Advertising has a staggering impact on what we buy, what we do, and how we behave. Some ad-campaigns alone have managed to trigger international shifts in culture and consumption. One of the most famous examples is that of Gillette, some one-hundred years ago. At the time, the company decided to expand its product selection to include women’s razors — on the off-chance they would catch on — and introduced adverts for the new product. As a result, they produced consumer demand which now extends across most of the western world, along with a trend for women’s body hair removal which had not existed prior to Gillette’s ad-campaign.
The impact of Gillette’s marketing demonstrates just how much advertisers’ advances can influence our behavior, both individually and collectively. Now, with the ubiquity of social media, advertisers see new opportunities: indeed, worldwide budgets for social media advertising are predicted to have soon doubled from 2014 levels, and revenue from these efforts has more than doubled, according to Statista.com. Given that advertisers are constantly refining their social media engagement, it is increasingly important to ask ourselves: how (and and to what end) might advertisers be aiming to manipulate us on social media?
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
What do we know about the science of advertising?
The science of advertising has long been a topic of public interest and a subject of research. Some of the earliest theories instilled public fear about the apparent use of subliminal advertising; in other words, influencing people below the threshold of consciousness. Vicary conducted a famous experiment in 1957, where the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” were flashed up on a cinema screen so fast than the human mind could not consciously process them . The audience in question did not register having seen the messages. Vicary reported, however, that popcorn and Coca-Cola sales increased dramatically (by 57.5% and 18.1%, respectively) after the audience had been unknowingly exposed to this message. The idea that advertisers could influence people’s behavior with such ease, and without their knowledge, was a frightening prospect, and one which caused fear and backlash among the general public. Fortunately, Vicary’s experiment was revealed to be a hoax, and the initial fears about subliminal messaging were assuaged.
In more recent years, research has found that the secrets behind advertising are not as mysterious as they once appeared; instead, they are firmly grounded in knowledge about the realities of human behavior. An extensive body of social psychology research has explored the processes of influence and persuasion; normative influence (the pressure to conform to the majority) and informational influence (our instinct to defer to a more knowledgeable party) have been identified as salient forms of influence , and have frequently been used to explain our susceptibility to advertising . However, research has only recently begun to look at how these techniques are applied to advertising within the world of social media.
How and why do these techniques work so effectively on social media?
In the past, advertising consisted largely of television ads, billboards, packaging – essentially, the aim was for the advert itself to directly engage the attention of whoever caught sight of it. However, the rise of social media has allowed adverts to make use of a new dimension: the viewer’s exposure to other viewers. Three of our own thought patterns make us particularly easy prey to this aspect of social media advertising:
1. ‘Just act normal.’
As advertisers have long known, normative influence appeals to us because we instinctively avoid censure from the majority (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). Adverts in the past have been able to make claims about how many people use and love their product, but this has only been achieved by explicitly telling the viewer the figures. This is where social media comes in: it can show rather than tell. On many social media channels, advertisers have no need to even mention other consumers’ preferences; instead, they can instantly let us see for ourselves how many others have ‘liked’ their product, are ‘interested in’ their event, or ‘follow’ their page.
Indeed, research has found that we are more inclined to ‘like’ something which is well-‘liked’ already; teenagers (incidentally, the biggest users of social media) are particularly vulnerable to this type of majority influence . Consumer behavior can even be influenced by low-consensus information  – in other words, seeing that even a few others have ‘liked’ a promotional post on Instagram can (for some people) still act as an incentive to ‘like’ it too. This makes social media a useful platform even for little-known products.
2. ‘Maybe I’m wrong.’
Informational influence  means that we seek out validation from other people’s answers or opinions if we doubt our own judgement. If we are unsure of our own decision in any way, we look to see what the people around us have decided – particularly if they are deemed more ‘expert’ than us – and we are influenced by their decision. For this reason, it has been long-accepted in advertising that social proof sells, particularly if a renowned expert agrees to promote a product. Social media provides more avenues than ever before for expert endorsements . Many social media-based ‘experts’ — particularly the new class of #instafamous, vloggers, and fitness Instagrammers — make a living by endorsing products and businesses on their social media channels. This is testament to how effective these endorsements are. These individuals use features like Instagram stories and Snapchat stories to allow their endorsements to seem more informal, unpolished, and ‘real’.
3. ‘Us and them.’
Another type of influence which is increasingly being identified in research is the appeal to ‘social identity’. People love to self-categorize, framing their identity using social groups . As a result, we are more likely to remember adverts which appeal to our social identity, and to forget those which do not. In the past, this has created a dilemma for advertisers: which social groups should they pitch to? Social media makes this less of a problem, because advertisers are able to track an individual’s social media usage and their search history, and therefore tailor adverts to each person’s ‘social identity’ , ensuring we see an advert which appeals to us . Many social media platforms now even give the user the option of selecting which advert they want to watch, thus creating an even more personalised advertising experience and increasing the likelihood that the viewer will engage with the advert.
Can we resist these mind games?
According to some broader research on informational influence, one way in which we can resist it is by creating our own certainty. Alexander, Zucker, and Brody (1970) performed an experiment which demonstrated that if people have enough information to be certain of their own decision, they do not succumb so strongly to informational influence . Their study focused on a problem-solving task, yet the conclusion can nonetheless be applied to the decisions we make about whether an endorsed product is worth spending our money on. Are the ‘Instafamous’ really the best source of expertise on which new gadget or gear to buy? We can equip ourselves better against persuasion if we do our own research first.
The AI Governance Challenge
In theory, the most easily resisted phenomena is normative influence, which usually produces behavioral conformity but not genuine mind-changes. We might follow a new enterprise on Instagram because our friends have raved about it, and buy its products to show that we share their tastes, while in reality not being fully convinced of its merits. This lack of ‘cognitive change’ might be thought to leave more scope for independent behavior to win out. Despite some research demonstrating salient conformity rates, Liu (2008) also found social media profiles to act as “taste performances”  where people specifically depict their differentiation from others. Could this motivation work against the majority influence encouraged by advertisers? Liu’s study only focused on MySpace profile presentation, but future research could usefully investigate the relationship between the desire for differentiation and any ‘liking’ or purchasing activity on platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
The instinct for self-categorisation is perhaps the hardest to resist. Research has deemed that self-categorisation into social groups has been an advantage in evolutionary terms . However, it can easily be turned to our disadvantage when advertisers use it for their own interests. While opting out of online tracking is not yet a transparent process, we can help ourselves to some extent by remaining aware of the advertisers’ aims. Research has found that if somebody is obviously trying to persuade us then their message becomes less effective ; this also applies to overly-blunt messaging by advertisers (e.g., ‘Buy our product’). By this logic, if we remain aware that adverts are deliberately tailored to appeal to us (and therefore sell to us), we are less likely to succumb.
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About the Author
Hannah completed a conversion MSc in Psychology at Brunel University, having taken her undergraduate degree at Cambridge in English Literature. With several years’ experience working in business (finance and insurance), her particular interests lie in applying cognitive psychology to decision-making and its application in consumerism and the workplace.