The subtle and unsubtle effects of advertising

Don’t Throw It Away (Unless If It’s A Boomerang)
or “The subtle and unsubtle effects of advertising”

And the dinosaur turned to me to say, “I wanted to send that love letter, but I didn’t have a brick.”[1] I didn’t have a brick either when I was looking for a cassette in my bedroom, but I found my old school uniform, which made me reminisce. There I was, an ungrateful twelve-year-old boy in bed, clutching onto a tattered copy of a Charlie Brown book, listening to the radio. My mother tells me to turn down the volume. At that age, having your parents constantly tell you what to do was like having an alarm clock ringing so incessantly that it stopped you from relaxing, and you are supposed to be grateful that you are prevented from sleeping through ‘wonderful’ opportunities. And then you do what they tell you to do, so the alarm stops, but it is like pressing a snooze button – it begins all over again before you can catch your breath.

Eight years later, I am a twenty-year-old adult in bed, clutching onto a pillow as if she is the girl I have been secretly in love with for months. No longer an adolescent, the radio is triumphantly loud, but the adverts take a parental role: I am being told to wake up, what to eat, what to wear, except with no concern for my personal welfare. The next advert slightly disproves my point by promoting car insurance, but I still expect the radio to tell me to clean the house and find a job. I hear this instead from my parents who insist I turn down the radio, as I still haven’t moved out yet.

I never appreciated the details that went into advertising until I flicked through a book called Effective Radio Advertising by a presumptuous man called Marc G. Weinberger who provided a guide for radio advertisers, ranging from details such as mnemonics to the number of words used, with separate instructions depending on whether your product belongs in the White, Red, Blue or Yellow category, accompanied with relevant charts and diagrams. It was unnecessarily complicated.

I did learn that a common trick in radio advertising is to begin with an absurd premise to attract attention, such as a talking animal,[2] and finish with a joke or pun that can be retold to friends. This is not too dissimilar to when my mother asked me if I wanted to have night vision, secretly holding a carrot behind her back. I persevered every day with an orange vegetable I detested so that I could spot vampires when I was trying to sleep,[3] which indicates successful advertising achieved by my mother. However, unlike with adverts, I love my parents, and don’t leave the room when they interrupt television programmes.

The closest I have ever been to having Stockholm syndrome was when I briefly considered a career in advertising. I found a guide called Getting Into Advertising provided by the Advertising Association for anyone thinking about joining the industry, and even this acknowledged that a large sector of the general public believe advertising is ‘vulgar’, ‘exploits consumers’, ‘creates unnecessary needs’ and ‘without its expense, the goods advertised would be cheaper’. The guide also admitted that advertising often takes up at least ‘five percent of total costs’, and I estimate it takes up at least five percent of your life without you realising it.

In 2007, Stanford University carried out a test where children were presented with two identical sets of food. The only difference was that one was plain-wrapped, and the other was McDonald’s wrapped. The results overwhelmingly indicated a preference for McDonald’s labeled products, and fewer than a quarter were able to recognise that both choices had no differences other than their wrapping. However, any study that involves only 67 children, all of whom below the age of five-years-old, should be deemed questionable. Although the test should not be taken seriously, it did not surprise me to learn that children’s penchant for unhealthy, greased goods is more affected by branding than taste.

Even without sensationalist studies clogging up newspapers, the Advertising Standards Authority believe the problem is serious. Their website[4] allows anyone to download The British Code of Advertising, Sale Promotion and Direct Marketing, which has a substantial section focusing on advertising for children. There are specific rules such as banning images of children being ‘unattended in street scenes’ or in ‘close proximity to dangerous substances’. What I find more amusing are the vaguer rules that highlight the insidious nature of advertising, particularly: ‘they should not be made to feel inferior or unpopular for not buying the advertised product’ and ‘they should not be made to feel that they are lacking in courage, duty or loyalty if they do not buy or do not encourage others to buy a particular product’. Crucially, these last two rules do not apply for adult products, hinting that it is acceptable to make adults ‘feel inferior or unpopular’.

If there is such a difference for adults, it is worth examining casinos, a place where children are not allowed unless if they have deceiving moustaches. A casino is a prime example of a building deploying psychological tricks to prevent gamblers from leaving. A casino consultant, called David Britton, devised a colour scheme for rows of slot machines; the ends are BRIGHT RED to attract gamblers, with the middle containing softer colours of green and blue to provide relaxation. Furthermore, most casinos don’t have clocks or windows, so gamblers become less aware of time passing. This is often accompanied by free drinks and food, and an interior design with warm colours like purple and black to keep the customer comfortable. Worryingly, some casinos in Las Vegas pump additional oxygen into the air conditioning to keep people awake. However, these psychological tricks are rarely employed where they would have more use, such as in schools where children could gamble with time in hope of winning knowledge.

Even when you walk out of the casino into the fresh air, it is still unsafe as you are being shouted at. Not by people, but by adverts. It is like having a bossy friend who turns up everywhere you go with the sole purpose of instructing you how to spend more money. Except this friend has spent months carrying out customer research to discover the best ways to manipulate you, and is not afraid to resort to cheap tricks such as sexual innuendo and a jingle that is hard to forget despite only consisting of three notes and the same words being repeated over and over again and the same words being repeated over and over again. If advertising was a person, you would probably report them to the police for stalking, or perhaps charge rent.

“The walls have a secret agenda” is a far less popular phrase than “The walls have ears”, even though the latter will remain scientifically impossible for at least a few more years. This lack of awareness means that there is a secret battle between shoppers and architecture. For example, have you ever noticed in a supermarket that bread and milk, two commonly purchased goods, tend to be located with one in the middle and the other at the back to make customers walk past as many aisles as possible? Similarly, in clothes shops, the changing rooms and toilets are usually as far away from the exit as possible. To keep you even further away from the exit, many multi-storey shops provide escalators inviting you upstairs, but only stairs to take you back down. At least you can walk down those stairs thinking that your hypothetical glass is half-full because there were escalators for half of the journey.

There is enough craft and precision involved in arranging a supermarket aisle that it is almost an art form. The width of the aisle,  or canvass if you prefer, often depends on the type of good; wide aisles are used for commonly purchased products, whereas narrower aisles force the shopper closer towards the shelves, thus are used to sell impulse-driven goods. Similarly, sweets and magazines are often sold by the queues to pay, which can prey on shoppers’ impulses, hunger, boredom, and make children pestering their parents for a chocolate bar. The masterstroke is that these goods are never on sale, and you can usually find the same product in the section where it belongs, except much cheaper.

Although the aisle may seem rectangular in shape, the prices form inward slopes, as cheaper items are placed centrally so that customers might be tempted by the more expensive goods they would have to walk past. As if that is not enough, the most profitable products are placed at eye-level so that they are noticed before the cheaper alternatives, making the less exotic wine seem less desirable. I’m not a wine connoisseur, so if you’re like me, the equivalent would be rejecting plain biscuits in favour of the chocolate biscuits that captured your attention first.

What if these tricks were used for positive reasons, such as boosting the sales of fair trade products or encouraging more donations to charity? Until then, it is worth nothing that many supermarkets use the air conditioning to spread the smell of fresh bread to make customers hungrier. Likewise, some fast food restaurants use extractor fans to send the smell of their kitchen into the streets to catch innocent victims walking past. There is no method of measuring how effective these tricks are, but I’ve often been one of those innocent victims lured from the street into a fast food restaurant against my will, being drawn by the smell. Life has never felt so dangerous.

I wonder how many people actually believe £9.99 is substantially cheaper than £10? Does it really help that shopping baskets are usually on the right-hand side of the entrance to capitalise on more people statistically being right-handed? Could people use advertising tricks to make someone fall in love with them? Luckily, humans have more integrity than an advert, and would never go on a date with their hair and clothes being much smarter than normal, wearing perfume or cologne – it would be lying, which is why no one would ever do that. Perhaps I should stand on people’s right-hand side, dressed in McDonald’s wrapping, and claim to be 19.99 years old? It doesn’t seem so ridiculous when considering that some people literally advertise themselves through personal adverts and lonely heart columns.

As I mentioned earlier, I found my old school uniform because I was looking for an audio cassette that I hoped would be in one of the boxes containing my childhood belongings. I made this cassette with a friend when we were six-years-old. On it was an amateurish radio play we wrote and improvised called Astra, Ord & Ariel: the tale of three cats who journeyed to the moon to see the pop group Bananarama perform. Although I contributed little to the script, I kept the recording because it was made in my house, but I hadn’t listened to it since the day it was made. I had a vague feeling that several years ago I recorded over the cassette with Hancock’s Half Hour – I had taped over future childhood nostalgia with a radio show from thirty years before I was born. I can’t remember anything else about our play, except it had a commercial break that we used to advertise fictional products. I would assume I had fun making the adverts, which suggests that adverts can be okay. Not good, just okay. After all, they can be an art form. And if they tell the truth, they can’t be that bad, right?

Looking through the boxes in my bedroom, there were some items that made me yearn to be a child again such as my old, unbranded cuddly toys, Enid Blyton books, dinosaur figurines, but they were outnumbered by mostly forgotten plastic toys covered with board game dust, and I felt ashamed – it looked as if a conman brainwashed me into buying left-over junk. Over-priced forms of moulded plastic. Packs of cards based on brands. Even more moulded plastic. Fads of the early 1990’s like Tamagotchis, yoyos, Gogos, Pogs, and other toys that if you haven’t heard of before, it would take too long to explain. “Buy your child a Transformer toy!” says the radio that still hasn’t been turned down.

One thing I will admit to is loving adverts that finish abruptly on a terrible pun irrelevant to the subject. This is a commonly used trick in America, which makes me want to move there. All I would have to do is sell my house and convert my pennies into American currency, if that makes cents.


[1] I promise this will make sense later.

[2] Now does the beginning make sense?

[3] I was much younger than twelve-years-old when this happened.

[4] http://www.asa.org

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About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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