Controlling the Uncontrollable – The Advertising Tug-of-War

When consumers are faced with an estimated maximum of 5,000 advertisements per day and companies in the US alone spend around $190 billion USD on advertising per year, a level of control would seem necessary to avoid saturation and consumers being hoodwinked. Recent research activity of our own has unearthed the extent to which advertising can subconsciously convince consumers via ever-persuasive visual stimuli, no matter how suitable or reliable the products or services being promoted and despite the best efforts of some to resist temptation.

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK.” So says Don Draper, the creative director of the advertising agency featured in the hit HBO series Mad Men that ran over the period 2007-15. The character is based in 1960s New York and hits the jackpot when the agency he represents secures a massive contract with cigarette producers Lucky Strike.

The tobacco industry has, of course, been one of the products to come under the heaviest fire and regulations since, which serves as evidence of how powerful the imagery used in the past proved to be in selling what was ultimately a highly harmful product. All of which begs the question why consumers continue to fall for advertising in our better-informed times, even when they are aware of the potential dangers of what is being marketed to them?

Freedom of choice

The success of advertising has been built largely upon its ability to lead consumers to think they enjoy complete freedom of choice – the freedom to pay attention to an advert or not, the freedom to believe in the message, product or service being promoted, and the freedom to consume what is being sold. Regulations such as the Trade Descriptions Act (to take the example of the UK) are in place to ensure advertisers abide by guidelines in order to ensure that what they are selling “does what it says on the tin”. Respecting such guidelines means that no-one can legitimately claim to have bought something under false pretences based on an advert. In short, it is not by drinking Nespresso whilst smoking Marlboro Reds that one can realistically expect to turn into a cowboy-George Clooney mash-up overnight. Why? Because the advertisers never promised as such in the first place.

No claims bonus

 Malboro and Nespresso are just two examples of a long-running advertising tradition, one that ultimately consists of not making any indefensible claim at all, thereby covering the advertising company’s back in the event of consumer dissatisfaction. At the same time, by associating their products with pleasing images that will appeal to certain individuals and persuade them to purchase, the advertiser’s job is done. Music is used in a similar way, helping to create an atmosphere, translate a message or simply seduce consumers for the simple reason that they like the song, no matter how appropriate the music for the product.

In research circles, this phenomenon whereby stimuli such as celebrities, images or sounds rub off positively onto people is known as “evaluative conditioning”. Numerous investigations have reached the conclusion that brand preferences and consumption are often linked with positive imagery. However, open to question are the processes that some consumers go through before making a choice. Even more important is the degree of control recipients of advertising now have over their own responses to such stimuli.

An irreversible trend?

We conducted a recent experiment-based research project in order to gauge the controllability of consumer reactions to advertising, involving target audiences from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and the University of Heidelberg. The basic or control condition of the experiments sought to confirm the common trend of consumers being more receptive to brands associated with positive images. In this particular instance, participants were confronted with relatively unknown brands, thereby enabling us to track as open-minded a reaction as possible, unclouded by previous associations and experiences.   

The alternative “reversal” conditions in the experiments sought to create a more specific state of mind – participants were faced with more familiar images and brands but encouraged to react precisely opposite to what is implied by the images paired with the brands, with the aim of ascertaining the degree to which one can resist the lure of certain advertising imagery. Statistical models were then fitted to the responses from participants in both control and reversal conditions, allowing the researchers to tease apart how much of the effects of advertising can be controlled – or not.

Consistently the models indicated that a significant part of the effect of the advertising imagery is uncontrollable – changing people’s brand attitudes irrespective of their intentions to overcome the influence of these images. This occurred even when participants received financial compensations and incentives to appear as “uninfluenceable” as possible, and even when they had their full array of cognitive resources and attention at their disposal. In fact, people’s ability to defend themselves from the effects of advertising got even worse when they were in a state of distraction.

In short, the advertising imagery had automatic, uncontrollable effects on people’s brand attitudes in each of the experiments conducted. Thrown into the mix was a consumption test, where participants continued the test with branded bottles of water made available as refreshments. Sure enough, those with the most positive image association were consumed in greater quantities.

The advertiser-consumer contract

What the tests reveal is the tacit contract that consumers enter when faced with advertising and, above all, their apparent incapacity to resist the appeal of effective campaigns employing powerful images. Companies adopt such tactics to stand out from the crowd, safe in the knowledge they are not making claims that their products or services cannot deliver. The initial outcry from the tobacco industry regarding the shock images that now dominate all packaging was in part down to the potential loss of brand equity that they would suffer. Profit loss was of course a major concern but no cigarette producer rightly wanted their product to resemble rival and arguably inferior products. Market differentiation is key and cigarette producers have lost this in spades.

Fighting human nature

The example of the tobacco industry illustrates that tighter regulations and government crackdowns on powerful advertising do not necessarily pay dividends. By creating legislative obstacles one increases the taboo surrounding a product, one that human nature will naturally seek to overcome. Solutions exist in theory but are more difficult to apply in practice.

Education of consumers can help encourage people to adopt a more critical stance and protection of more fragile target groups such as children should be raised. Industries such as groceries and cosmetics have shown a new way forward as bio and animal-friendly products are given the spotlight they deserve, thereby enabling consumers to make a choice based not just on brand loyalty but also on the ethics behind a particular service or product. The notion of “choice” remains crucial to the equation.

What our recent experimental research study reveals is that the average consumer is slowly but surely losing a grip on their own ability to choose, such is the persuasive nature of positive advertising imagery and the relative inefficacy of regulations. It would appear that there is still no such thing as bad publicity, especially from the perspective of the advertiser.

Read the article: Mandy Hütter, Steven Sweldens; Dissociating Controllable and Uncontrollable Effects of Affective Stimuli on Attitudes and Consumption, Journal of Consumer Research, ucx124 

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Ivo Martijn, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at

Photo: (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Israel González.

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