Advertising Techniques

By: J. David Moton



Why study ads...

This lecture covers some of the ways advertisers work to get our money. In my face to face class, this section of the course is of paramount importance to the entire semester for several reasons.

First, it is good to know the terminology of advertising, especially when we deal with popular culture in the class. It helps to make sense of several of the Media and Messages articles and give them extra meaning and importance.

Second, and I’ll get altruistic here, I think that knowing about advertising is crucial to anyone living in the modern, Western world. Some statistics indicate that Americans see an average of 8.5 hours of TV a day. On average, that is 136 TV commercials in a day. On top of that, we see over 1600 ads, logos, and product placements in any given day. Those come from bumper stickers, vending machines, t-shirts, super markets, bus benches, or just about anywhere we look ever. In fact, in most rooms of any given house you can count dozens of logos and brand names making up the invisible white noise of our environment.

With this proliferation of advertising in our lives, it is crucial that we understand how they work. The best psychologists and profilers in the world are hired by the advertising firms on Madison Avenue to get into our heads. Nothing in an ad is accidental, and it is all designed to manipulate us, to mold our behavior and make us consume. I hope you’ll take from this lecture and our Media and Message readings, a solid understanding of how we’re manipulated by our very environment to consume.

Advertising uses several methods to get into our heads, and below, I’ll list several of them. Learn them, not just for your class, but for your sanity!



The human psyche has certain needs that never go away, no matter the time. We have a need for food, companionships, shelter, and many basic things which were first discussed by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. Advertisers study and exploit these needs. They appeal to our most basic psychic needs to make us want to consume. Below is a list of several basic needs we have; several things they appeal to.


Appeal to Nostalgia/Shared Memories

Often, ads will hearken back to childhood memories and incorporate old images in their text to appeal to us. They may include childhood television icons, older advertisements, and even old war propaganda. Tee shirts and bumper stickers for old cartoons like the Transformers is a good example of this.


Appeal to Belonging

We all want to belong to a larger social group; we all want acceptance. Appealing to this need will include ads where large families or groups of friends come together to show off clothes, drink beer, eat McDonalds, or even have a soda. Often, we get a party scene showing clubs, barbeques, or fun social outings in these ads.


Appeal to Love/Sexual Satisfaction

To quote the Blues Brothers, “everybody needs somebody to love.” Advertisers know this and show happy couples to prove that love exists in this product’s sphere of influences. They also (with much more frequency) show couples engaged in sex or suggesting sexual promiscuity to appeal to us.


Appeal to Status/Power

As the article “Masters of Desire” argues, we are all motivated by ideas of success; it’s very American to do so. This desire for success is often used by advertisers, especially if they are selling cars or luxury items such as watches, nice homes, or expensive vacations. If we feel that something is a status symbol, we’ll pay more and work hard for it. By appealing to status, ads will give an item an exclusive status and make us hunt for it.


Appeal to Safety

In the post 9/11 era, we all feel a bit violated and unsafe at times. Advertisers (and very often the news media) play on our fears. They boast that this SUV or set of tires will protect our family, or they argue that a home alarm will save us from break ins and even terror itself. By making us feel unsafe, advertisers then make us feel that their product will make us safe. This propaganda device goes back to war propaganda.


Appeal to Sustenance

This most basic appeal reaches our need to feed. Often we get great photos of delicious food and see burgers and burritos late at night. Once we see great looking food, quite simply, we want to eat it, so it’s off to the drive through.


Appeal to Feeling Attractive/Healthy

In this age of obesity and fast food full of hydrogenated trans fats and high fructose corn syrup, being fit is not only an appeal to help us make us healthy, but to be sexy as well. By showing how healthy a food is, or by showing Jerrod (or whatever his name is…) and how much weight he lost eating Subway we find that certain foods will make us healthy, too. Conversely, we often see sexy people wearing clothes or smoking cigs, and we think that these same items will make us sexy.


Appeal to Escape

We often want to escape it all and head out of town. We dream of exotic locales, Hawaii, and Tahiti, and even New York City. By seeing people and products in these locations, we dream of being there and want the item. Even a commercial set in a big city subway take most of America to an exotic locale—the hip, bustling world of New York or DC.


Propaganda Devices:

Many of the propaganda devices below sort of overlap with the basic appeals from above, but they are usually listed separately in most text books and articles, so I’ll list them separately here as well. These techniques have all been developed in the past century, and most of them were made during World War I and World War II in war propaganda. They were effective enough to get women to join the workforce and men to volunteer to die. If they are this powerful, they can surely get us to go get a burger or buy a coke from a vending machine on campus tomorrow.



We can all think of hundreds of songs and slogans. From the Oscar Meyer Weiner song to the “Just do it” slogan, they are designed to stick the products in our subconscious and make them never go away. This propaganda technique is amazing at fostering brand recognition.


Name Calling

Often the best way to sell a product is to besmirch the competition. Coke attacks Pepsi, Tide attacks Joy, Crest attacks Colgate. Some attacks are subtle; some are brutal, but all are faulty. They don’t prove how good a product is, but how bad another product is instead.


Glittering Generalities/Faulty Logic

Often, we see generalities that seem like concrete proof: “Better Formula,” or “Improved.” These are incomplete comparisons. What is the formula better than? What exactly is improved? These are general and vague, but make us feel that a product is better or improved in a real way. In fact, if a box of detergent simply changes the box, the company can now legally say it has improved the product or made it “New” in some way…



Often ads will try to transfer a value, person, or idea onto a product in an attempt to give it more value. Below are four different kinds of transfer:

Celebrity: Most often, a transfer associates a hot celebrity with a product. Whether it’s Michael Jordan’s Ball Park Franks or Beyonce’s Pepsi, we assume if a company can afford to pay these spokespeople, they are very successful due to sales volume. It also makes us subconsciously associate the hipness or the celeb with the product.

Sex: Much as the appeal to sex, the transfer of sex makes us think that using a certain product will help us have sex with beautiful people. Often, these are print ads for clothes, liquor, or smokes.

Miraculous: Often, ads will give a product magical, god-like powers. Running shoes which let you run on water; a bottle of Bacardi which makes the moon turn into a lime; cream cheese which sits in heaven like clouds. This basic technique lets you know that a product is more than good—it’s divine.

Patriotism: We see a photo of the statue of liberty next to a bottle of vodka, an American flag waving behind the CNN news logo, or a country singer praising Ford F150’s as being American. Most people love their country, especially after 9/11 in a time when banding together feels like extra security. By transferring that love of country to love of, say, Coke, we feel like a product is just as patriotic as we are.



The original American mascot is, of course, Uncle Sam. He wants YOU to join the armed forces. Soon after, the Coke company formatted a red suited, fat Santa and used him to sell their cola with holiday warmth (in freezing months historically low on soda sales). Sure St. Nicholas existed before Coke, but not as a jolly red-suited fat man. Even Rudolph was invented as a mascot for early Montgomery Wards Christmas pushes. But now we’ve expanded. From the singing cats of Meow Mix to the Taco Bell Chihuahua and the Geiko lizard, we all love a good mascot. The AFLAC duck makes us think of a product we’d never think of. With the proliferation of computer animation, expect to see more and more talking animals and cute mascots, even for toenail fungus medicine…



Most people remember funny commercials more than any other type of ad. If something makes us laugh, it stands out over the hours of boring ads we digest. Thus, ads often try to get a genuine chuckle out of us. If we think back that an ad is our favorite ad because it made us giggle, we will remember and want the product.


Eye Candy

An add needs to be visually appealing. Sexy supermodels, bright colors, and interesting lettering in print ads. Quick film cuts, hip music, and text which moves across the screen on TV and the net (plus, of course, sexy supermodels…). If we are drawn to an unusual ad, we commit to it, take it in, and remember it.



Testimonial techniques are when an ad shows that someone else uses the same products. Often fake doctors, lawyers, managers, politicians, scientists, or even chefs will sing the praises of a product. This proves that it works. 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Crest, so it must be good, right?


Band Wagon

Similar to the testimonial, the band wagon shows us that everyone is using the product. Infomercials often show an audience of eager consumers who could be our next door neighbors. Diet ads show normal people who used a product and lost weight—so can we! The most common is beverage commercials in which pool parties and night clubs are the norm. Lots of people who use it and have fun prove that we can use it and have fun, too!


Sex Appeal

Finally, I can’t say enough about sex. Most ads are driven on some level by sex. Sexy people, sexy music, sexy cars, subliminal sexual images (picture Britney Spears being hugged by a giant snake…). Sex sells, and it’s everywhere. Either explicit or implicit, nude or semi-nude models of either sex will sell. Good looking guys make guys jealous and make girls want a sexy guy. Sexy girls make girls want to be sexy and make guys drool. It’s the most common ad technique in use.


Final Thoughts

There are many other ways that advertisers get to us (Demographics, the VALS system, subliminal advertising, etc.), but this is plenty for our first paper.

These techniques seem a bit obvious and over the top once you read about them, but they work. They work on us every day and every night. Millions upon millions of times each day, these basic appeals make corporate America billions of dollars.

Though it isn't a formal assignment, I suggest you pick up a magazine, look at some spam, or watch a tv ad and see how many of the above techniques appear. You'll be surprised how common they are. So, be smart, be cautious, and think twice before you leap to a purchase.