So How Do Ads Work?
There aren’t enough cultural sociologists in advertising. Why would I make that seemingly self-serving claim? Because it’s true. The ad world is fixated on the individual - the Consumer - as an actor and recipient of its messaging. Many in the ad game seem to have forgotten (or never learned) about the social side of advertising, much to the industry’s detriment. People do not act, think, or live in isolation. We are inherently social creatures, and this sociality plays a significant influence on the choices we make and what we buy and do. So let’s talk about that.
It seems that a bunch of us planner-types recently came across this blog post from 5 years ago. It’s great. Read it. It’s probably more relevant today than it was then. I want to unpack it further. So I’ll do that. I’ll briefly run through the ways ads ‘work’ on the individual as we typically understand it, and then dig more into the social side of advertising efficacy.
Setting the Table: The Individual and the Social
The most basic way to dig into how ads work is to think about who ads can affect, which feeds into the how and the why that they can work. The most fundamental means are via the Individual (you) and via the Social (others).
I’ll try to move briskly through how ads work on the individual here, as you’ll likely be quite familiar with this line of thinking in today’s agency ecosystem. For add’l reading, peep the blog post linked above. I mean it.
We made a thing. It solves a problem that you might have, or that someone you know might have. Buy it.
This is the most basic means by which an ad can “work.” It brings to attention the fact that a product exists, and it solves a particular problem (and solves it better than other alternatives, ideally). If you have that problem you should use this product to solve it. Pretty straightforward. All ads do some form of awareness generation, unless they’re entirely geared towards the pipedream of customer loyalty.
What matters most to effectively generate awareness across a campaign? The quality of your creative idea and your budget. Attention. Your best bet to generate awareness - to get people to pay attention to your ad to digest the message - is to make your ad as creative and captivating as you can, and get it in front of as many potential buyers (folks with a problem that your product solves) as you reasonably can. This is explained effectively more often than it is done effectively.
In addition to awareness, brands can use ads to make assurances - guarantees, free trials, no hassles, no risk, free return shipping, no questions asked, etc. - to reduce perceived risk among potential buyers. C’monnn try it; what do you have to lose? You’ll be cool if you do. You wanna be cool, right? 4 out of 5 dentists agree that 9 out of 10 brands who employ this technique do so because they want to get their name out there as a safe bet that won’t leave you hanging as the consumer. You’d call that ‘Mitigating perceived risk in consumer trial’ if you were a boring person.
Clout, or legitimacy signaling
Yes, I’m borrowing a term from the world of SoundCloud rappers. This kind of "work” might be my favorite, because it’s subtle and it feels sort of like breaking the fourth wall of advertising. Spending enough money to say something loudly - a takeover of Times Square’s digital billboards, a local media blitz, a blanketing, pervasive national TV campaign - tells consumers that a brand is worth paying attention to and considering. We have money.
If nothing else, would you the consumer prefer to buy a brand you’ve seen before in an ad, or choose a brand you’ve never heard of before? That ad budget implicitly suggests legitimacy - we stand by our bullshit enough to stick our necks out - at a level over the baseline of quiet existence. It’s like a Lil Rapper who drenches himself in Supreme and Givenchy, and buys a diamond chain the size of of a teacup Yorkie. I am here. I am successful. I matter. Pay attention.
Reminder and Refresher
Hey, we still exist.
You could categorize this under Awareness above, but I’ll return to it later as an important distinction. This ends up being how a lot of folks interpret the principles put forth by Byron Sharp et. al in How Brands Grow - repeat a brand message often and distinctly to as many potential buyers as you can so that, in aggregate, more people will think to buy what you offer. I’ll come back to this later. I’m a How Brands Grow adherent to be sure, but I think that there’s a depth to how this plays out that tends to get lost in translation from ad folks reading their research to putting it into practice.
So those are the most straightforward ways that advertising works on individuals: establishing and refreshing the fact that buyable things exist so that people may consider buying them. Cool. Now let’s go a bit deeper.
There’s always the battle between the rational vs. the emotional in advertising. Rational advertising - here’s a product and some information about it, buy it or don’t (but you should buy it) - has nominally fallen out of favor, to be replaced by ‘emotional’ advertising. The reasons are plenty; primarily, emotionally-oriented advertising is more memorable and more effective than rational, fact-based ad messaging. Emotional advertising is based on the idea that advertising can be used to build associations between brands and their products and particular emotions or feelings. Over time, with repetition, these associations deepen and take hold in our brains, and we become more likely to favor and possibly purchase those products.
Coca-Cola and happiness might be the most prominent example. Coca-Cola has put an astronomical amount of effort and money into infusing its brand with warm and fuzzies, to build that connection between Coke and happiness. It’s used Santa Claus in its advertising since the ‘20s - basically since Santa Claus as we know the jolly fella has been a thing - along with some lovable polar bears, iconic cartoon characters, Selena, buying the world a Coke, and a sea of other happy images to cement that Coke=Happiness so you’ll buy more of it. Because who hates happiness?
Cynics might call this emotional manipulation. That’s not unwarranted, but it’s probably unfair. While it is manipulation, it’s not like advertising is the only realm where emotional manipulation occurs… I’ll call it emotional seeding. In his post, Simler refers to this as “emotional inception.” That’s cool, too. Regardless of what you call it, I don’t really buy it (nor does Simler, which is the jumping off point of his blog post).
Don’t get me wrong, I think that the emotional seeding thing is legit. Emotional resonance can be tied closely to sheer awareness and reminder advertising - to get you to pay attention and remember (and share) our ad and our brand, we’re going to make you feel some feels.
But emotional seeding doesn’t stand up as a model for advertising efficacy, insofar as how it is understood and talked about. Check Simler’s account for a more robust breakdown as to why. As goes the trope in advertising these days, the emotional seeding model assumes that emotional associations are enough to make you more apt to buy a product. Emotionally resonant ads ‘work’ because they make people associate products with desirable feelings.
Is that enough, though? Does that feel like a complete explanation, or is there something more that goes unmentioned in this model? It might feel complete if you subscribe to advertising’s current conception of consumers and human behavior. With influence from readings of behavioral economics, decision science, and cognitive science in the last 15 years or so, contemporary advertising has latched onto the idea that people are odd, irrational creatures quite capable - even likely - of making decisions that aren’t in their best interest due to their propensity to be emotionally manipulated. That’s extreme, but it’s in response to the other extreme - the depiction of humans in old school economic models as rational actors, whose orientation in decision-making is squarely focused on maximizing personal outcomes and goal achievement.
Neither model is correct. Yes, we are odd creatures who don’t make the maximal decision all the time. We don’t always act in our best interest. But we aren’t so malleable that a few ad exposures will cause us to forego our own goal achievement or intent for yours, the advertiser. Without something to flesh out the logic of the model, the emphasis on emotional seeding means that planting touchy feelies of some kind via some ads is enough to sway our thinking and decision-making. In a vacuum, does that make sense? It doesn’t hurt, but there must be something more to the explanation for how advertising ‘works’ to better jive with human behavior. The ways in which ads ‘work’ thus far have focused on the individual, but there’s another side that we need to talk about.
The Social, or perhaps more accurately, the Cultural
Intriguing. But what is ‘culture,’ anyway? I’m so glad you asked.
Think of culture as the invisible fabric that ties social life and interactions together, from the everyday, to our inner circles, to a global level. It’s the knowledge we have, the meanings and symbols we share, how we interpret the things that happen to and around us, and how we figure out how to act and to respond to what we experience. Sometimes it’s conscious, but it’s often unconscious and reflexive. It’s how we implicitly understand what it is to be American, what it is to be feminine or masculine (and how to subvert gender), what’s appropriate to talk about at a dinner party, and how to tell if someone’s joking or being an asshole, and how to respond. Culture is everywhere all the time. It’s the glue of social life. This includes advertising, and one area where advertising ‘works’ socially is meaning-making.
Let’s look at a few ads. Here’s a new Bud Light spot, in the Dilly Dilly/Bud Knight family.
What’s going on here? Certainly not rational information dissemination. And not really any emotional seeding - it’s funny for the sake of attention and relatability, but you could sub in Miller or Coors here in a vacuum. It’d make the same point. And what’s the point? That Bud Light is for everyone; it’s an every man’s beer for anytime. You might be thinking…duh. Everyone knows that.
And that is precisely the point.
It’s not enough to talk about what ads do to individuals. We must also talk about what they do socially and culturally. Shared meanings are crucial to social life and everyday culture. We don’t spontaneously come up with these meanings out of thin air on our own. They’re learned, developed, and enforced through consumption and interaction. It’s only true or real if other people consider it true or real, as well.
And this matters because these meanings are how we perceive ourselves and others, as well as how others perceive us based on the things we do and say and the products and brands we consume.
This Bud Light ad is more interested in the social - establishing and reinforcing the social belief that Bud Light is the everyman’s beer - than in some sort of emotional connection. It’s here to affect the meanings that a public shares about Bud Light - that when you drink a Bud Light or show up with a six-pack at your buddy’s house or a party, you’ll be one of the guys and not that guy. Maybe you don’t want to bring or drink Bud Light; maybe you like craft beer, another light beer, soda, water, whatever. That’s fine. Just know that whatever you bring, others will interpret you and your actions. The meaning associated with Bud Light is out there in the world beyond your control, and whether you like it or not, Bud Light or whatever products you choose say something to others about you. In this ad, Budweiser is speaking to a mass audience, presumably of guys who aren’t interested in standing out for their beer choices to reinforce that Bud Light is for them (and will convey the (non)message that they would be okay with conveying.). It works unconsciously, but the meanings and implications are there.
In addition to the message having meaning, so too does the ad itself. The vehicle can take on cultural significance. Catchphrases, mascots and characters, jingles, logos: these can all work their way into cultural significant and our social lexicon. Wieden & Kennedy have mastered this over the years with their ‘make culture not ads’ vibe. Looking back to the ‘Dilly Dilly’ catchphrase from Budweiser, you’ll hear college kids use it among each other (like at parties when ‘Mo Bamba’ comes on), or shouted from the gallery at golf tournaments. These bits and pieces become a part of the collective experience in which they’re activated. A lot of college age people might look back and wonder why they yelled Dilly Dilly for a year or two of their lives, but it’s a part of their experience and memories (however hazy) of the time. Bud Light gave them a branded tool to express themselves, and they’ve used it. There you have ads ‘working’ socially. See also: the Budweiser frogs, the Wassup guys (Also Budweiser), ‘Can you hear me now? Good.’, and many others.
Let’s look at another example: Apple. Apple made 66(!) of its Mac vs. PC spots in the aughts in its push to cement Apple among Millennials as the fresh, breezy, cool alternative to the dorky, stiff PC. Since its Think Different campaign, Apple has seeded that Mac users are for creatives and those who aren’t here to follow the norm. It put a mass appeal spin on it for Millennials - many heading off to college and entry level jobs, following their liberal arts dreams - to affect what it means when to others when you’re seen with a Macbook, or when you see them with one.
Apple disseminated these messages to its audience, and effectively sat back and waited for them to take hold or get rejected. People who find this meaning appealing will likely find Apple and Macs more appealing. Those who reject it, won’t.
And that’s okay. For the social side of advertising to work, you don’t need everyone to find it appealing. Rather, you’re looking to position your product and brand as most appealing to your desired audience. That will mean reaching others who can’t buy your product, but still aspire to that meaning and message, and it might mean turning off others who don’t jive with it. There was always snarky backlash against Apple, but that only served to reinforce Apple’s and Macs’ social meanings. Which leads into my next point…
Symbols and meaning-making are tightly related. Symbols convey meanings or concepts to those who share them. Products and brands are consumer symbols that we can use to say a lot about who we are and what we want people to see and think about us. And brands have fed into that for generations. Let us consider Rolex. Where Bud Light sought to assert itself as the beer of the masses, Rolex puts in the effort to reinforce something quite different:
These vintage Rolex ads are pretty telling - they sought to establish the badassery of Rolex watches. You see someone with a Rolex watch and you know they mean business. And that they’re successful because they can afford a nice watch. Rolex associated itself with a type of successful masculinity to position itself as a status symbol.
The TV spot informs its audience about the product itself, sure, but with the intention of establishing that this is a prestigious piece of time-keeping. The alternate title for this ad is ‘Symbol of Success’ and it ran during the Masters, golf’s most prestigious event.
Let’s look at another example. Method. It would seem that your dish soap of choice might not say much about you, but just about anything (even soap!) experienced socially can serve to tell others something about you. When it comes to domesticity, anyone who’s entertained a mother-in-law knows that these things can matter (Disclaimer: I’ve never entertained a mother-in-law).
Method products fit the minimal, color blocking aesthetic that Millennials like, and the better for you ethos that we seek to live and portray (I’m speaking in lazy, broad brush strokes. Deal with it.)…while offering the effectiveness expected of a judgy mother-in-law who suspect that you aren’t a good enough provider to her darling son. At least compared to her.
Even your soap is imbued with meaning, and serves as one of many, many symbols to people in your life. It signals that you have taste to friends you invite over, and that you’re capable to mothers-in-law.
This, as an important side note, is why reach is so vital. Brands must seed the meanings that they want associated with their brands to give themselves a head start in meaning-making. Method wants those mothers-in-law to know that its products are effective, and it wants you to feel confident that your mother-in-law thinks this, too. It’s not like we’re all out here fretting about dish soap. But these things matter in split second buying decisions, and are wrapped up in the ‘mental availability’ that Sharp and co. wrote about in How Brands Grow. Broader reach allows brands to seed meanings among more people to better establish those meanings on (roughly) the brands’ terms. Could Rolex have become a universal, tangible symbol of success without the brand’s advertising intervention? Maybe, sure. But those things are best not left to chance, and it shouldn’t surprise you that Rolex has significantly outspent competitors in marketing dollars for decades. Your brand and product can’t be aspirational if those who can’t afford it (and, ideally, those who barely can) don’t believe that they should aspire to.
Your brand should want people to say something about themselves to others with your product because, whether you and they like it or not, they’re probably going to.
Cultural Tastes and Social Distinction
This leads us to my favorite thing about social life, and my former area of research. When we talk about ‘cultural tastes,’ we’re talking about patterns of preference, or what we tend to choose and appreciate. In a nutshell, our cultural tastes - the things we like - are tied to who we are and how we are perceived by others and our social positions. That’s a mouthful. In cultural sociology, it’s long been understood that cultural tastes are imbued with meanings linked to social identities and class status. We’re talking about the movies and TV we watch, the art and artists we like, music we listen to, the brands we wear, the hobbies we participate in. We’re also talking about (this is the point of my old research) the how and performance of taste: for example, what it is to be an NFL fan (or a fan of punk music, or a horror movie aficionado, etc.) and what it takes to be one differs from person to person, with shared and contrasting meanings.
…it’s a lot to unpack. How the hell can you even think about making sense of it? Well, our tastes don’t come from nowhere. They’re influenced by our past and current social lives, meaning how we were raised, what we do, how much money we make, who we hang out with. The brands and products we consume are typically tied to our social and economic class standings, and they reflect and enforce what people think about us. If you’re reading this in a public space, look around. Who looks wealthiest? Who’s the coolest? Who looks friendliest? Why? What are the signals? Who are they? How do they carry themselves? What are they doing? What are they wearing? We observe and make judgments based on the symbols and signals we see and what we believe them to mean.
Of course, social life is more nuanced than that. Context matters. Let’s go back to Rolex. We’ve established that a Rolex watch, by and by, signals success, wealth (or at least disposable income), and some sense of refinement. That’s true in the aggregate. Among an upper echelon crowd - imagine a stereotypical room of Wall Street banking execs - the Rolex watch’s signal is less distinct, or may even be a negative: there are now gradients of taste: Which Rolex? Vintage or new (and intentional or not)? Entry level or more expensive? In some circles and settings, a Rolex may stand out as a symbol of power. In others, it may look try-hard, or it may signal new money and a lack of refined taste. It’s contextual, and depends on what matters to that particular group at that time.
It’s also why brands introduce entry-level and luxury product extensions, whether they explicitly know it or not. The Porsche Cayenne exists for folks who desire a Porsche as a symbol and experience but can’t shake the fact that they have kids and practical limitations. Porsche did the branding work and seeded the meaning long ago, and now it capitalizes on extending (and refreshing) this meaning to new products and new buyers, and existing buyers in new situations.
This post isn’t exhaustive. But I think it’s a reasonable start. In all of this discussion of meaning, sociality, and symbols, I wanted to unpack some of the mechanics behind the social side of advertising’s influence. When folks talk about how advertising works today, too much emphasis is put on how it works on individual recipients of ad messaging. More emphasis should be put on how ads work socially, particularly when it comes to brand building. Brands exist socially. Brands have meaning because we recognize them and know something about what they mean and signal. Ads seed meaning and cultural information for people to use, and for brands and products to distinctly matter. Direct marketing and personalization have their place but they are completely unequipped to build lasting brands. There are plenty of ad folks who understand and act upon this implicitly. It’s important, though, to get a more careful conversation about the more complex social side of advertising above board. We need a fuller understanding of how ads are effective and at what, so that we may come up with stronger ideas and campaign designs that are effective.
Caveats and Nuance
And now to tie up some loose ends.
People aren’t that strategic, or Not everyone cares about everything. It’s critical to note that this discussion of distinction and signaling doesn’t assume strategically oriented social peacocks, strutting around while they flaunt their brands and products as clear symbols of who they are. Crudely put, there are some things people give more of a shit about in brands and products than others. Social distinction is contextual to peers, groups, and networks in which we find ourselves, and some objects matter more to us than others because they matter more to those around us who we want to send signals to. We’re not rational, strategic creatures making calculated decisions all the time. Only sometimes.
It’s usually unconscious. That’s the power of shared meanings and brands. We make decisions about what we do and don’t like and buy all the time, usually without putting much thought into it. Again, we aren’t always hyper-aware of our social selves as we go through everyday life like that, making calculated decisions about how we present ourselves. There are times we’re more aware than others, but having these implicitly understood meanings allows us to make decisions on the fly.
But we still aren’t oblivious to the game. People aren’t masterful strategists of meaning-making and signaling, but we do recognize that there are rules. Hipsterdom is rooted in subversion of mainstream and working class symbols and meanings. Streetwear and haute couture can do the same, with intentional mixing, matching, and ‘rule-breaking’ done to make new meanings.
Not everything matters socially, or Socialness of brands and products is contextual. Related to the Method example above, not all brands and products say that much about us. The fewer people who see or experience you via interactions with those products, the less they matter. The paper towels you use at home will say less about just about anyone than the type and brand of shoes you wear, or the car you drive, or where you live. You can think about a given brand’s or product’s place in people’s lives to get a better understanding of the type of work you need ads to do: maybe it’s just about getting on the radar or making assurances that the product itself is what you need, and less about the brand and its meaning. It depends.
Ads don’t just ‘work’ in one way, and not the others. It’s not like you just pick one type of ad ‘work.’ Awareness, emotional seeding, symbol-making, and others can all be done at once. Awareness generation - we exist - can be done directly or socially. I may not need a thing, but you as a brand would certainly like me to bring your product up to a friend if they have a relevant need or problem to solve. To tie up some loose ends, let’s go back to How Brands Grow. Planners preach reach and mental availability for good reason. You need them. But much of the work done in distinct and memorable messaging is not just in the message and the ad itself, but by what can be deployed in culture after. Seeding meaning that takes hold is a significant part of mental availability. Sharp et al. certainly wouldn’t deny this. The machinations just get lost, as I don’t think practicing ad folks think about that social side of ads overtly enough.
When it comes to symbols and social distinction, it’s as much about the brand you choose as the brands you don’t choose. This is another part of that shared meanings thing. People make sense of you based as much on what you don’t do and show as much as what you do.