The Big Lie – the complete book online - 10 Emotion

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Chapter 10

Gut feel


In enumerating the factors capable of making an impression on the minds of crowds, all mention of reason might be dispensed with, were it not necessary to point out the negative value of its influence . . . Logical minds, accustomed to be convinced by a chain of somewhat close reasoning, cannot avoid having recourse to this mode of persuasion when addressing crowds, and the ineffectiveness of their arguments always surprises them . . . The destinies of nations are elaborated at present in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes”

Gustave le Bon, 19th-century French sociologist, in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

Night after night, at a Broadway cinema in Manhattan in the late 1950s, you could set your watch by a certain audience reaction. This was the Schwerin Research Corporation’s “test theatre”, where advertisements were shown within the context of the same television programme for years at a time. During this period that was a quiz show in which contestants competed for an array of extravagant prizes: entire new kitchens, luxury cars, a Chriscraft motor yacht. The audience viewed the unveiling of these riches without a murmur. But when, during a stunt, the presenter deliberately smashed an egg, a collective gasp rose from the audience. This kind of extravagance they could not handle. It is interesting to conjecture whether there would be the same effect today: is there some deep-seated atavistic feeling about an egg, the symbol of life, or was it that all the members of these audiences, or their parents, had lived through the Depression, and were emotionally disposed not to waste food?

Emotional conviction girds our strongest beliefs – prejudice, religion, love – and governs our often irrational behaviour. Attitudes harden into habits: ways of eating, drinking, smoking, exercising, and taking medication. To change behaviour you need to dissolve these attitudes, and the only solvent is emotion. Medical practitioners have found that, even when one’s life is at stake, reasoned argument is of little effect. The patient must be emotionally prepared to consider change, and thereby in the final analysis, must convince himself. In their researches of addiction therapy Doctors Stephen Rollnick, Paul Kinnersley, and Nigel Stott have identified three emotional states leading to behavioural change: “pre-contemplation” (when people simply don’t want to know), “contemplation” (ready to consider change) and, eventually, “action”. They found that smokers and heavy drinkers advance hesitantly through these stages towards abstinence:


Giving lifestyle advice seems to form the basis of most discussion of attempts to change behaviour. The logic of this approach seems to be that people lack information, which, if received from a respected source, is sufficiently compelling to produce change. This method can be used in a more or less authoritarian style, but it relies on an essentially paternalistic relationship. The evidence of its effectiveness is not very convincing. Success rates of [only] 5-10% are not uncommon. While some patients seem to respond to advice, most do not. Patients are not uniformly committed to receiving advice, especially if it is unsolicited and not clearly related to the presenting problem.


Another limitation is that it can have a negative effect. A common experience is to find unsolicited advice being met by resistance, taking the form of a “yes, but” dialogue. In their efforts to change behaviour practitioners are likely to be general in their outlook, placing emphasis on the benefits of change, while undervaluing the personal costs. Patients [on the other hand] will look very closely at the personal implications of change and are likely to be concerned about immediate costs while discounting future benefits. Giving advice is limited in effectiveness and can readily descend into non-constructive disagreement . . . a patient’s motivation to change can be enhanced by using a negotiation method in which the patient, not the practitioner, articulates the benefits and costs involved.1


This research presents a useful analogy to consumer decisions. Advertising rarely stimulates an unrecognised (“pre-contemplation”) need. However, all of us have a long list of things we are contemplating doing “sooner or later”: start getting regular exercise, check the guttering, go to the dentist, clean out the car, plan a holiday, service the gas boiler, buy some socks, sharpen the lawnmower, make a will, find out where the umbrella’s got to. Anyone, however well organised, who has a job and children finds it difficult to shorten the list. All of these intentions, grand and petty, short-term and long-term, lodge somewhere on a conveyor belt in the mind. They are all in the “contemplation” stage. Then something happens. An exterior influence – a toothache, a rainstorm, a ladder in a stocking, a cold spell of weather, a money-off offer, an advertisement – pops one of them up the urgency scale to action. Sales-oriented advertising therefore strives to increase the priority of the desire which is already there. As with patients, personal emotional benefit is the engine of persuasion in negotiations with consumers, too. Factual content, if any, is necessary only to supply a rationale for justifying a decision to oneself – and to one’s peers.

An emotional hook is the surest way of gaining the immediate involvement of any prospect. In 2000 the widest and fastest spreading computer virus yet swept the world. The “love bug” plunged governments, international financial institutions and telecommunications companies into disarray. What headline enticed the world’s security conscious bureaucrats, civil servants and middle managers to open this electronic letter bomb? The cyber-terrorist had appropriated an emotional appeal used by successful gold-diggers throughout human history, those “three little words” long the stock in trade of those practical psychologists, the writers of popular songs: “I love you”.

It is a cliché that the British repress emotion, and like most clichés, this popular belief has accreted around a kernel of truth. The people who create advertising in Britain, certainly, seem to find emotional appeals embarrassing, apart from the special case of advertising on behalf of charities. They are much more comfortable in an attitude of ironical disparagement. While American advertising wallows unashamedly in emotion, often with great impact, British advertising people generally deride such earnest efforts as soft-headed and heavy-handed. Certainly, America is a culture in which blatant appeals to emotions are less taboo, yet the great British public, as opposed to advertising people, also seems to have an insatiable appetite, not just for fast food, but for much of the warm, gooey sentiment of American culture. And, of course, the immensely popular British tabloid newspapers have always shamelessly milked vulgar emotion. Are the British ad people right, or are they simply projecting personal class-bound prejudice?

When British advertisers do venture into emotional territory they don’t plunge in like the Americans, but roll their trouserlegs up and stick a toe in the water. Advertisements for British Gas in 1997 showed a white-haired old dear in her kitchen, headlined, “To my friends I’m Madge, but to the gasman I’m Bunnikins”. The involved explanation revolved around a password that had been arranged between British Gas and partially sighted people who have trouble reading the identity cards the service engineers carry. The copy managed to be both prim and insinuating: “Don’t worry, there’s nothing improper going on”.

The emotional drive for sexual success is essential to self-esteem and it is also suppressed by our society. Thus it’s doubly attractive to advertisers: it arouses desire and when acknowledged in public it commands attention. A 1979 poster for Pretty Polly stockings, featuring a woman’s legs with the line “When was the last time a man said you had a great pair of jeans?”, caused so many accidents when it was put up at cross-roads in Ireland that it had to be taken down. But sex in advertising is a notoriously unreliable weapon, a bomb which can blow up in your face. Partly because it’s so potent it can easily overwhelm any product connection you are trying to make. But also because it is the naughtiness, the smirking, rather than genuine emotional attraction, that seduces most advertising “creatives”. So, sex in British advertising usually comes in the form of moist sixth-form daydreams and schoolboy sniggers. Wonderbra enraged feminists in 1995 with a poster campaign featuring busty models with headlines such as “Or are you just pleased to see me?” and “Look me in the eyes and tell me that you love me”. Another proposed headline, “Have you lost your tongue?”, was dropped on the grounds of bad taste. The advertiser defended this campaign by claiming the tongue was actually in cheek: the advertisements were reversing traditional roles, putting women in command and treating men as sex objects. It was a new argument to justify an ancient advertising ruse: traffic-stopping tits on public display.

Sexual appeal is relevant to the selection of female undergarments, where it actually plays a role in product selection. But because it’s virtually guaranteed to swivel heads, sexual titillation and innuendo is used indiscriminately, in the most unlikely connections. In 1994 a press appearance for Sharp, using a picture of a pile of paper in the unremarkable way that office copier advertisements do, confined innuendo to the verbal. Headline: “The SD-3076. Take its top off and you’ll find something that lifts and separates.” Copy: “The concept of lifting and separating may be as old as the hills (Ed. surely mounds) in the women’s lingerie field . . . ”. The same year London buses were being promoted with a nudge-nudge: “Everyone needs something they can jump on”. At the same time, a press advertisement for Air Miles showed a couple embracing on a hotel balcony, with a rumpled bed in the foreground. The punctuation-free headline adroitly combined the two British vices of prurience and one-upmanship: “free from AIR MILES a dirty weekend that’ll make her THINK you’re filthy rich”.

On the day that the US House of Representatives voted to start impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton as a result of the Monica Lewinsky affair, an advertisement for Iceland Stores reproduced a newspaper cutting suggesting that Bill Clinton had influenced the British government to permit genetically modified foods, under the headline “The US President doesn’t care what you put in your mouth”. It would have been more precise to write “. . . doesn’t care what you eat”. But that would have lost the topical sexual allusion to fellatio. To ensure the reader did not miss it, the copy added: “President Clinton may be indiscriminate about what other people put in their mouths. But we are not”.

Only rarely are British advertisers more profound in exploiting the emotional appeal of sex. The name of the Scottish Widows assurance society has an obvious anthropomorphic advantage, and when the company eventually realised this by including a winsome young lady in black with a come-hither glance in all of its advertising, it not only gained enormous visual advantage in the grey vistas of financial advertising, it also plucked an atavistic chord in the emotions of its largely male and older target group: the availability of a sexually experienced young widow. In 1992 Häagen-Dazs, an American ice cream with a name famously invented to sound Scandinavian, finally took sex seriously with a series of arty press advertisements, stressing a sensuous connection between naked flesh and ice cream by featuring entwined couples dripping white dollops into each other’s mouths. The company claimed a 60 per cent increase in sales and the campaign won an IPA Gold Effectiveness Award. A copycat campaign for Walls ice cream managed to include two powerful emotional triggers in the same ad: sex and children. It showed an image of a woman playfully biting the bottom of a young naked girl. This aroused emotions powerful enough to cause viewers to complain to the Independent Television Commission. Despite the advertiser’s protestations that the woman was the child’s mother, and the ad was based on the premise that “people have a basic instinct to ‘bite’ the things they love”, the commission was resolute in its defence of British sensibilities, ruling that “advertisements should not portray children in a sexually provocative manner”.

The charity appeal is one of the few forms of UK advertising which effectively exploits sentimental appeals; the usual ironic bent of British copywriters rarely intrudes here. It’s an easy task, because the cause generally carries social approbation and there is no specific brand competition. Charity advertising often has very high impact, and has provided the launching-pad for many creative reputations. The advertisement which first brought the Saatchi brothers to general notice in the industry was their 1970s poster for the Family Planning Association, showing a young man with a swollen belly and the line: “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” The Yellowhammer agency made its name in 1984 with its award-laden poster and cinema campaign for the animal rights group Lynx, directed by fashion photographer David Bailey, showing bleeding animal corpses and the catchline put-down, “It takes forty dumb animals to make one fur coat. But only one to wear it”. Emotional appeals to our social conscience work by arousing guilt. An Interflora newspaper advertisement on the occasion of Mother’s Day 1995, exercised emotional blackmail: “It’s time you thought of your mum”. A 1998 example was headlined: “You missed her first words. You missed her first steps. You missed her first party”. Then: “Guilty? ”A phone number and the promise of same-day delivery offered immediate exoneration. The relief of emotional anxiety is the business of this organisation, and so the job of its advertising is to create it.

Emotional ties like these are strong, but short. They extend only to our family, lovers, friends, and tribe – those whose opinion is important to us because they confer personal status. The criminal Harry Roberts, interviewed in 1992, after spending 26 years in jail for killing three policemen, felt no remorse, because, he said, “It wasn’t like someone I knew”.

More promiscuous is the affection, strongly felt in Britain, for animals, particularly little furry ones. This is accountable for the remarkable longevity of the anthropomorphic antics of the Tetley Tea chimps campaign, as old as commercial television in Britain, and the blizzard of complaints to the Independent Television Commission when a 1998 TV ad for Levi jeans despatched a rodent called Kevin to hamster heaven. The ITC imposed a late-night-only broadcast restriction and the ad was withdrawn.


The most persuasive visual impressions are those which appeal directly to the senses. “Appetite appeal” is the strongest motivation for food products. Which is why “Pop” Schwerin used mouth-watering colour photographs of cakes when he wanted to measure salivation rates. Vivid images strike through the eye to arouse the senses of taste, touch and smell, provoking powerful, even visceral, reactions. There is no arguing about the effectiveness of these appeals to the senses: they evoke an observable physical response. In the cinema, they make us wince or gag or gasp. Comedies make us laugh, horror films make the scalp creep, melodrama brings tears to the eyes and porn films arouse us. Aural stimuli too, particularly music, can provoke similar reactions. Psychologist Anthony Storr points out, “Music brings about similar physical responses in different people at the same time . . . Arousal manifests itself in various physiological changes, many of which can be measured”.2

Yet, apart from food advertising, the British advertising community is strangely fastidious about blatant visceral appeals. A 1990 Ogilvy & Mather campaign for Lever Brothers’ Radion detergent included a brief but unforgettable scene in which a woman smelled the armpit of a blouse and wrinkled her nose. “People sniffing shirts – truly horrible”, a well-known creative director and advertising agency principal, Rupert Howell, winced in the advertising trade press. The campaign topped Marketing magazine’s poll of “most disliked ads” – conducted amongst advertising and marketing professionals – although the new product captured 8 per cent of the ferociously competitive soap powder market in ten months.


Strong sensory stimuli affect us physically. They are the most vivid and demonstrable expressions of the emotional conviction advertising can stir. To summarise this section, effective persuasion appeals to the consumer’s basic emotional instincts through the self-image, his idealised perception of himself in society, applying leverage to anxieties and prejudices to shift him to a new position. Persuasion works only if it answers the emotive demand, “What’s in it for me?” While few consumers admit to being influenced by advertising, or any other initiative, they mislead themselves. Emotionally they happily conspire in their own seduction. The magic wand of advertising creates successful brands which are nothing more than wispy confections of desire and belief, insinuating into consumers’ minds hopeful trust in place of empirical judgement. The role of intellectual argument is simply to provide acceptable rationalisations for deep-seated, illogical attitudes and behaviour.

How successfully do the hucksters manipulate our emotions? In the next section we examine the salient techniques used in advertising to see how ably they tap into the wellspring of brand allegiance – our deepest anxieties.

1 Methods of helping patients with behaviour change, Stephen Rollnick, Paul Kinnersley, Nigel Stott, BMJ Volume 307 17 July 1993, P.188.

2 Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind, HarperCollins, 1992.


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