You’d be wise to think that they’ve already thought what you need to think.
Surely you remember that “a diamond is forever.” Who could forget that Disneyland is “the happiest place on Earth?”
Why do these messages stick? Alternatively, why can’t we unthink them? They weren’t conjured from any lived experience or scientific evidence, yet they’ve nested somewhere deep within our memories. We know full well that pawn shops are filled with diamond rings. And how do you really feel while waiting under the blistering sun to sit inside a teacup?
Messages bombard us from every angle, competing for our attention. Most go in one ear and out the other. But the most effective marketers and politicians can skillfully communicate in ways that skirt the mind’s defenses. Though we humans are, in our own estimation, rational creatures of free will and self-determination, we often find ourselves pulled toward a certain brand or repeating a leader’s message. Looking back on many of our choices, it’s fair to wonder whether we were shepherds or sheep.
So, what tactics are at work? What happens behind the curtain on Madison Avenue? What makes a message memorable?
Offering insights spanning the fields of psychology, history and practical politics, USC Dornsife’s experts can help make sense of these questions — with no risk, no obligation and no hidden fees.
In the end, we may not be wide-eyed victims of manipulation. With so many demands on our capacity to think critically and so many inner desires to satisfy, we may, in fact, be willing participants.
An easy sell
The old marketing maxim, “say it seven times,” suggests that consumers need to hear a message repeatedly before it starts to stick. But frequency alone is usually not enough. The content of the message counts. We want to feel good about our choices — smart decisions based on evidence and perceived value. The more features and benefits, statistics and rankings, or comparative data points we can weigh, the better. Right?
Unfortunately, our big brains are also a little lazy.
“Every mental activity, whether it’s reading, pronouncing or remembering something, can be more or less easy or difficult,” says USC Dornsife’s Norbert Schwarz, Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing. “People pay attention to that experience, and that has consequences.”
One consequence, he says, is that a memory is qualified by the very experience of remembering. If it takes more effort, we are less inclined to rely on what we remember.
For instance, researchers asked participants to relay two wonderful things about their partner. This was easy for everyone to accomplish. But when the researcher asked them to relay 10 wonderful things, the added difficulty changed their perception. It’s not that the participants couldn’t recall 10 things, the activity just required more brain power.
“As the request gets harder, you see a paradoxical effect,” says Schwarz, who also serves as co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center. “You remembered more. That should seem like a good thing. But because it was difficult, you start to think that there must not be so many wonderful things — and you end up less pleased with your partner.”
Ease or difficulty is not just about the quantity of information we have to recall. Novelty often has an advantage over the familiar, particularly for episodic memory. If you park your car on a street where you’ve never parked before, you’re likely to remember that spot. But if you park in the same structure every day, you’ve probably found yourself wandering up and down the floors, scratching your head.
But nothing trumps emotion. Universal feelings, such as happiness, fear, love and nostalgia, are experienced at a primal level, one that requires little in the way of critical thinking. As the late advertising whiz Leo Burnett said, “Don’t tell me how good you make it; tell me how good it makes me when I use it.”
This may explain the success of a Budweiser beer commercial that aired during the 2015 Super Bowl. The ad follows a puppy and a horse that go to great lengths to sustain their interspecies friendship. Thanks to a bighearted farmer, they’re able to stay together forever. We get smothered by feelings of empathy, courage and a sense of belonging. No beverage ever appears in the spot — but it remains among the most shared ads of all time on social media.
“If I can tap your memory, it elicits not only that knowledge, but also the feelings and bodily sensations that went with that memory,” says Schwarz. “That’s much more powerful than a statistic.”
Emotional marketing wasn’t always considered best practice. During the modern industry’s early days, many campaigns were built largely on meticulously worded claims of a product’s (purported) qualities. Around the start of the 20th century, for example, one could trust Joy’s Cigarettes as a remedy for asthma and bronchitis, since they were “successfully tested and recommended by the medical profession for many years.”
But at least one savvy marketing executive recognized that appeals to reason weren’t necessarily the most effective way to hook an important customer base. Jean Wade Rindlaub built her storied career creating sentimental messages targeting women. Earning her chops at the renowned advertising agency, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), she led campaigns in the post-World War II era for high-profile clients, including General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, United Fruit Company and Betty Crocker.“We get bored now if the advertisement isn’t personally relevant.”
“Women were repeatedly sold the idea that their role as housewives was more powerful and more patriotic than any outside the home,” says Associate Professor (Teaching) of Writing Ellen Wayland-Smith, who explores Rindlaub’s cultural influence in her latest book, The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (University of Chicago Press, 2020). “[Rindlaub’s] success largely came from embracing, rather than subverting, the cultural expectations of women.”
Rindlaub understood that women of the time were most likely to be making the decisions about which products would feed and comfort their families. Sadly, many housewives were dissatisfied or unfulfilled in their roles as homemakers, a dilemma that Rindlaub discovered through her pioneering focus groups.
“Rindlaub’s idea was to give women something to hang on to,” says Wayland-Smith. “She was very candid about selling a feeling, selling the idea that women’s roles at home mattered and that someone would notice.”
Using “heart-tug” ads, Rindlaub convinced women to think of consumption as a patriotic act of love that would strengthen families, communities — even the nation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident
As the nation’s collective head continues to throb from the 2020 election cycle, one in which a record-shattering $11 billion had been spent on advertising as of the time of writing, we’ve seen the great extent to which politicians sell their brand much like Rindlaub sold bananas and cheese knives.
Bob Shrum, Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics and professor of the practice of political science, has himself crafted some of these messages in the past. A veteran political strategist who has worked on eight presidential campaigns, Shrum is often credited for popularizing a tactic that has since become a staple of political rhetoric. In leading the composition of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s famous 1980 concession speech, “The Dream Shall Never Die,” Shrum incorporated stories of everyday Americans whom Kennedy met along the campaign trail. For example, Kennedy mentions a grandmother who no longer has a phone to call her grandchildren because she gave it up to afford rent.
“It’s so much more powerful than saying the unemployment rate is this or that percent,” says Shrum, director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future.
Unfortunately, just as political messages can drive action or build coalitions, they can also be used to misinform and divide. Fake news has become so prevalent in the political arena that one could understand why even the most reputable, mainstream sources have their skeptics. In fact, a 2016 study from BuzzFeed News found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
Fake news is so memorable because it tends to be sensationalist, purposely designed to arouse fear and spread like wildfire.
Criticizing someone for buying into fake news is like criticizing them for popping bubble wrap. They simply can’t help it. Schwarz says that the metacognitive experience has a huge place in fake news, since the process of analyzing why it shouldn’t be trusted could actually make you trust it more.
“If someone gives you one reason against your thinking, that’s easy to consider, and it helps you correct your belief,” he says. “But when someone gives you many reasons, you’re more likely to be convinced that your initial judgment was correct — because if you were clearly wrong, it shouldn’t be so hard to understand why.”
Four stars out of five
While fake news has plenty of historical precedent, it has proliferated exponentially in the digital age. Democratized communication of every kind, made possible by the internet and social media, has had a profound impact on the ways that brands and politicians fight to stay memorable.
“In the past, it was a ‘push’ message,” says brand consultant Francesca Romana Puggelli, a lecturer in the Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at USC Dornsife. “Now with new media, we have a ‘pull’ strategy.”
Brands no longer enjoy exclusive access to the media outlets that control — or push — what customers see or hear about products. Instead, they promote a conversation, one that pulls an audience to affiliate with a community of like-minded buyers. Before the digital era, we would only get firsthand accounts of a shop or restaurant through friends and family who had already been there.
Now, we can consider experiences and reviews from strangers all over the world. A bad rating or comment from a customer can have a strong emotional impact, as we’re more easily affected by the “worst-case scenario” than the expected experience. It gives the consumer tremendous influence; and brands know this has flipped the power dynamic.
Moreover, since we aren’t interrupted as often by push marketing, we get to choose what kind of messages we engage with. “We get bored now if the advertisement isn’t personally relevant,” says Puggelli. Marketers still have to tell a story, use emotion and be human. But they also have to be more strategic and targeted, she says.
And there’s the irony. It wasn’t long ago when brands would essentially scream through a megaphone in the middle of the street, “Remember me!” Now, as we have become more involved in the creation of message — as we assume a greater degree of power — we, the consumers, are the ones imploring marketers and politicians to remember us.