Advertising is more effective than you think

Some fascinating information coming from Psyblog this week on the effectiveness of persuasion.

In an entry called, “The Third Person Effect,” Psyblog author and University College researcher Jeremy Dean shows us how we are not as invulnerable to advertising messaging as we think we are.

Ever since advertising became truly popular, consumers have generally maintained that while they can understand how advertising would have an effect on others, it cannot possibly have an effect on them. They are too savvy, and too in-control of their mental faculties to be influenced by such ham-handed messaging.

Dean reviewed work by Richard M. Perloff and Bryant Paul (et. al.), who themselves reviewed over thirty studies on people’s attitudes on advertising influence. He found that:

… participants thought others would be influenced by the message, but that they themselves would remain unaffected. When psychologists looked at the results, though, it was clear that participants were just as influenced as other people. This was dubbed the ‘third-person effect’.

Even more interesting, Dean found an direct correlation between our indifference or overt resistance to a message, and its effect on us:

Perloff also found that when people don’t agree with the message or judge its source as negative, the third-person effect became even stronger. The effect is also stronger when messages aren’t directly relevant to people.

In other words people are likely to be influenced more than they think on subjects that are currently of little or no interest to them. An everyday example would be seeing an advert for a car, when you’re not in the market for a new car. We’d probably guess it has little or no influence on us, but this research suggests we’d be wrong.

The Marlboro Man says, "You only think I'm not getting through to you."

This phenomenon of the Third Person Effect highlights an interesting psychological phenomenon: we tend to overestimate our own free will and resistance to influence, and let down our defenses as a result. In other words, the more you ignore a message, or believe that someone would have to be an idiot to buy into that, the more the message is probably influencing you.

Dean compares the Third Person Effect to another psychological delusion, the False Consensus Effect – the tendency for people to assume that others would think the same as they think, when in truth they actually don’t.  In both instances, people tend to demonstrate a bias that they are more correct – either as a holder of “correct” opinions, or someone who is less easily manipulated – than others. People tend to award themselves the benefit of the doubt with regard to their own version of reality.

Dean concludes that we generally know less about our own mental processes than we realize, and that we can better defend ourselves from messaging if we understand this tendency. I would add two observations.

First, this would seem to suggest that, while good ads are “sticky,” marketing does not necessarily have to penetrate the forefront of your consciousness in order to be effective. Simple ad frequency may be more of an influencing factor than advertisers realize.

Second, notice the status assumption. In both cases, people will tend to award themselves higher status than an anonymous “other.” (Thinking either, “It’s obvious that the other guy would make this same choice,” or, “Other people might be swayed by that, but not me.”)


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