The Science of Advertising by
Laura Bissett

December 19, 2013
Branding & Advertising

With each year, advertisers are able to reach an increasingly larger consumer base, and over the past 50 years, the Australian advertising market has grown into a A$14bn a year industry (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 April 2012).

As advertising deals directly with consumer and social behavior, and how to manipulate the market, it’s perhaps no surprise that the industry is becoming ever more intertwined with science and psychology. Interestingly, the most common career path for today’s psychology student leads to a life in advertising. Conversely, only approximately 16% advance to become practicing psychologists (The Guardian, 12 Feb 2010).

Many of the brain’s neurological pathways are developed whilst still in the womb, and it is these pathways that determine basic human functions such as breathing, heart rate monitoring, and temperature control. These are often referred to as the hard-wired pathways (Walsh, 2006).

Soft-wired neurological networks are defined by experience, and relate to language, personality, problem solving, and understanding. It is becoming more and more evident that experiential networking has an increasingly close relationship to decision-making, behaviour, and emotion (Walsh, 2006).

The Limbic System is the part of our brain that is responsible for emotion and often becomes the target for Advertisers. Fascinatingly, psychologists have communicated that an emotional reaction outweighs reason, and it has been shown to be the basis of motivation and behavioural change (Goleman, 1995). Have you ever been watching a movie and become scared to the point of jumping out of your seat while in the safety of your own home? This is a prime example of the Limbic system forcing a physical reaction before the higher order brain functions such as reason and understanding have had time to influence behavior.

Such emotions are caused by neurological ‘shortcuts’, defined by experience and if we could list these emotions, they might be confused for an advertiser’s wish list. An emotional response triggers attention, holds focus and often influences the consumer without conscious awareness. Simply because an emotional response doesn’t engage reason – and can slip under the radar of critical analysis (Perloff, 2002). The most effective advertising influences the consumer without them realizing that they are being influenced.

We are in the midst of the age of communication, and as a result we have the most cynical and effective bullshit alarms to advertising. Aligning the brand with a strong emotive sentiment most effectively influences perception, as it allows the brain to build a relationship between the feeling, and the consumption of the product. This allows the ad to subtly sway our opinions about the product, without raising awareness to the advertising. David Ogilvy once proclaimed – ‘A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself’ (Ogilvy, 1983). A recent example of this is the Dove, ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ ad. The creative team has built the TVC around the emotion that the campaign idea and the copy provoke. They even leave the brand alignment long enough for our advertising defenses to drop (2:47). As of Tuesday the 26th of November, the Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ has had 59,550,075 views on Youtube.

The brain has an incredible talent for being able to process information in the forefront and the background of conscious awareness. Advertising seeks to place an impression on the consumer, so when a problem arises, the consumer recalls the brand and uses the product to solve the issue.

The unconscious processing of emotion can be likened to a stage play, where backstage, things are being organised, archived, and called upon and the spotlight on the stage represents conscious awareness. The actions and behavioral change that we recognize are the result of countless processes outside of conscious awareness (Walsh, 2006).

The reality is – advertising influences us, whether we are consciously aware or not. Social norms and the way advertisers position and display their products to its consumers are so powerful that we are constantly building unconscious relationships with brands.

These emotional responses are such powerful motivators, that there is an entire industry devoted to utilizing them – we call it advertising.

Written by Senior Creative Artworker – Bryce Waters


Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books; 1995.
Perloff R. The Third Person Effect. Media effects and Advances in Theory and Research; 2002.
Walsh D. Slipping under the Radar: Advertising and the Mind. 2006.
Ogilvy D. Confessions of an Advertising Man. 1983

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