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For Ads, Context, Not Content, Is Key

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It's no secret that the subtext of most advertisements involves either fear or sex. Primal impulses are effective motivators, which is why so many ads convey the message that purchasing a particular product will make you either safer or more desirable.

But the effectiveness of these pitches varies tremendously, depending upon the emotional state of the reader or viewer. That’s the conclusion of a new study that confirms certain concepts from evolutionary psychology, and suggests persuasiveness is largely a matter of context.

A team of researchers led by Vladas Griskevicius, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, showed three groups of university students short clips from either a romantic movie (Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy gradually fall in love) or a violent thriller (The Shining, featuring a crazed, knife-wielding Jack Nicholson).

The test subjects then viewed a series of ads for an art museum, a restaurant or the city of Las Vegas (as a tourist destination). Half based their appeal on popularity: The ones for the museum proclaimed “Visited by Over One Million People Each Year.”

The others were rooted in appeals to individualism. The museum ad read “Stand Out From the Crowd,” while the one for the restaurant boasted it was “A Unique Place Off the Beaten Path.”

The test subjects then rated the ads’ appeal by answering a variety of questions. Their reactions varied widely, depending upon which film clip they had seen.

People who had watched an excerpt from the scary movie found the popularity-based ads extremely effective. In contrast, the ads emphasizing uniqueness “actually backfired” for this group, the researchers report. Those who had seen the romantic film reacted in precisely the opposite way, insisting the ads emphasizing individualism were far more compelling.

“Being afraid especially leads people to go along with the crowd, activating a ‘safety in numbers’ psychology,” Griskevicius told the university’s media relations office. “A feeling of lust, however, motivates people to go it alone, activating a desire to be seen as unique.”

The findings, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, have concrete implications for advertisers. “While touting the uniqueness of a product might be effective during a program that elicits romantic desire,” the researchers write, “the same ad aired during a fear-eliciting program such as the grim local news might actually make the product unappealing.”

Of course, the notion that fearful people are more susceptible to certain appeals will not surprise political strategists, including those who used Americans’ post-9/11 jitters to convince us the Iraq War was a good idea. Today, most of us are again feeling frightened, so it’s wise to be wary of what we’re being sold.