Taking ADvantage


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

Humans are complex.

For the last six to seven million years, nature and nurture have been molding a small primate into the primary (at least, in our own opinion) animal on earth -- human beings. As far as we know, we are the only animals that can use our minds to consciously examine our bodies, our brains, and, of course, our minds to determine where they came from and what make them tick.

However, the conscious mind is not the only one we have. There is also the unconscious mind, the one that carries with it all those millions of years and thousands of generations of our ancestors living, reproducing, and evolving with and without the conscious mind. Deep down inside every one of us we carry the baggage of the past, the unconscious reactions to stimuli, the ones that kept our ancestors alive, let them reproduce, let them gather resources more efficiently than their competition -- in short, that allowed our ancestors to be our ancestors. All of these biological necessities, self-preservation, sex, and greed, still influence our reactions to stimuli, no matter how much we think (using "think" very deliberately) our reactions are arrived at consciously. No matter what or how we think, we automatically respond to danger, the opposite sex, or opportunities to get a larger piece of the pie. Exactly how we respond, however, is strongly influenced by our being social creatures.

Biological necessity is not the only influence on our unconscious minds. Humans are among, if not the most social creatures on earth. Everything we believe and do relates to others, from how we feel about them to how we feel about ourselves. That the feeling may be negative, positive or neutral, for either them or ourselves, is irrelevant -- the fact is, we have the feeling, automatically, unconsciously. These unconscious reactions to stimuli are (for the purposes of this book) self-esteem, personal enjoyment, constructiveness, destructiveness, curiosity, imitation, and altruism. Although grounded on the biological necessities of self-preservation, reproduction, and gathering the resources necessary to do the first two, stay alive and have babies, these latter reactions are socially based. That is, how we react comes from millions of years of living together in groups of more than one in such a way that we continued to live, reproduce, and gather resources more efficiently than any competition.

What happens in our minds is not the only important reaction we have. What is also important is the fact that we do things in response to those mental reactions. That is, those subconscious reactions influence our behaviors. Fear, an unconscious react ion to a dangerous stimulus, results in our freezing, running, attacking, retreating, screaming, whatever our instincts tell our bodies is the proper behavior to respond to that mental reaction. Lust or greed result from the possibilities of reproduction or getting resources, and arousal or selfishness are the behaviors.

Whether our subconscious reactions come from nature or nurture, stimuli that cause them need not come from only the world: danger, the opposite sex, resources, other people, places, or things don't have to be real to trigger a reaction. As long as we perceive something, our subconscious mind will react to it, and we will behave in some fashion in response to those reactions. "Surely there is something in us deeply seated, self-propelled, and on occasion able to evade our conscious control..." (Sagan and Druyan, 1992, p 405)

Advertising takes advantage of the fact that stimuli don't have to be real to cause mental responses and resulting behaviors. By presenting the stimuli though the use of words and images, advertising can trigger the reactions in much the same way that reality does. By linking the psychological appeals to a product being advertised, an advertisement can make that product seem more attractive to a consumer. If an ad can make it appear that buying the product can improve a person's chance of staying alive, reproducing, gathering resources, improving rher self-esteem, having more fun, be more constructive, destructive, answer questions, be able to imitate desirable abilities or appearances, or help others, then the consumer may be more likely to buy the product. That the ad rarely overtly states that one or more of these things will happen is not the point (besides, few products could actually fulfill an overt promise that it will keep you alive or get you a sex partner, and thus would be deceptive and illegal). The implied benefit a buyer could get from the product, implied by the words or, especially, the images, is what makes the product attractive.

The use of psychological appeals is not subliminal advertising. It is the use of overt words and images that trigger subconscious responses. You don't need to print the word "sex" nearly invisibly all over a picture to plant a desire in the subconscious mind: sex is already planted there. To trigger the response an ad only has to show an attractive model and imply that he or she is attracted to the kind of person who uses the product. The same is true of the other nine appeals.

What must be borne in mind is that advertising cannot force anyone to do anything. The most it can do is make a product attractive. The decision to buy or not to buy is up to the consumer. But the more attractive the product seems, the better the chance the consumer may buy. "Our intelligence is imperfect, surely, and newly arisen; the ease with which it can be sweet-talked, overwhelmed, or subverted by other hardwired propensities -- sometimes themselves disguised as the cool light of reason -- is worrisome." (Sagan and Druyan, 1992, p. 407) Nonetheless, our intelligence can counter the subconscious blandishments of advertising, if we are aware of those blandishments, where they came from, and how they work.

Still, the use of psychological appeals takes advantage of the millions of years of evolution and the effects of those millions of years on our minds and our behavior. And that behavior is to buy.

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Copyright © 1996 Richard F. Taflinger.
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