Taking ADvantage


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

Dedicated to Brenda, without whom I'd never have finished this book.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

This is the text to Taking ADvantage, a book on the physical and cultural evolution of human beings, how that evolution has affected human subconscious processing of stimuli, and how advertising takes advantage (thus the title) of that processing by creating stimuli.

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Human beings bay at the moon.

That may seem a strange way to open a book on advertising, but it's true. Deep down inside people bay at the moon.

When I first started in advertising, I thought it was just a matter of talking people into believing me when I extolled a product's virtues. As it turned out, I was right.

However, the more I worked on advertising, the more I realized that there was more to it than simply talking to people. It was necessary to examine what motivated people; what, deep down inside, people wanted from a product. This led me to start studying motivation, in particular the psychological and cultural aspects that made up what led people to do what they did.

This study led me to look where I had never gone before: biology, psychology, psychophysiology, anatomy, communication theory, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis (no, not because I needed it personally (yes, you did!)(no, I didn't!)).

Where my studies have led me is to a series of ten psychological appeals that advertising uses to motivate people to buy products. Those appeals are:

  • Self-preservation
  • Sex
  • Acquisition of property
  • Self-esteem
  • Personal enjoyment
  • Constructiveness
  • Destructiveness
  • Curiosity
  • Imitation
  • Altruism


A psychological appeal is a visual or aural influence on your subconscious mind and emotions. It does this by implying that doing what is suggested (in the case of advertising, buying the product or service) will satisfy a subconscious desire. It is not subliminal, which are elements in a visual or aural presentation that you don't consciously perceive but influence your behavior. If a psychological appeal couldn't be perceived, it would have no effect at all. In fact, it is blatantly obvious the moment you know such appeals exist. It doesn't aim at your intellect. In fact, your intellect can often get in the way of the effect of an appeal.

Actually, a psychological appeal doesn't have to make sense, and often shouldn't to be effective. Simply remember a nightmare you once had. Remember how sensible it all seemed while you were dreaming, and how little sense it made when awake. Nonetheless, you woke up in a cold sweat, breathing hard and shaking. Why? Because your dreaming mind saw everything in the nightmare as real, and your body, which your mind controls, reacted accordingly.

As you look at this book, you may notice that I include a large biological basis for the foundation and use of many of the appeals. For many people, this may cause a conflict. There is a debate going on today between nature and nurture, whether biology or environment is the controlling factor in human behavior. It may easily appear that I support the nature side of the debate.

Such is not the case. I do not believe that nature (biology) controls human behavior. However, I do believe that biology is a powerful influence.

Please note the difference: nature does not control, but does influence. Humans, like all other biological organisms on earth, cannot help being influenced by the fact that they are biological, that there are genetic predispositions to regard certain stimuli in a certain way. That this could be doubted I find hard to believe.

Nonetheless, humans have an additional factor that influences them far more than any other organism on earth (as far as we humans know). We have the most complex social structure on earth, one that permeates and influences every aspect of our lives. Who we are, what we do, and how we do it is constantly being restrained by and realized through our societies and cultures.

For example, how do you feel about a snack of nice, fresh maggots?


You probably went, "Yuck!!!", or some other expression of dislike. However, your society determines how you actually feel about eating maggots. For some societies, particularly in the tropics, they're a wonderful treat. How about cannibalism? In some societies, it is the greatest honor you can do the entree: you eat grandpa because he then, quite literally, becomes a part of your living body, and when you die you become a part of the living body of your descendants, taking a part of grandpa with you, etc., etc., etc., and thus no one ever actually dies--they live forever in the bodies of their descendants. When you think about it, that's not a bad afterlife, since it isn't an afterlife at all--it's a part of a current life.

Then why don't you think of things that way? Because your society says you don't eat maggots or frowns on cannibalism, and has taught you that they are wrong.

However, when biological forces, such as starvation, come into play, the social lessons you have learned lose their power. Just remember the Donner Party. They were a group of 19th Century settlers who got snow-bound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After a time, the only source of food, and thus of survival, came from the people who were still alive eating the people who had died. Deep down inside, staying alive (a biological imperative) took precedence over social proscriptions against cannibalism. Thus, those who died kept those who still lived alive.

The same applies to the other appeals. Although there are proscriptions against lust, greed, fun, etc. by whichever society you live in, they nonetheless have an effect on you: everyone wants to stay alive, to reproduce, to have a larger piece of the pie, to have fun. Although humans need society to live, we've had society for only a few thousand years; we've had biological urges for millions of years, and it's these urges that advertising can take advantage of when using psychological appeals.

You must always bear in mind that the use of these appeals cannot force anyone to do anything. That they exist is true; that they are incontrovertible, uncontrollable and inescapable is not. The use of any one or combination of them in an ad does not automatically result in people buying the product. That they can force anyone to buy anything is giving advertising a power that it neither has nor should have. They can, at the most, make a product look more attractive, and, at the least, attract the attention of someone in the target audience. Nonetheless, they exist, and the advertising person should know about them, as should the audience that sees them.

In the following chapters, I will discuss the appeals and their biological and social bases. The organization reflects the degree to which biology or society influence the appeals. The first section is to provide some principles of advertising and psychology. For those people not in advertising it will give you some background. For those people in advertising, it will serve merely as a reminder. I will also provide some background on human psychology, how a human responds to and thinks about the world around rher.

Please realize that you should consider neither of these chapters an exhaustive treatment of either advertising or psychology. They are just background that will help you understand what is in the rest of the book. If you already have a good understanding of advertising and psychology, feel free to skip this section. You may, however, wish to skim it.

The second section covers the appeals of self-preservation, sex, and greed. Biology is the strongest influence on these three appeals. They are instinctive reactions to being alive and staying that way. Society mitigates rather than creates them. Chapter Three is the biological basis, Chapter Four is the social basis, and Chapters Five, Six and Seven look at how advertising can take advantage of self-preservation, sex and greed.

The third section covers the remaining appeals: self-esteem, personal enjoyment, constructiveness, destructiveness, curiosity, imitation and altruism. For these seven appeals, human society and culture have the greatest influence on their effectiveness. However, each also has a biological basis. Chapter Eight looks at the biology of these appeals. Chapter Nine covers social influences. Chapters 10 - 16 discuss how advertising uses these appeals.

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You can reach me by e-mail at: richt@turbonet. com

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