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How Advertising Makes Us Buy [Infographic]

Advertising is everywhere in today’s world. It doesn’t matter if we’re watching TV, listening to Pandora, using Google, or driving down the highway — we’re going to see or hear advertisements for something (except when we’re watching Netflix). With so much ad-noise in the world, it’s a wonder that any advertisement can stand out from all the others trying to get consumers to spend money.

But companies can’t just give up because there are a lot of ads — they need to make money, and they won’t make money if nobody hears about them. So instead, advertisers have created a tried-and-true arsenal of different techniques that are all aimed at getting consumer attention. And even if we don’t realize it all the time, these strategies all work exceptionally well.

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The advertising problem

The “advertising problem” is the starting question for any ad’s creation, and it breaks down to a few simple steps.

  1. Advertising needs to make money for a company.
  2. The wealthy have lots of money.
  3. But the wealthy want to stay wealthy, so they’ll probably hold onto their money.
  4. Lots of people aren’t wealthy, but still spend more often.
  5. How do you appeal to people with less disposable income?

The simple answer is to appeal to the majority of consumers in a way that will catch their attention. After all, if companies just told their audiences to buy their products, they wouldn’t have a fighting chance of success. So, to get that fighting chance, advertising had to get subtle.

The advertising solutions

Everyone has heard the adage “sex sells.” And while that’s 100% true, not every company can use it because it’d just be way, way too much. Advertising on television, radio, print, and other traditional outlets involves multiple techniques that are all just as powerful as sex though, like targeting consumers’ insecurities, encouraging consumers to overcome obstacles, or sometimes just making things shiny. On top of that, companies can optimize their advertising potential by designing brick-and-mortar stores with distractions along the way.

You can find this strategy used in grocery stores a lot of the time, where they’ll place popular products like milk, bread, and eggs as far from the main entrance as possible to make customers pass, notice, touch, and buy other items. In addition to a store’s permanent layout, obstructing customer traffic with sales stands, free samples, and hands-on areas are sometimes all that’s needed to get a customer to buy more. It’s the same reason you see lots of kiosks at the mall — they’re right in the middle of the walkway and everybody’s line of sight.

The idea is that no matter where you go — whether you’re reading a magazine or walking through a company’s physical store — you have an experience with a brand that eventually converts you into a customer. And companies want that to happen as quickly as possible, preferably right away.

Why use so many different strategies?

Many advertising strategies that companies use today are based on the good, old-fashioned tactics of the best salesmen.

The ad is persistent, it gets in your face, and it makes sure you know it exists. And if you’re on the fence about buying, the ad will do everything it can to convince you to take the leap of faith, even if it’s just a magazine cover. It’s similar to the classic stereotype of the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

The ads come to you, and they’re going to tell you all the reasons you should buy their products, even if it means interrupting you right when you say you’re not interested. But the more information the ads tell you, and the longer they talk, the better chance they have to drive a sale home. The only problem is that using the same strategy over and over again gets annoying, and much like the door-to-door salesman that you ask to leave after he gets too pushy, ads don’t want you to react against them — if they can help it.

So instead of beating the same drum all the time, advertising incorporates a wide range of different ideas to make you reach for your wallet. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but they help companies grow faster than they would without advertising, even if a couple of consumers get annoyed in the process.

Is this an exhaustive list?

Not at all.

Companies and advertising firms are constantly creating new ideas on how to best reach their demographics. In fact, some businesses have achieved huge success with their brands by using advertising techniques that are generally considered to be weird, bad, or — in some cases — completely crazy. It’s worth noting that what makes the following examples remarkable is the fact that most companies wouldn’t succeed by using these advertising techniques.

They work for a very small fraction of businesses that are in unique or exceedingly rare positions where they can leverage their worldwide reputations in conjunction with a counterintuitive ad campaign. They’re the Evel Knievels of advertising, and like Evel’s stunts, you shouldn’t try these at home.


For 99% of the companies in the world, controversy is a major setback, if not financial suicide.

Cultivating controversy just seems like phoning it in and asking for a company to go under. Still, not all businesses suffer the same consequences from controversy. In fact, some thrive on it.

One of the best modern examples is Rockstar Games, the game development company that owns the Grand Theft Auto franchise. When the developer started marketing the game, they called up controversial PR figure Max Clifford to get it some press. Clifford responded with a massive campaign targeted at tabloid and traditional media outlets that condemned the game’s excessive violence and vice leading up to its release.

Today, the franchise has been around for decades. And in 2013, Grand Theft Auto V earned $1 billion in sales.


Like controversy, brands don’t often want to shock their potential customers.

They may want to charmingly surprise their audience, but crossing the line into shock is generally considered a bad idea since you can lose money. But Burger King didn’t mind the risk. Shock was exactly what they wanted to achieve with their Whopper Sacrifice campaign in 2009. The idea was simple: Create an app that integrates with Facebook, allow users to defriend 10 people by pulling them into a fire, and send out free Whopper coupons to participants. When you sacrificed a friend, a message popped up underneath their smoldering profile picture that said “You liked [friend’s name]. You love the Whopper.” And as a final hurrah — because that wasn’t enough — the app automatically messaged all 10 defriended people telling them that they were sacrificed for the equivalent of 37 cents of fast food.

The app successfully defriended roughly 234,000 Facebook users — cooking up some 23,000 free Whoppers in the process — but concluded shortly after it launched because of friction between Burger King and Facebook over user experience and privacy. Even so, it’s hard to imagine someone forgetting that they sacrificed an old high school friend for a burger — and it’s even harder to picture someone forgetting that they’d been sacrificed.

Can any business use advertising strategies?

Whether you’re the head of your own business or the lead marketer at your work, companies around the world have had varying levels of success with these marketing strategies.

While fresh startups shouldn’t instantly jump for the controversy or shock angles, they can still gain a foothold in a competitive niche with the right advertising strategies. Interestingly, a lot of these techniques can’t work in one of the more lucrative forms of advertising — pay-per-click. Most PPC outlets from Google to Facebook have specific rules on character limits, phrasing, and even what punctuation you can use.

So if you want to start an ad campaign based around a sexy new idea, it might work — but probably not in the form of a PPC campaign. Still, you have a lot of opportunity elsewhere, including newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Depending on your product and your niche, one avenue will likely work better for you than others, but others can be helpful to at least raise brand awareness.

Does your business use any of these strategies for reaching customers? Or have you tried any of these techniques in the past? Let me know in the comments!


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