A Psychiatrist’s View of Advertising as Inspired by the Super Bowl

Last night, I was trying to watch the Super Bowl. I say I was “trying” to watch it and not just watching it because I was with my 2 year old son and he preferred to watch “Caillou” and “Teletubbies”. The compromise was that I could flip to the football game every 15­ 20 minutes for a quick update and then flip right back. Believe me, if I didn’t get right back to his shows, he certainly reminded me. I heard it was a great game, by the way.

Anyway, this was a frustrating process because more often than not, when it was my turn to flip to the game, a commercial was blaring jingles or slogans at me about cars, fast food, cola, beer, or occasionally some other product. This got me to thinking just how prevalent advertising is in our society and how it affects us all.

Advertising is not a big business. It is a gigantic business. Last year, Adage reported a total US spending of $263.77 billion on advertising, so it must work. The reason advertisements work has a psychological basis. Companies are constantly trying to understand human psychology and how that will help them to sell their products. They must understand the workings of the human mind and how to influence them effectively. This is done primarily through attempting to appeal to as many senses as possible; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. There are many creative ways to do this. Think of the picture of that hot and juicy and perfectly made fast food hamburger on a billboard. When one is hungry and sees that, he or she remembers how good it tastes and how it smells and even how good it feels to satiate hunger. The image stays with the person and can even affect him or her when making a meal choice the next day. The more familiar that picture is, and therefore that feeling, the more that will influence a person and his or her decision making.

Additionally, the advertisement must appeal to the consumers’ emotions; fear, love, pleasure, vanity. Fear often being the idea of scarcity, “For one day only….” This leads to funnier, sexier, louder, more rapid­fire kinds of advertisements.    People also still like the concept of authority, for example, “Three out of four physicians recommend….” And, of course, whether we like to admit it or not, sexual images capture our attention.

Businesses are increasingly aware of the effect of psychology on advertising. In the last quarter of a century or so, advertising spending has grown enormously. Yankelovich (A Consumer Research Company), in October of 2006 reported that the average 1970’s city dweller was exposed to 500 to 2,000 messages a day; today it’s up to 3,000 to 5,000. The average consumer is expected, by the way, to remember all of 1% of those images.

The volume of advertising we are exposed to may be annoying and even obnoxious to most of us, but the advertising industry is here to stay and only going to get bigger. Looking at this through the eyes of a psychiatrist, in some ways, this is exciting. It is more of a chance for parents to teach their kids about how people work and how they are influenced. It is a chance for a fruitful discussion about being pressured and influenced and how to be more conscious of messages that may stimulate us to do or buy things we
may not have done. It is a glorious example of understanding the human psyche and how to apply it to the real world.

And so I thought about this as I watched my 2 minutes of Super Bowl commercials (at a cost to the businesses represented of $10 million dollars), and pictured how cool I would be if I owned a huge American made truck, ate fast food daily, drank Cola by the barrel, and was aboard the ice cold beer train.
Thanks to Gresko, Kennedy, and Lesniak, “Living in a Social World” Fall, 1996, Miami University.

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