Taking ADvantage
I Wanna Be Like . . . : Imitation and Advertising


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

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

Michael Jordan races about the basketball court, flying through the air and dunking the ball over and over again. It must be the shoes.


Christy Brinkley pirouettes in a high fashion gown, fussed over by hairdressers and make-up artists as she extolls the virtues of Cover Girl make-up. She is ready and takes her place before the camera, the image of wholesome beauty and innocent sexuality.


"I'm pretty good now, but I could be better," the man says to his reflection in the mirror. He decides to check the possibility that there is something that will restore his thinning hair.


A beautiful woman dances erotically in front of a man dressed in jeans. As the commercial progresses they get closer together, finally ending in an embrace.


The examples above illustrate the ninth psychological appeal, that of imitation.

Imitation appeals to people's desire to be or act like someone or something else. Of course, there is a problem if people don't want to be like someone or something else. Therein lies the weakness of the appeal.


Imitation occurs often in nature since it can provide biological advantage, particularly in the area of self-preservation. There are many examples in nature of animals that imitate other things as protective camouflage. In these cases, evolution genetically alters the animals to change their physical appearance. Insects are the true masters at this game, imitating the appearance of sticks, leaves, and even moss. There are other animals that use the tactic, such as the harmless king snake that imitates the black, red and yellow banding of the deadly coral snake. In such cases, the imitation promotes self-preservation by fooling predators: the insects are difficult to see and thus fairly safe, predators leave the king snake alone since they fear what they think is the coral snake's venom.

There is, of course, not only physical imitation, but behavior imitation; an animal imitates the actions performed by another (I will elaborate on this later). Usually the action is imitated because it is advantageous in some way. Although that advantage may be self-preservation, it may also be sex, greed, self-esteem or personal enjoyment.

Sometimes the physical and behavior imitations are combined. A species of fruit fly has colored patterns on its wings that makes it look like a spider, a physical imitation. However, when confronted by a real spider that would be more than happy to eat it, it will imitate the spider's greeting movements by waving its black and white wings. This fools the spider into thinking it's meeting another of its species, and it goes away. (Attenborough, 1991)

Some imitations enhance sexual reproduction. The sun fish in North America has two sexes, male and female. However, the male comes in two varieties. One is much larger than the female. He digs a nest with his tail, and "dances" to attract a female to lay her eggs in his nest so he can fertilize them. He chases away any rivals during mating, and protects the eggs and ensuing young from predators.

The second type of male, however, never digs a nest, dances to attract a female, or protects its young. Instead, it takes advantage of the nest and attracting dance of the large male. When the large one has a female laying eggs in his nest, the second type slips between the two. Although he is male, he isn't chased off because he imitates the female: physically he resembles her in size and coloration (physical imitation). He also does the female version of the mating dance (behavior imitation). This fools the large male into thinking he has attracted two females. As the female lays her eggs, both males fertilize them. In this way, the imitator ensures that at least some of the eggs carry his genes. In addition, his progeny are fairly safe since the large male protects the eggs and young, unaware that many aren't even his. (Attenborough, 1991)

As discussed under SELF-PRESERVATION, learned behaviors that enhance survival are imitations: the lion cub imitates rher mother and aunts to learn to hunt; when the zebra mare runs, so does the foal. The better the imitation of successful behavior, the better the chance of survival.

Some imitations enhance greed. For example, the death adder of Northern Australia uses an interesting tactic. One of its prey is the skink (a type of lizard), which dines on worms. The adder sticks out the tip of its tail and wriggles it. The skink thinks it's a worm and is lured in. The better the imitation, the more skinks the snake can catch. (Attenborough, 1991)


However, there are limits on imitation behavior when it comes to self-esteem and personal enjoyment. It's generally copied only if the initiator of the behavior is of high enough status in the group. For example, scientists observed the behavior of macaque monkeys on the Japanese islet of Koshima, where they lived on the beach. These monkeys were given sweet potatoes which they ate with enthusiasm. Or rather with sand, until a high ranking female, Imo, went to a stream to wash the sand off. Soon others in the troop were imitating her. Then one came up with the idea of washing her potato in seawater, and found she liked the salty flavor. Soon, seasoning the potatoes with seawater spread through most of the troop.

The scientists then scattered wheat on the beach. The monkeys picked up and ate the wheat grain by grain, with a few grains of sand mixed in. One enterprising youngster picked up a handful, sand and all, and dropped it into a pool. Perhaps he wanted to season it, but he discovered that the sand dropped to the bottom and the wheat floated, easily scooped up and eaten. The troop ignored his technique -- until Imo did it, then it was all the rage. (Kawai, 1965; Koyama, 1967)

Imitation has to lend some benefit beyond function. These benefits may be to enhance survival, sex, greed, self-esteem, or personal enjoyment. However, there are varying degrees to which these benefits accrue: the stronger the benefit the greater the possibility of imitation. Thus, imitating a more effective food gathering technique would help survival; it would increase the quantity or quality of the food. If, on the other hand, an action with food merely increases personal enjoyment, a relatively weak appeal, something else is required to cause imitation behavior. In the above example, the youngster's actions would only make eating the wheat more convenient (and therefore enjoyable). It wouldn't increase the total amount of grain available nor nutrition. Thus he wasn't imitated. When the female monkey dipped her sweet potato in sea water, it also improved enjoyment. But it also appealed to self-esteem, since it would be the copying of high-ranking behavior. Even further, when she started walking on her hind legs so she could carry more potatoes in her "arms" and "hands",(1) she added greed to the mix, and large numbers of the troop were soon walking, washing and enjoying everything in sight.

Clearly, imitation is not a psychological appeal that can stand alone. However, when combined with one or more other appeals it can be rewarding to the imitator.


The need to combine imitation with other appeals quickly becomes apparent when applied to humans. Humans have the ability to think, remember the past and project into the future. Unlike other animals, we rarely perceive ourselves as living only in the present. What we do is based on the past and is usually designed to have an effect on the future. Thus, imitation should provide not only an immediate advantage but a perceived future advantage to the imitator as well.

In addition, humans are very social creatures. We usually think about not only how our actions will affect ourselves, but other people, individually and societally, as well. Thus, the advantage imitation provides should not be just personal but include a social component. For example, imitating the behavior of a criminal may provide a personal advantage in terms of greed (and possibly personal enjoyment and self-esteem). However, the human ability to project into the future will deter most people from this behavior. Visions of harm to society, and of course jail or other punishment, appear before the mind's eye.(2)

Physical Imitation

An advantage that humans have over almost every other animal on Earth is the ability to manipulate our environment to suit ourselves. This means people can create things which will allow them to look like what they want to imitate. These things can range from as simple as clothing to as drastic as plastic surgery.

There may be a self-preservation advantage to imitation, but probably not to the same extent that it works in the animal world. Imitating the look of a Hell's Angel may protect someone from being mugged. However, physical appearance generally has little effect against predators, particularly human predators who can see through most disguises.

Both men and women use physical imitation as a sexual lure. For example, when the TV police show MIAMI VICE was popular, some men adopted the appearance of one of the characters, Sonny Crockett, played by Don Johnson. This appearance was widely believed to be (or at least widely publicized as) very attractive to women.

Since physical appearance is a major component in many men's perception of the sexual appeal of a woman (see Chapters 3 and 4), many women will adopt the appearance of those women that they think men find appealing. They may adopt the clothing styles, make-up, jewelry, perfume, or hair styles of "beautiful" women. Some women attempt to imitate "beautiful" bodies through dieting, exercise, or plastic surgery. Some go so far as to fall prey to the diseases bulemia and anorexia nervosa in an attempt to imitate the perception that being thin is necessary to sex appeal.

Physical imitation lends little enhancement to greed or personal enjoyment. However, some people gain self-esteem (see Chapter 9) from imitating the appearance of persons they admire or feel are superior in some way to themselves. For example, young people may adopt the clothing styles of popular musicians, like Michael Jackson or Madonna. Some Asian women undergo a surgical procedure that creates an epicanthic fold (the crease) in their eyelids to imitate the appearance of Caucasian eyes, an appearance that Western media and advertising, widespread in Asian countries, has defined as beautiful.

People may also adopt the possessions of persons they admire: cars, houses, jewelry, TVs, VCRs, computers, great books, grand pianos, ad nauseum. In this way, they gain self-esteem by feeling they will be perceived by others as being like the persons they admire.

Behavior Imitation

People may often imitate the behavior of those they perceive have some advantage in self-preservation, sex, greed, self-esteem, or personal enjoyment.

Copying the actions of a rock-climbing guide or sky diving instructor of course carries a strong self-preservation advantage. Learning to do things properly can save a person from harm or even death. As discussed above about learned behaviors and survival, so it is with humans -- imitate survival-enhancing behaviors and increase the chance of survival.

Imitation could enhance a person's sexual strategies. A man may imitate the behavior of another man who appears successful with women. A woman may imitate the behavior of another woman who appears successful in attracting the kind of man in whom she may be interested. Such imitations may and probably will be unsuccessful, since sexual attraction depends on more than superficial behavior patterns. Nonetheless, some people may think imitation will be effective in attracting the opposite sex.

Greed can be enhanced by imitating the behaviors of people who are successful in acquiring wealth. If someone is a successful salesperson, imitating the way rhe works could increase the imitator's sales; if someone makes money in the stock market, imitating rher decision-making behaviors could increase the imitator's income. That such imitations may not work is not important -- what is important is that the person believes the imitation will be effective.

Personal enjoyment can be enhanced by imitating the behaviors of people who seem to be having fun. If someone seems to enjoy running, reading, drinking, or playing games, another person may decide to do it, too.

Self-esteem can be enhanced not only by imitating an admired person's physical appearance, but that person's behavior as well. Michael Jackson and Madonna imitators wear the clothing styles, and often try to move, sound, and act like their models.

For people with a low self-esteem, acting as much like someone they admire as they can may provide a sense of importance or significance they feel is missing in their normal behavior. For example, a new kid in school may imitate the behavior of a peer group leader rhe sees in the school in an attempt to fit into that group and feel less an outsider.

Drawbacks in Using Imitation

The main thing the above discussion makes clear about imitation is that the imitator must see some advantage in the imitating. Even actors, who might be considered the ultimate imitators, don't copy behavior just for the sake of doing it. They do it for greed, enjoyment, or self-esteem, but they always get some benefit from it. For imitation to work, it must be connected to some stronger appeal.

In addition, imitation is a weak appeal since it depends on a person wanting to copy a model's appearance or behavior. If rhe doesn't believe the model is worth imitating, if rhe sees little or no advantage, rhe won't. Someone who feels that the amount of work necessary to play the stock market successfully is too great isn't likely to imitate such behavior. Someone who thinks Michael Jackson is too flashy or Madonna too trashy isn't likely to try to imitate them. Nevertheless, imitation may be tried if a person does see some possible advantage in it.

An interesting aspect of imitation is that its effectiveness decreases with the age of the target audience. Research (Panco et al, 1992) shows that imitation is most effective when aimed at teens and preteens, is less effective with young adults, and almost useless with older adults.

There may be several reasons for this. First, the young are seeking their own identities. That is, since birth they have been instructed in appearance, behavior, thought patterns, habits, etc. by their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and others. They have had little opportunity to form their own self-images. When the time comes when they can begin to make their own decisions, usually (in the United States) around 13 or 14 years of age, they search for models to emulate, to see if this is the image they want to adopt. Naturally, the models are those people with whom they are most familiar. Although their family and friends have been available all their lives, they want to try something new as models. Such people will usually be those featured in the media. Thus, preteens and teens will imitate the appearance and behavior of rock stars, sports figures, and actors. It is not necessarily that youths try to be these people (although that does indeed happen), but they wish to present the image of these people. As Andre Agassi says in the Canon camera commercial, "Image is everything." (Moyers, 1989)

However, as people get older they have established a personal identity, and thus are less likely to look for role models. They become much more selective in what they decide is worth imitating. In such cases, they imitate not the appearance or behavior of models, but the benefits such models derive from what they do. For example, they don't adopt the persona of the model (like teenagers attempting to imitate everything about Madonna or Michael Jackson), but select whatever aspects of the model that appeals to them, be it eyes, clothes or soft drink. If the audience believes the model benefits from that aspect, they may adopt it as well.


Imitation is an appeal that often appears in advertising. The usual approach is by using endorsements. That is, having someone appear in the ad that (advertisers assume) the target audience admires and wishes to be like. The examples at the top of the chapter use this approach. Michael Jordan is a highly admired sports star because of his great skill. Many people in the ad's target audience, mostly young men and boys interested in sports, would like to be as skillful as Jordan. Having such skill would raise their self-esteem since they would be superior to other players. When the ad implies that part of his skill derives from the brand of athletic shoe he wears, those who wish to imitate his skills buy the shoes in the belief they will help the buyer's game and self-esteem.

The Christy Brinkley ad implies that using the same make-up she does will make the purchaser as attractive and vivacious. Appearance can play a part in many women's self-esteem (see Chapter 9, SELF-ESTEEM), and being like Brinkley could raise that esteem. The same applies to the third example, since appearance can be as important to a man's self-esteem as to a woman's.

Many grooming and beauty ads use this approach. Linda Evans and Cybil Shepherd endorse hair colorings; Lynda Carter sells lipstick; Kathy Lee Gifford endorses a diet method; Nolan Ryan extols the virtues of a razor. Each of these people implies that the purchaser will gain what they have if they buy the product.

The fourth example above also uses imitation, combined with sex appeal. The ad implies that buying the proper jeans will result in a successful sexual encounter.

Another type of ad that uses imitation is the lifestyle ad. A lifestyle ad shows the product as an integral part of the life that advertisers assume the target audience would like to lead. The appeal to imitation comes into play as the audience would like to imitate the behavior or lifestyle shown in the ad. Since the product is shown as an integral part of the lifestyle, the consumer may buy the product on the assumption that the purchase will produce the lifestyle. Please note that lifestyle ads usually show people enjoying themselves; thus imitation is combined with personal enjoyment. This type of ad is often used for such products as soft drinks, beer, tobacco products, and other parity items.

Parity items use the lifestyle ad in particular since there is often little else they have as a unique selling point, as their products are similar if not equal to other products of their type. If they can establish themselves as providing a better (in the eyes of their target audience) lifestyle than other products of their type, then they are more likely to attract, and perhaps sell to, that target audience.


The ninth psychological appeal is imitation, that someone wants to imitate someone or something else. In nature, imitation can confer many advantages, from camouflage as a protection against predators to the way many animals pass on knowledge as the young imitate elders. However, imitation works only if it is linked to a stronger appeal -- it can't stand by itself. The stronger appeals that can be linked to imitation are self-preservation, sex appeal, greed, personal enjoyment, and self-esteem.

In advertising, the appeal to imitation generally uses either endorsements or lifestyle depictions. These ads set up models for the consumer to imitate (by purchasing the product or service) in order to achieve what the model represents. The problem arises, of course, if the consumer doesn't want to be like the model, a problem that becomes increasingly important the older the target audience. Nevertheless, imitation can work to sell products if the ads use a model that a large enough number of the target audience admires and wishes to emulate.


(1) This particular monkey, Imo, may have been a genius among her species.

(2) Note that I say "most," not "all people." Criminal behavior is imitated. For some people, their connections to society are weak, too weak for other people's, particularly strangers', well-being to be a consideration when deciding on actions. In addition, their perception of the future consequences of their actions does not include such things as punishment. They see only the advantages the behavior would bring. For example, much gang activity can be attributed to peer pressure (providing a sense of belonging) and the strong appeals (particularly greed and self-esteem) that members believe imitation will provide.

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Copyright © 1996 Richard F. Taflinger.
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