Why does advertising WORK?


I'm aware that that sentence in itself is almost controversial. The classic joke about advertising is it works 50% of the time. But no one knows which 50%.

The psychological principle underlying advertising something known as "mere exposure effect" known as the "familiarity principle". I’ve been using white cards with pink chat-up lines for my Women In Pensions networking for two years – and I get a kick when I meet a new lady and she says “oh it’s you! I was given your card by a girl at work!”.

The idea behind this is simple: merely seeing something on a repeated basis makes you more likely to well, like it. It's the reason that for many years huge brands paid for TV advertising, and billboard advertising, and radio advertising. What's fascinating is that whenever a new medium comes along, such as the internet, email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and I'M GOING TO SAY IT: Snapchat, all of a sudden businesses want to know "but does it work?". Well DURR. The basic principle underlying advertising doesn't change. Yes, you want to know that YOUR target market is in the place that YOU are advertising, so it's probably a little early for SAGA holidays to start buying space on Snapchat. As it turns out familiarity doesn't breed contempt.

In order to prove this, (in one of the craziest experiments I've learned of) a professor called Charles Goetzinger conducted an experiment using the mere exposure effect on his class at Oregon State University. The article “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” which describes this, starts:


“A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113—basic persuasion. . . .the professor of the class knows the identity of the person inside. None of the 20 students in the class do”.


Goetzinger had a student come to class in a large black bag with only his feet visible. What Goetzinger found is that the students in the class treated the bag with hostility at first, which over time turned to curiosity and eventually friendship. Just by presenting the black bag on a repeated basis, the attitudes of students were changed.

In essence, we come to feel affection for that which is familiar.

For new companies, and new brands, there are challenges in being unfamiliar. People haven’t had exposure to you yet. It takes time to build familiarity and liking. I’m into my second year of running the Women In Pensions networking drinks and a new bunch of women join our group every month. When someone comes for the first time, it’s all trepidation. But we turn that into friendship. We’re over 260 members now. So whether your advertising is small (like my chat-up cards for the networking) or you have a budget of millions, remember that it takes TIME. Just get in front of your clients and trust that familiarity works for you over the long term.


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