Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Psychology in advertising (and faulty logic.)

Wray Herbert in Newseek discusses the use of psychology in advertising, specifically the ways advertisers aim for emotional responses in viewers. Cravings, feelings of attraction or just irrationally liking something pushes consumers to buy more often than reasonably weighing options does. He begins by describing an imaginary situation:

"Imagine that I have $100 and I offer you $20 of it, no strings attached. You'd take it, right? Any fool would; it's a windfall. But imagine further that you know I must give away part of my $100 or lose it all. All of a sudden my motives aren't entirely altruistic, but I'm still offering you free money. Take it or leave it, but no negotiation allowed.

Would your response change? I'd still take the money.

"If you were like a lot of people who have answered these questions in a psychological experiment over the years, you would now feel conflicted. Many of these people actually walked away from the deal, even though it would have meant a no-strings-attached twenty bucks in their pockets. Why? Because the arrangement is fundamentally unfair, and once you know this your basic sense of moral indignation clicks in. Your emotions and principles trump your pure rationality.

Why is the arrangement "fundamentally unfair?" We had no right to any of the money in the first place. Not receiving something we didn't deserve to begin with isn't "fundamentally unfair." And "the arrangement is fundamentally unfair" is a logical statement explaining the reaction. If the reaction can be explained rationally, then the statement "Your emotions and principles trump your rationality" can't be true.

The conclusion to the article is just the opposite:

"Despite remarkable progress in understanding the brain's anatomy and biochemistry, the organ is far too complex an array of interconnected circuits to be that easily manipulated with simple subliminal stimuli."

This tactic of beginning with a premise and arguing against it is often effective, but I cannot stand faulty logic. Far too many people read pieces like this and skim over the gaps -- which is why columnists keep getting away with it.

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