Secrets of advertisers manipulating techniques

An electronic billboard advert using celebrities.

Advertising can be helpful. However, there are pitfalls, chief of which are attempts to manipulate consumers minds.

But many ask: “Why is this so? Why not just present the facts about products and let people decide for themselves?” There are several reasons.

Why the Manipulation?


One reason is that facts do not sell well. An Advertiser Paul Stevens explains:

You take a sincere, honest effort, and you put it up against a rock-’em sock-’em commercial that tries to gloss over the real truth, and generally the rock-’em sock-’em will get the attention.”

The proved success of advertising geared to this mentality proves that advertisers have the general public sized up correctly.

Another reason for manipulation is that businesses often give advertisers the job of selling things that people do not need. 

So they have to create a desire for them strong enough to overcome our practical side. 

Erich Fromm, a psychologist, observes:

advertising tends to create a person who wants more and more, instead of trying to improve this person more and more." 

This is particularly true of unnecessary luxury items such as tobacco, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, cosmetics, candy and expensive cars.

A further problem for advertising is the competition among nearly identical products. 

Time magazine notes:

when a blindfolded customer can scarcely distinguish between competing brands, it is the advertiser’s task to find and exploit any slight difference, real or imagined, in his client’s product.”

Illustrating this point, a Consumer Affairs Commissioner notes that advertising has convinced millions that [a name brand of a bleach] is somehow better than the same stuff in any other bottle.

The brand is priced well above that of competitors, yet sells far better. 

Did you know, as she points out, that bleach “is one of those products that must be identical among brands”? “It is chemically defined.”

But why is this kind of advertising manipulation so successful?

Why Manipulation Succeeds?


As you may be aware, most advertising principles are based on a scientific analysis of what makes people act the way they do. It is called “motivational research.” 

Even children are analyzed with the goal of moving them to influence parents, while their own purchasing habits are molded for later years. 

Thus advertising appeals to basic motivations—love, family, success, pleasure, security, and so forth. 

Artfully framing these appeals is usually the key to successful advertising.

Not only “every word” but also the settings of most advertising are “weighted” heavily in favor of the product. 

Some ads can leave people with an idea that is only half true, or possibly not true at all. 

Yet likely nothing said is actually false, as that would be illegal. How is this done? 

“Weighting” the Words


Each word in an advertisement is carefully selected for maximum thrust, yet minimum fact if proof is lacking. 

Advertisers themselves call these “weasel words.” See if you can pick them out in this television soap commercial:

A winsome young woman tells you that the soap she uses ‘helps my skin keep healthy looking.’

Are you not left with the idea that this particular soap “keeps skin healthy”? But did you notice the weighted words? 

(1) “Helps” is a word often used to avoid saying that a product actually does something. 

(2) “Looking” changes the word “healthy” from a fact to an opinion—that of the soap-maker. 

Almost any soap can make the same claim, but the sponsor is counting on you to think of his brand when shopping.

Now see if you can find any manipulation in this one: An expensive headache remedy is said to contain ‘twice as much of the pain reliever doctors recommend most.’ 

You are led to believe that this pill has a double portion of a unique doctor-prescribed pain reliever. But ask yourself a few questions. 

What is the nonprescription pain reliever that doctors recommend most? 

Is it not the only one legally sold over the counter—just plain aspirin—any brand? 

Twice as much’ . . . as what? 

Much is implied, but little is really supplied. The wording of the claim as a whole is designed to manipulate.

Words such as introducing, different, special, exclusive sound forceful, do they not? 

But the reality is that they usually play up very minor variations among products that are basically the same. 

Or they highlight differences that have nothing to do with function, such as an added lemon scent. 

Listen for facts about why the product is superior. Usually such facts are often missing. 

This air of mystery and exclusiveness sells, but mystery additives and exotic names are less informative than telling a small child that it rains because the sky contains H2O. 

Natural, lemon-fresh, clear, pure and similar words are riding the crest of a recent trend back to “nature.” 

They get massive exposure to advertise almost anything. 

Ironically, a magazine cigarette ad claims: ‘ . . . refreshes naturally! Rich natural tobacco taste.’ 

Can you think of anything remotely natural about swallowing smoke? 

Firemen wear masks to avoid it, and unaddicted people often wish they had such protection around smokers.

The foregoing examples illustrate just a few methods at the disposal of advertising to manipulate with words. 

Advertiser Stevens says: 

That’s the key to judging advertising. There is a direct, inverse proportion between the number of adjectives and the number of facts. To put it succinctly, the more adjectives we use, the less we have to say.”

To discover advertising manipulation “you must strip away the innuendos and try to ascertain the facts, if any. . . . ask questions such as: How? Why? How many? How much?” 

But there is still another secret weapon in the advertising arsenal.

The “Weighted” Setting


Imagine yourself driving onto a highway during rush-hour traffic. Your car falters as you start to accelerate—this is a setting used by a  gasoline commercial. 

Do you see how it is weighted to influence you? There are two factors—YOU and a SCARE. How real is the problem?

 If you forget the setting and use what we learned about weighted words, the commercial itself tells you. They call the problem “hesitation.” 

It ‘can happen [not “will happen”] when gasoline doesn’t get to all the cylinders properly.’ 

Their gasoline ‘can help cure THAT KIND of hesitation.’

But ask: Does my car hesitate? If so, is THAT KIND of hesitation MY KIND

Or is it a more common cause of such problems—faulty fuel pump, dirty carburetor or need of a tune-up?

Instead, the ad says a mystery additive ‘can help cure’ only ‘THAT KIND of hesitation.’ It is added to ‘help gasoline flow more evenly.’ 

The weighted setting gives many viewers more confidence in the product than the advertiser evidently has!

Another TV commercial shows a majestic tiger walking around, over and through a new car model while the announcer says it is ‘in a class by itself’ and ‘like nobody else’s car.’ 

Do you see the weighted setting in this one? 

In addition to (1) the obvious appeal to your pride, (2) what does a tiger have to do with a car, or, for that matter, the well-known ‘tiger in your tank’ with gasoline?

Only what the products can “borrow” from the natural appeal of these creatures.

Sex is the most of such “borrowed” appeals used nowadays. Alluring figures provide the setting for advertising everything from candy to concrete. 

Substituting a prominent athlete or film star serves a similar purpose—to tie in the product with one’s enjoyment of the setting.

Remember, the cats and koala bears, the beautiful girls and handsome men, the mothers and babies are all there to get your attention and stir your emotions. 

Appeals to pride, patriotism and family loyalty are all “borrowed” for the same purpose.

Thus it is helpful to understand how advertising tries to manipulate your mind.

It helps you to distinguish between straightforward information and the kind that exaggerates product differences or creates desire for unnecessary items at your expense.

Yes, advertising can rule you—or serve you. It is up to you.

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