How Ads Hack Your Brain

For years, people thought brands were using evil, manipulative techniques such as subliminal advertising. Actually they weren’t, and books like Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders were largely hogwash. Eventually that furore died down, and today we tend to think of advertising as annoying but essentially benign. But the truth is, manipulation techniques are on the rise.


The issue reared its head again a while back because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And Cambridge Analytica has rightly been condemned for its deceptive behaviour in dishonestly obtaining the data of millions of Facebook users.


But there is another form of manipulation taking place today that is far more widespread and yet which has barely hit the headlines outside of a few obscure articles in the marketing press: ad gurus have begun to figure out how to exploit natural cognitive biases – basically ‘hacking’ the human brain.


It turns out that we humans are just animals not computers, and our brains are not perfect. In fact we make mistakes all the time. When we consistently make the same kind of mistake, it’s called a cognitive bias. These are errors, distortions or faulty shortcuts that our brains consistently fall into, that we’re not even aware of.


Psychologists have identified and named over a hundred separate cognitive biases, from the Ambiguity effect (the tendency to avoid options for which the probability of a favourable outcome is unknown) to the Zeigarnik effect (the phenomenon that uncompleted or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed ones).


Some very successful ad campaigns have exploited cognitive biases without even realising that’s what they were doing. For example, a famous campaign for De Beers diamond engagement rings initiated way back in 1953 used the headline "How else could a month's salary last a lifetime?"

Here, De Beers was using a cognitive bias called the Anchoring effect, which is that humans have a tendency to rely heavily on a single piece of information when making a decision, especially the first piece of information we are given. How much should you spend on a diamond ring? Whatever your month's salary is. You might choose to spend more, or less… but De Beers had set the reference point.


The first TV ad to overtly capitalise on the phenomenon was a 2008 Cannes Gold winning commercial whose intention was to make drivers more aware of cyclists. Titled ‘Do The Test’, it is better known as the ‘moonwalking bear’ ad. Check it out quickly before reading on… 

In case you haven’t seen it, the spot (directed by the legendary Chris Palmer) asks the viewer to count the number of passes made by a basketball team. When the sequence of passes is complete, the voiceover reveals the correct answer, but then asks “did you spot the moonwalking bear?”


The film rewinds, revealing that a man in a bear costume had moonwalked through the middle of the game. Most viewers don’t notice the bear, because of an effect called ‘inattentional blindness’, which means that when our attention is directed to a particular object we become blind to all else, even what’s right in front of us. It’s the same technique that magicians have known about for centuries – they use the flourish of a wand to distract us from what they’re pulling out of their sleeve.


The moonwalking bear ad was directly based on a 1999 experiment by cognitive psychologist Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois. But the go-to textbook for manipulative ad people is ‘Nudge’ (official title ‘The Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness’) by University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein, first published in 2008.


This bestseller was the first to popularise recent research in psychology and behavioural economics around cognitive biases, and to explain how they can be exploited to manipulate our choices. And who is supremely concerned with manipulating our choices? Brands. So unsurprisingly, Nudge became a popular read for advertising agency strategists, and indeed several ad agencies began to rebrand themselves not as ad shops but ‘behaviour change experts’.


Since 2008, ‘Nudge’ style thinking has found its way into innumerable advertising campaigns. For example, Loss Aversion is a bias that means we are more averse to losing something than we are happy to gain something – awareness of the phenomenon has seen many blood donation campaigns switch from a message about saving lives to urging people to prevent deaths.


Government advertisers have been particularly quick to adopt nudge-style tactics, since they are often aiming to bring about social change, and social dynamics are rife with these biases. The most effective cognitive strategies for social change seem to be either stigmatisation or normalisation. In other words, if you want more of a behaviour you say “everybody’s doing it,” and if you want less of a behaviour you say “people who do this really suck.” So rather than focusing on the health benefits of quitting smoking, it may be more powerful to simply tell people that everyone’s doing it. A recent campaign for the Australian state of Victoria’s anti-smoking body carried the message “Only 13% of Victorians smoke”. In other words, to be a non-smoker is normal and to be a smoker is abnormal. This takes us to stigmatisation. Another Australian ad, this time an anti-littering campaign, focused not on the environmental impact of littering but aimed purely to demonise the litterer, using the tagline “Hey tosser.”


So advertising has discovered a powerful new set of tools to manipulate us with. And some argue that, like any manipulation of which the subject is unaware, the practice is unethical. In the words of nudge critic Lazar Dzamic, former head of brand planning at Google ZOO, “The biases, collectively, contribute to the pervasive, default, irrational side of our nature… if the cognitive biases are a sort of cognitive blindness, who wants to steal from the blind?” 


A rebuttal comes from Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy in the UK, who is so enamoured of nudge thinking that he has set up a behavioural science practice within the agency, and who says: “The process is inevitable. Criticising nudging is like criticising electromagnetism or gravity – the best we can do is be aware of the forces at work, to understand them and to make people widely aware of them.”


And to be fair, exploiting cognitive biases can be done with great intentions. For example, the techniques have been used to combat corruption in Nigeria, to tackle intimate partner violence in Georgia, and to promote financial inclusion in Mexico.


Like all techniques, cognitive bias exploitation is just a tool, that can be used for good or ill. And it will be interesting to see if these hacks continue to be effective once we all become aware of them.

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