is the goal of any advertising, but if you're not aware of it, you can't pay attention. If you're not paying attention, you don't remember it. If you don't remember it, you simply have no change in your propensity to purchase when you come across that product. Think where perhaps it parts look little bit from the narrow path that is peer reviewed in journals and, sensible psychology is when it comes to things like emotionality and the impact it has on decision making and how we measure emotionality in advertising, is quite a controversial area.

James - You've touched nicely there on the tricky territory we are in; how we can use science to explain emotion. I guess I'm looking for your advice really as to whether I'm wasting my time, trying to look for scientific explanations, to the questions I have about modern advertising and how emotion and creativity gets us to buy things.

Leslie - I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind that having an emotional response to an ad is a very powerful method of engaging people with your brand, with your product and if you create a positive emotion, then that emotion is recreated when you see the brand again in supermarket or the car showroom or wherever. That energy, that emotionality, becomes part of the thing we associate with the brand or the product. You simply experience the emotion. You don't really go into it and think, 'I really believe that there is this warm feeling associated with it' because really what they're trying to do in advertising all the time is reach into your subconscious rather than your consciousness. Subconscious is a very fuzzy area within psychology within science. It's such a powerful element within what advertisements are trying to do here. I'm not suggesting anything to do with dreams or weird spooky stuff or collecting conscious. I'm not saying they're not there, but they're not scientific. They're a different way of looking at the world, but clearly scientists use the concept of subconscious as well. Subconscious in this sense is the preconceptual realm and it's very emotional, it's very appetitive, it's divirous, it's a very uncritical response and a bit unconstrained. Advertisers try to reach into that so overall the emotions prefigure our decision making and that's why it's such a powerful arena for advertisers to try and access.


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