There is something special about great advertising in its ability to persuade its audience to a wide range of actions, even if those actions seem to defy logic. It wasn’t long after the advent of modern advertising that advertisers began analyzing the success of their campaigns through the scope of psychology.

Harry Hollingworth, one of the first psychologists to analyze the world of advertising, suggested that advertising must adhere to four basic psychological guidelines if it is to be viewed as successful:

  1. Attract the customers attention
  2. Focus that attention on the message
  3. Make the consumer remember the message
  4. Cause the consumer to take desired action

Ultimately, failing to adhere to any of these four guidelines will cause an ad campaign to fall flat. The psychology behind consumer action may seem to ignore logic, but there is always a psychological explanation behind it. A great example of this was the Pepsi Challenge. In an international campaign spreading across a number mediums, Pepsi took a critical shot at Coca-Cola during the Cola wars. In essence, the Pepsi challenge was a blind taste test between the rivals, with nearly unilateral victory for Pepsi. Even with a high profile campaign, and what seemed a victory over its competition, Pepsi’s numbers never went to exceed Coca-Cola’s. There was something fantastic at Coca-Cola’s brand strength that overcame this campaign, and that success is based in the fact that Coca-Cola had a greater emotional impact on its viewers, thus giving its branding greater psychological weight.

For Pepsi, this is proof of the importance of all four of Hollingworth’s tenants. The Pepsi challenge grabbed the audience’s attention, focused that attention on the message, was memorable to the consumer, but failed to get the consumer to take the desired action, even after being given empirical proof of their products quality over the competition.

Understanding the psychology behind great advertising gives campaigns a greater chance at success. There are two simple rules to keep in mind when thinking of advertising messages with psychology in mind.

  1. Reposition the competition and highlight your own flaws:

Volkswagen hired a well-known Manhattan ad agency to promote their Beetle with limited budget. Their campaign broke traditional advertising rules by using a negative descriptor in the tagline of the print ad. The bold headline “Lemon”, a name to describe a vehicle with production flaws, was used. The basic premise of the body copy is that the pictured VW Beetle was not fit to be sold, as there was a minor issue with the glove box. The body then described the in-depth inspection system they implemented to make sure their vehicles had no factory defects. The implication that made this ad so powerful was that their competitors did not have such an in-depth inspection regime, and in such were producing ‘lemons’. This effectively promoted Volkswagen’s brand (practical, quality, durable) while position the competition as flawed.


  1. Solicit an Emotional Response and sell the benefits of the product:

In most aspects of marketing, the product or service is better advertised with the BENEFITS as the focus, not the product. So rather than selling the ABS brakes of a car, successful ads will sell the safety of your family (with the implication that the ABS brakes were the solution). Selling the benefits of a product, and soliciting an emotional response (like guilt, humour, or fear) is crucial to the success of the campaign.

There are plenty of great examples that show how emotional appeal connected to the brand can be used in effective marketing. In an ad for Dog Chow, a woman is shown scrapping off her plate into a furry, dog-shaped garbage can. The tagline “Stop treating your dog like a trashcan,” uses guilt to motivate the reader to spend more money on their furry friend’s supper. In a startling ad by CONAC, advertisers use a shocking photo of a crying child with cigarette smoke gathering around his head in the shape of a plastic bag. The tagline “Smoking isn’t just Suicide, It’s Murder,” shocks the viewer with the health impact that cigarette smoke can have on a child.