Friday, April 23

Placing Behaviors: Does Advertising Shape Social Norms?


A few days ago, Abby Ellen, writing for The New York Times, covered how something as simple as food advertising can shape our thinking. She uses Kelly D. Brownell's “The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food” Yale class for an opener for her article.

The class begins with Brownell asking students to fill in the blank: "I go cukoo for ___." "Break me off a piece of that ___ bar."

The article stuck in my head not as a casual reader, but because I do something similar in one of my classes. I ask students to match taglines to companies, ranging from "Just do it" and "You deserve a break today" to "A diamond is forever" and "Tastes great. Less filling." Even students that were not overly exposed to some of the older campaigns can still make a connection.

No matter how many times I use the tagline retention test in class, it still amazes me. That's the power of a singular message.

The Same Lesson Takes Students In Two Directions.

Of course, Brownell and I have very different reasons for our respective lessons. Mine is to demonstrate how message retention increases with the reinforcement of a singular message reinforced by varying context. The commercials change, but they always circle around to a singular point that can be easily retained. I ask them to consider the lesson when they build their public service messages.

Brownell uses his lesson to build a case for social change, requiring Yale students to develop op-ed articles about social change with an eye toward publication. Suggested op-eds revolve around how advertising shapes how we define good food, how much should the government be involved in shaping the nation’s diet, can food (especially foods with sugar) be addictive, and so on and so forth.

I use my class to teach students how to develop commercial messages that stick. Brownell uses his to make the case that public policy needs to take control of the obesity crisis in this country. But there is another difference. I always ask my students when was the last time they actually bought the products I mentioned. (Generally, they don't.) Brownell doesn't, which likely leaves students with the feeling that advertising does more than persuade or inform people about products, but brainwashes them too.

Advertising Isn't Brainwashing.

While changing behavior is part of effective communication, advertisers generally keep the intent narrow. For example, if you're going to eat chocolate cereal, they want you to buy Cocoa Puffs. If you're going to eat a candy bar, they want you to buy a Kit-Kat. They don't really have much intent to brainwash you in bingeing on other brands unless the message is broad (although I could make the case that diamond sellers did a splendid job elevating demand over other rare stones).

Real brainwashing is much more subtle than sales. Generally, it's confined to public service announcements. But recently, it has crept into television programming with behavioral placements. While we're much more attuned to the notion that advertisements sell, we're a bit more open to embedded messages.

Embedded messages have garnered more attention lately, but these have been around a long time. Popeye the sailor ate spinach for a reason. Some television shows make political statements for a reason. And Brownell builds a case for public policy intervention for a reason.

It's all kind of creepy, really. But it does go a long way in demonstrating that advertising is the least of our worries.

Case in point: medicating children with antipsychotics wasn't caused by advertisers, much as advertisers were attuned to increasing demand. And given that children covered by Medicaid are prescribed antipsychotics at a rate four times higher than children with private insurance, public policy seems to be driving demand. Now that's a public policy we might do something about.

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