Advertising is the art of selling you a solution you never knew you needed to a problem you never knew you had.

How’s that for a nutshell?

The main goal of an ad campaign is to make you feel dissatisfied. Let’s skip the obvious ones, like the ads for the Wear-these-and-lead-a-carefree-lifestyle Jeans (TM), or the dreadful My-laundry-is-whiter-than-thou Detergent (TM as well, dammit). Even the “good” campaigns, like the ones for Save the Children or other such just and good as apple pie humanitarian cause will usually make you cringe a bit inside for being a selfish little bastard and not forking up some of your hard-earned dough for the poor little buggers. Or whales. Or pandas. Or whatever else we’re saving these days.

A successful ad campaign will be able to trigger in its target audience a feeling of discomfort, and that particular brand of magic relies heavily on the theory of cognitive dissonance (go ahead, click it, it’s Wikipedia). Relevant quote:

A powerful cause of dissonance is when an idea conflicts with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as “I am a good person” or “I made the right decision.” The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one’s choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better.

Speaking of which, have you clicked on that Wikipedia link? Nice site, Wikipedia. Did you know it relies entirely on donations from its users? Well? You just burned a hole in their budget there, you bad bad person, you! Want to be good again? Donate something to Wikimedia!

Ok, that’ was a bit heavy-handed, I must admit, but that’s how it works. Triggering cognitive dissonance in its target audience is an essential part of a good ad. The second part of this one-two punch is handing out a seemingly obvious solution to this attack on one’s self image. A sort of “duh, just do/buy/donate this and you’ll be fine”. It’s mostly sleight of hand that does it; the brain is still trying to come to terms with the previous statement, which was essentially a form of “you’re a bad, unaccomplished, not-keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of person”. Suddenly, there’s a new piece of information coming in, and the brain yells: “Hey! A straw! Let’s grab it! It’s only 59.95!”

There are some exceptions to this rule, as some of you are likely to point out. Some ads are using humour to rack a sell: high-brow, low-brow, self-deprecating or even downright infantile. Others dress it up in science, using either lab-coated men with serious demeanours or pie-charts and statistics to show you why you’re wrong if you don’t buy their product. But whatever their tactics, they always have the same goal: to sell something to you by the end of that minute. Your defence? Use your head. Or stop watching commercials.

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