Illusion In Advertisement

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Disappointed consumers often accuse advertisers of making false promises, distorting facts, and even lying. These consumers, are more often than not, mistaken in thinking promises were made or facts were given in the advertisement that lured them into buying a particular product. Expert advertisers do not need to lie or make promises to us, for they know exactly how to make us think we hear promises or facts that are not actually stated.

Advertisers know what we want. They also know how to make us want what they are trying to sell. Just as a magician uses props to make the audience believe that something is happening which, in fact, is not happening, advertisers use props to create illusions and direct our thinking about products. Of all the props advertisers use (pictures, music, etc) language is the most misleading. Learning how advertisers use language to create illusions, and why they work, allows us to avoid making poor choices when we buy products.

One of the more obvious tricks advertisers use is repetition. The next time you are watching television, listen to the commercials carefully. Count the number of times the name of the product repeated. Notice also that pronouns are never used to refer to a product, no matter how many times it has been mentioned before.

A typical clothes soap commercial may sound somewhat like this:

“But I don’t use the old brand anymore. Now I use Sudsy. Sudsy gets all of my clothes so much cleaner. Sudsy keeps them smelling fresh and I don’t worry about static cling with Sudsy. ” “Sudsy is terrific! I’m going to buy some Sudsy on the way home. ” In real conversation (if you can imagine one so trite) Sudsy would have been referred to as “it” much more often than as “Sudsy”. There is good reason for the advertiser to affect such unrealistic dialogue, however. They want you to remember the brand name.

The human brain has a two-part memory system. There is short term memory which allows us to store up to seven bits of information temporarily, such as a phone number long enough to dial it, or notice that pot on the stove is boiling at the same time we notice the ring of the phone, notice the toddler heading for the door, and so on.

If our short term memory is flooded with one thing, or if that thing is repeated enough such as a phone number dialed enough times, the information will be pushed into long term memory. This is exactly where advertisers want the name of their product. They want us to remember that name until we see the product in the store. If we recognize the name, we are more likely to pick that product out of a line of similar products which have names we do not recognize. There is a list of tricks like this used to sway your purchasing practices, but one stands out as a leading reason people buy into things that they are disappointed with later and feel lied to about.

The most misleading trick advertisers use is to manipulate your categorizing and bridging assumption processes. If they can get you to process their products into the right categories they can create a false association for you and a sense of want and need for that product. They, from there, can make you think you are told something you are not told.

To understand this fully you need to understand a bit about how our brain processes words. This is tricky and much more complicated than I outline it here, but I think that I can give you enough basic information to do you some good when deciphering an advertisement so bear with me and if it’s confusing at first, keep reading and it will become clear.

As we learn language we first learn words - doggy, bottle, blanket, etc. As we grow and learn more words our brain starts to file them into categories. For example we’ll use the words “doggy”, “bottle”, and “blanket, ” from which we form the category of “mine” and “yours”. Later these categories will expand and form into categories of their own, and “mine” and “yours” slide into the category of “property” and “doggy, ” “bottle”, and “blanket” move down the hierarchy, . The categories will become larger, more complex, and more abstract as we continue to grow and learn. “Property” eventually will fall under “public property” and “private” property, which eventually will become encompassed by our concept or category of “freedom”. These categories do not exist separately as if in a filing cabinet, however, but overlap infinitely. Therefore, the idea “dog” may exist in the categories of “animals”, “protection”, “hunting”, “friend”, according to your experience with dogs in the real world. It is this sinuous overlapping of words, categories, and concepts which allows us to make associations, presumptions and inferences about the world around us.

Our lives take us through associations from birth until death; our minds do the same. By the age of 10 or 11 we are able to be specific about a topic or generalize - my dog - dogs in general - and make assumptions - dog is scratching at door - he needs to go out.

Communication would be almost impossible without the ability to generalize and make assumptions and inferences.

Consider this conversation.

“What time is it?”

“It’s four thirty. ”

Notice the reply is not “Well, from the positions of the hands on the surface of this mechanism for telling time that is strapped to my wrist I would judge it is four hours and thirty minutes into the afternoon at this particular region of the earth according to our present perception and use of publicly accepted measurements of time. ” If we had to elaborate so extensively just to exchange information on the time of day, communication would become next to impossible. But because our experiences in the real world are much like everyone else’s and our categories, while a bit different for everyone, are built alike enough for us to be able to make assumptions (called bridging assumptions) We assume that they know from looking at the watch or sky, we assume they are using the same time measurement that we know, we assume they are talking about this region and not another. In other words we build bridges between what is spoken and our general knowledge base - which is ordered in categories.

So what happens when we see an ad about toothpaste that says something like “Foamy helps fight cavities”? We know that toothpaste is used for dental hygiene. We know that “Foamy” is toothpaste. What we hear is “Foamy stops cavities”. We’ve made a bridging assumption that “stops cavities” is what is being said because we expect it to say that.

Would you buy a toothpaste that advertises “Foamy does jack but buy it anyway because we don’t care. We just want your money”? What this ad has actually said is that Foamy “fights” - nothing about winning the battle - and it doesn’t even do that on its own, it just “helps”, which indicates something else is doing the basic work. In other words Foamy does almost nothing. It just helps what ever is doing the work. So when the customer uses Foamy and ends up with four cavities, they think they’ve been lied to, never noticing the product has enough sugar in it to eat through steel.

Some ads actually build categories for you. Car ads are famous for this. They use words like sleek, sexy, luxurious, rich – all words that fit into our American built categories of attractiveness, wealth, and success. So people flock to buying the car. Unfortunately, the car payments actually can level some people’s finances, keeping them from achieving wealth. If someone is homely, they will be just be homely with a new car, and the only success a person will achieve from buying a car is buying a car. When a customers buy the car associating that with success or attractiveness, they are disappointed when nothing in life changes except they have a car and car payments and they feel let down by the car company.

Some of the best examples of tricky advertising are internet affiliate programs ads. One program I know of states that “. . . you can start earning money on the internet in 24 hours”. How I hear people complain when they don’t automatically have an arm long list of affiliates and five figure commission checks waiting in the first week. They feel lied to. Read up people. This does not promise that you are going to be instantly rewarded, no work involved. This merely says that you will set up to the point you can start working to earn that money. We want to see automatic, no effort needed, but that is ridiculous. To get money for nothing overnight is called “the lottery. ”

Another problem is here is the categories in which we have placed the idea of working at home. When you add up your own schedule, no boss, no commute, etc. , somehow we slip no work right in there with the other no’s. Any woman who has raised children and kept a clean house, can attest to the fact that “staying at home" and “not working" have no place at all in the same categories. Actually this faulty categorization may arise from two sources. The first comes from the fact that when we have time off work from regular jobs we often stay home, thus “stay home” means “not” work for many us. Also there is an old chauvinistic idea that the only work that can be looked at as work is done out of the house to bring the money home for the family. The woman’s work, or house work, no matter who did it, was belittled as not being work because there was no money attached to it – to the extent that it was often called “doing nothing”. Because of the small lapse of time between when this type of chauvinistic idea proliferated in our society and the new movement to work at home, many still faultily connect working at home with doing nothing. When they see ads making statements about starting to earn at home, they assume it means with no work involved and completely ignore the meaning of the word “work”. This tendency will cause them to feel lied to and bulked every time they try a new program. They leave the internet and sometimes their bank accounts in frustration and anger.

The same thing is true of programs that allow you to join for free and actually state “Join Free”, which means there are no registration fees. After sign up there is a fee for upgrade, for software, web hosting, or other aspects of the program. In actuality the program was never stated to be free for everything - just the sign up. So again the program is dropped - not just due to an unforeseen lack of funding to continue, but because the consumer is disappointed or feels lied to.

Another great mislead is the word “virtually” . It is “ virtually” free. This does not say something is free. It literally says “it seems to be free but isn’t”. Even modifying that to it’s milder connotative meaning it comes out to “almost free” at best. In using these examples, I do not mean to tell anyone that advertisers do not purposely lead people. It is the advertiser’s job to make you want what is being advertised, and leading you to buy is what advertisement is all about. I have only attempted, by giving you some background and examples, to give you some of the tools you need to decipher what is actually being said. It is up to you as the consumer to read carefully to see what is being said rather than what you want it to say, or assume is being said, in order to make better choices, and to avoid feeling disappointed when something doesn’t deliver what you thought it would.

I also did not mean to give the impression that all advertisers are just working the language a little. There will always be scams out there and dishonest companies waiting to take a person’s money and disappear with it, or give them a worthless product. The best rule of thumb is to read what is really being said. If you have truly analyzed what is actually being said and it still seems too good to be true, it just might not be true.

©2005 Sally Taylor: Sal is an avid gem and treasure hunter, explorer, writer, and is the owner of


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