Advertisements are an engrained aspect of modern society. They flash across laptops, are plastered over walls and loom on billboards. They’re crammed between songs on the radio, between shows on TV and take up entire pages in magazines. All of these ads have one thing in common. They aim to persuade, to convince. From there, they diverge. Some ads are light-hearted or frivolous, using humor to convince the reader that they just have to purchase this newest product. Others are propaganda-centric, trying to sway public opinion on a movement or group. And some prey on our deepest fears and insecurities so we succumb to their glittering promises. Ads employ masterful techniques that are invisible to the oblivious consumer, subtly appealing to their rationality or their emotions. It’s time to fully understand how ads function and what role they play in our modern society — and in our own brains. It’s time to understand the inner workings of advertising.
America has gone through cycles of war and peace, adapted its identity due to wildfire activism movements, and transitioned from tradition to the modern age. As America has evolved, its advertising market has evolved with it. Ads recruited soldiers for the World Wars by reigniting American patriotism, served propaganda purposes during the infamous Red Scare and even offered a platform for raging social movements to spread their revolutionary messages. As America has changed and adapted to the world, the purpose of ads and role they play in American society has changed and shifted. Interact with this timeline to follow the evolution of ads through the ages.
The movie that you recently watched has product placement. The basketball player who you look up to wears a certain brand. The new Apple product is showcased on the billboard that you just walked by. The YouTube video made by your favorite YouTuber has a sponsorship.
“You don’t even notice anymore,” marketing teacher Carl Schmidt said. “How many young men want to dress like a basketball player or a soccer player? How many women want to dress like Katy Perry or Taylor Swift? Think about it. Everything you do as a teenager is influenced by marketing.”
Today, with the use of ethos, the marketing industry has incorporated significant parts of people’s lives that customers have started to trust influencers without even realizing it.
Similar to Schmidt, Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University Angela Lee believes that persuasion is present in all kinds of scenarios and that there are small tactics that everyone uses to persuade others, sometimes based on people’s personalities.
“Persuasion is used all the time,” Lee said. “From a little kid trying to get their parents to give them a toy to the government trying to help people quit smoking or not do drugs, people [are] trying to persuade someone all the time, constantly.”
Similar to Lee, senior Animesh Agrawal believes that is present in all parts of our lives.
“I think in our modern lives, persuasion is growing to fit more and more of just the world that we see around ourselves,” senior Animesh Agrawal said. “Like it’s something as subtle as convincing your friend to walk home with you, or convincing them to sit at a certain place for lunch, to brands trying to influence you to buy their product.”
Although the idea of persuasion is to convince people to join one side, Lee believes that it is important to show the positives and negatives of both sides to one’s audience. She finds that presenting both sides does not make it seem as if someone has selfish interests at heart, but instead, that they are simply giving them the information they need to decide which side they’ll be on.
“If you give people two-sided arguments, it’s going to be more persuasive than giving people only one side of the argument,” Lee said. “[A] two-sided argument is [when] you hear all the benefits that you can get. But there are also cons if you take this action, if you do things this way, if you use this product. But this is the reason why, despite the cons, you should still [give people two-sided arguments] because people are more persuaded if they see that you are not biased.”
Agrawal noticed that many people disguise the use of ethos, pathos and logos to subtly capture people’s attention. An example he mentions is Apple and how they sell a product with a small update by emphasizing its hardware.
“[Apple uses] ethos to try and convince you that their product is very, very high quality,” Agrawal said. “Like it’s not just metal, it’s like an Apple exclusive, customly created, metallurgist approved, form of aluminum. Pathos, the emotional appeal, it’s actually the most commonly used form of persuasion in the sense that emotional appeals often work better than facts.”
By using ethos people view influencers as more trustworthy. Tapping into a person’s emotions by using pathos makes the person more vulnerable to certain ads like beauty ads. Logos, on the other hand, uses reasoning to get someone to be persuaded.
“I think authenticity is important,” Lee said. “So if you are trying to persuade people, then you need to come across as authentic and genuine. Being yourself is important.”
In modern society, a large part of persuasion and advertisements is the seller or the product looking more appealing than they actually are. Many techniques are used for this, including the way someone dresses and body language. However, Lee believes that it is key for someone to be their honest self if they are trying to convince someone of something.
“People make decisions all the time,” Lee said. “Some decisions are more important than [others]. And so people will deliberate on the reasoning and the arguments a lot more if [it] is an important decision. People are not going to think much if they are making an everyday decision [in which] the consequence [is] not be dire. People who make very quick decisions won’t have time to listen to your two-sided argument.”
Schmidt sees a similar concept, in which a lot of people make mindless decisions about what they do in their daily lives.
“People buy things for reasons that cannot be understood,” Schmidt said. “Emotional reasons. All you need to buy is food, shelter, and clothing.”
According to Lee, when someone hears something for the first time and knows that it is incorrect, they will automatically believe that it is false. However, Lee explains how hearing something multiple times and forgetting the source the information came from can convince someone that something false is actually true.
“If you repeat [something] enough times, people are going to think that it is more likely to be true,” Lee said. “I’m pretty sure this is something called the truth effect. So basically, even if a statement is false, repeated exposure to it [makes it] seem very familiar to you. Because we infer things that seem familiar to us to be true, because facts are typically things we see all the time, and things we see all the time should be familiar to us, so things that are familiar must be true. So we are in very dangerous times. If you actually look at some politicians, [they] keep saying things that are not true and people will believe them because people have forgotten that it was a lie that [they were told].”
Chow: Investigative thinking
When thinking of an artist’s toolbox, color pencils or paint brushes come to mind. However, there’s a different kind of tool that artists use when designing advertisements — investigative questioning. For art teacher Brian Chow, this tool is the core element to his students’ commercial art project, where students create advertisements for actual clients and mirror the design process in the real-world industry. Through in-depth questioning of their clients, students can unearth what Chow calls the client’s “real problem.” This process lets them experience how a professional advertiser discovers and portrays the heart of the product or company’s story in their final design.
“Some [clients] just try to give a laundry list, [saying] ‘This is what I want,’” Chow said. “And through that, the designer’s job is to try to find out and listen to what [they’re] saying. And then [they ask a] succinct line of questioning, much like, ‘Would you do next, okay, if not that, what really is your story?’
Perhaps the questioning doesn’t come naturally, but Chow believes there’s no better teacher than failure. Even so, he’s right by his students’ side if the failure does occur and also urges them work with other students for help.
“If you’re not sure what to do on a job project, where you have a client, [that’s] a little difficult and you’re having trouble, then you seek the help of your colleagues,” Chow said.
This advertiser’s tool of investigative question may be intangible, but Chow also teaches a physical aspect of advertising: color symbolism. He’ll often pontificate to students the relation between colors and concepts, such as the “blue” and “family.”
“‘Where would you see this blue?’ And [the student thinks of] the ocean or something like that, or the Pacific Ocean or Bermuda, [and I’ll say] ‘Oh, tell me about Bermuda,’” Chow said. “[Then they start] talking about a family vacation. And also now you just hit two threads [which] all came back to family.”
Chow concludes it wasn’t the color blue that made one feel calm, but rather the correlating experience of a family vacation. These are the kinds of connections he hopes students can gradually internalize and incorporate into their ads. Often, he’ll host brainstorming sessions, a “living, breathing sort of process.” During a particular session, students debate about what a certain color means to them. This would be preparation for the real world, where students must be able to address all consumer interpretations in their advertisements, because people may interpret the same color differently.
“It should help them become more empathetic and get out of their own headspace,” Chow said. “[They can] understand what people’s needs are, and then be able to be empowered that they have to have opportunities to exercise their thoughts and their own opinions in a very positive process.”
Carpenter: Being skeptical
If there’s one personality skill English teacher Mark Carpenter wants his students to have, it’s skepticism. Whenever they read an advertisement or listen to a political speech, Carpenter hopes that his students will be able to notice — if not identify — the devices the speaker or designer may be using to manipulate the audience into buying into their cause.
For his Honors American Literature (HAmlit) students, Carpenter has his students study real-world speeches and identify rhetorical devices. They’ve read speeches by Patrick Henry in the 1600s or by Puritan Governor John Winthrop in 1630, but Carpenter doesn’t just limit his students to historical or current events-based speeches. The HAmlit classes are currently reading “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, a fictionalized play about the Salem witch trials in which students examine a rhetoric similar to political speeches.
After all, both types of speeches use rhetorical devices to persuade listeners to take a certain course of action. Notably, Carpenter’s HAmlit classes are going beyond the typical techniques of ethos, pathos and logos, which he hopes that his students already gained a basic understanding of in freshman year.
“[Those techniques] should really should be a refresher for everyone in in the room, where we [will learn] fresh [devices] and then we dig a little bit deeper,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter has introduced rhetorical fallacies, an umbrella term for literary devices such as a “slippery slope” or “strawman” argument. These appeal to the reader through diversion of manipulative reasoning instead of using sound reasoning. For example, a “slippery slope” argument suggests that a minor action may lead to a major argument: if someone doesn’t study on weekends, they might not graduate from high school with high honors, which means they won’t get into a top university and will ultimately never get a job.
Yet more than simply memorizing rhetorical terms, Carpenter wants his students to leave the classroom to reflexively fact check and evaluate every advertisement or speech they see.
“[I want] my students to be skeptical, skeptical readers, skeptical voters, skeptical consumers,” Carpenter said. “Just you know, not paranoid, but not totally [unaware].
Frazier: Odds in one’s favor
There’s no avoiding “bad graphs” — they’re plastered on magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs and essentially any kind of advertisement. According to AP Statistics teacher Debbie Frazier, “bad graphs” often given the impression that a product will offer consumers a social state that is much better than their current state.
In a unit focusing on the characteristics of misleading and skewed graphs, Frazier’s students learned about false depth, which is when a graph starts from a number higher than zero and to make the shape or change of the graph appear to be much bigger than reality, to give the impression of a larger “change.” According to Frazier, this is considered a violation of statistics rules, because it urges the reader to falsely believe an advertised product may have a significant or dramatic impact.
She hopes that her students will keep this knowledge of data manipulation at the back of their minds to prevent themselves from being easily fooled by advertising and propaganda scams in the real world.
“I like to use authentic examples [on practice problems and tests] and [in] all my classes because then I would hope that students realize, ‘Oh, this is not me learning facts about my textbook writer [or] facts that someone else thought was important,’” Frazier said. “‘It’s because I can use this in my real life.’”
She tries to teach the material in a meaningful way, rather than simply asking students to memorize facts off a timeline. However, memorization does come in handy at some times — Frazier has come up with a handy mnemonic known as FACSS, which students can recall every time they see an advertisement with a suspicious graph.
On the other hand, Frazier strongly emphasizes that data can be selectively used to one’s advantage, depending on what center — mean, median or mode — the advertiser or statistician may choose to report.
“The biggest thing is that statistics is very useful across a whole range of fields,” Frazier said. “It can [be used] in business and from marketing, I can use it in science for research, I can use it all over the place, and how we use it is really the [root] of the concern.”
This varied interpretation of the same data is perfectly valid, something that Frazier notes students often have a hard time comprehending. Similar to bad graphs, Frazier will reference real-world examples to help her students learn to identify the propaganda texts prevalent in modern advertising. She notes how politicians such as Donald Trump can use statistics to sway the world to think certain ways and urges students to realize there isn’t one correct answer or interpretation of data.
“It’s not just about getting a letter grade in this class,” Frazier said. “It’s about maybe broadening your perspective to become a [more] literate person.”
Larry Zuberbier never considered advertising as a possible career path. Softball was his passion. When his softball company needed promotional t-shirts and other apparel, he took on the responsibility of coordinating with the advertising company and became heavily involved in designing and marketing the t-shirt. He instantly realized that he had an affinity for design and an understanding of public opinion that is integral in advertising. He started small, adding patches of company logos to clothing. He then moved on to manufacturing pens and notebooks and finally began his own advertising company, LTZ Advertising, based in San Francisco.
“[To succeed in advertising], you must be able to brand your product or business and that’s what I specialize in, helping people brand their names so customers remember you and remember your name,” Zuberbier said. “Silk screening, cups, mugs, pens, hats – anything you can put your name on, I print it.”
Advertiser John Sanders regards his role as a graphic advertiser at Nuex Creative as the “middleman” between companies and the consumer population. He believes that for the free market to operate properly, advertisements are necessary to expose customers to products and companies.
“To put it simply, [advertising’s role in society] is to bridge the connection between businesses and ideal customers,” Sanders said. “It’s connecting businesses with their target audience.”
While Sanders is involved in online advertising, Zuberbier does product-based advertising, which involves manufacturing tangible products such as mugs or notebooks with company logos and slogans printed on them. To him, there is something irreplaceable about handing someone a tangible object that digitized advertising simply doesn’t possess. For this reason, Zuberbier has resisted the digitalization of advertising.
“I try to give people stuff that people are going to keep and remember,” Zuberbier said. “I do promotional products, I don’t do paper advertising or TV advertising, I do stuff that you can hand out, give away or sell that your logo goes on.”
While Zuberbier thinks that personalizing his ad products is the best strategy, Sanders believes ads created with a target audience in mind lead to the most successful and effective ad campaigns.
“I like to use the analogy, instead of throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping it sticks, we need to take a step back and actually assess what you really need in the beginning to make it stick at all,” Sanders said. “You don’t want to just put a ton of money into posting an ad and [hope] it works. What you want to do is put a little bit of money and do a series of targeted ads and see how they work.”
In terms of connecting with the consumer population, Sanders believes that the majority of advertising companies are failing. He stresses that ad campaigns are bound to fail if they blindly “shout” at everyone, rather than “conversing” with the target audience.
“I would say about 90 percent of commercials suck – maybe 99 percent to be honest,” Sanders said. “The most clever ads are very extensive and that’s the future. You want to connect with your audience. You don’t want to just push and throw stuff at your audience – you want to give them an incentive or do something really clever.”
While Sanders believes that ads are useless if not catered to the right audience, Zuberbier believes that advertising in moderation is the key to successful advertising. He explains that in this modern age of overexposure to media, people are constantly bombarded by advertisements demanding their attention. In fact, according to a study conducted by CBS News, the average person is exposed to approximately 5,000 ads every day. This is why Zuberbier believes that pestering potential customers will only “turn them off.”
“People will get turned off by advertising if it’s over advertised,” Zuberbier said. “For example, if you’re watching a TV program and you have the exact same commercial on in the same five minutes, I find that to be over-advertising and people get turned off by that.”
Zuberbier also believes that an effective ad should expose a potential customer to a product and inform them of its positive qualities respectfully, rather than assertively demanding attention or using advertising ploys to manipulate the audience. He believes that ethics should never be compromised in advertising, which is why he doesn’t condone the usage of traditional ‘advertising ploys.
“When an ad is trying to push you into purchasing something, they may try to trick you by saying, ‘Do you want to win a car or a free trip?’ That’s pushy advertising and I don’t like that,” Zuberbier said. “I just like to hand them something nice and let them decide if they want to use your service. I don’t push them into doing anything.”
Sanders also agrees that pushiness in advertising is ineffective, and that a far better strategy is to subtly connect with the audience on an emotional level. He personally is more affected by ads that focus on emotion and human experience than those that highlight the strengths of a specific company or product.
“Most advertising that’s really great actually doesn’t have anything to do with the product,” Sanders said. “You want to connect with them on an emotional level, you want to connect with something that resonates with them, that is autonomous to your actual product because just throwing your product at them isn’t really going to connect with your audience at all.”
Dear Proactiv Ad,
Pleased to meet you. You may not know me, but I know you. You’re the little YouTube commercial I can’t skip, the 30-second segment of false beauty that flashes across the screen, when I, a mere sleep-deprived teenager, click on a good indie song hoping to alleviate my mood, only to be bombarded by your presence.
You don’t know this, but you’re the running joke in my family, what my younger brother — oh, the little joker — constantly uses as a punchline. Every time you pop up on my computer screen, my phone or even the family TV, the little joker smiles his crooked smile and swerves his head to bring his eyes to mine. Then, as if these words are forever etched in his brain, he says, “Hey didi, I’ll buy this for your birthday. You sure need it.”
Ha-ha, I laugh. But in reality? I cry.
Because here’s the thing, Proactiv ad, you are amazing at your job. Your constant presence in my life has finally begun leaving its mark on me, and now, I’m just lost.
My once tough exterior seems to have vanished. Before this year, I proudly called myself a strong and confident young woman; heck, I even had a Facebook group chat titled “Empowered Bi----s” with two of my closest friends, because I truly believed with all my heart that that’s what I was — an empowered person.
But this year, things have changed. There are people who compare my appearance to that of Kylo Ren’s, a Star Wars character, purely because we both share a long face and have small eyes. Junior year is naturally more stress-inducing than sophomore year, so my once infrequent acne breakouts have become, well, frequent. Last year, these little things wouldn’t have mattered much to me, but for some reason, they now mean everything.
Now, when I look at myself in the mirror — and the very fact that I take time to do this each day boggles me, because last year I really couldn’t have cared less about my physical traits — I see a person with way too much acne on her chin and forehead, eyes that are too small for her face, and a face that is too long for her body.
And that’s where you come in, Proactiv ad. You prey on my insecurities — my acne, in particular. You take advantage of me, and other people like me, who sometimes don’t feel so good, and then you offer us false hope and you tell us that once our acne is gone, once our deformities vanish, once our flaws disappear, everything will be alright and that we will be loved, we will be beautiful, and we won’t be Kylo Ren anymore.
In essence, you buy and sell insecurities — and not just you, but Pantene and Dove and Mayballine and Axe and all other products that make up the wonderful, always-supportive, multi-billion dollar enterprise that is the beauty industry.
I have to admit it, though: you, Proactiv Ad, are kind of a genius. You know exactly how my mind works. Your marketing strategy works like this — you needle at your consumers’ deepest feelings of inadequacy, tapping at them consistently because you know that they are humans, irrational creatures who, when faced with a problem involving their deepest feelings of insecurities, will do anything and everything possible to get rid of it.
This is why you market your product the way you do, why your commercials feature young men and women with frowns on their faces when they have acne and with huge grins when that acne is gone. You know what hurts us most, and you toil with our darkest emotions, so that we’ll buy your product.
And that, Proactiv ad, is deplorable.
So count me, Shuvi Jha — the running joke of the family, the neighborhood feminist, the school’s Kylo Ren — out. Because I am done buying your lies. Your false promises. Your illusions. I will hold my head high — acne, small eyes, long face and all — and I will roam the hallways of my school as I always have, as I always did last year — with confidence, with grace, with leisure. You, and your friends in the beauty industry, will not tear me down.
With the same love you’ve always shown me,