Advertising is pervasive in our culture. In the beginning, advertising was direct. Burma Shave billboards populated roadsides across America and athletes advised parents and children to choose Wheaties, so they could grow big and strong. These ads were successful, but not nearly as much as today’s advertisements. Since these early days, companies have spent billions of dollars to determine exactly how to convince consumers to purchase their products. Those billions of dollars have purchased extremely sophisticated methods of delivering their message to the minds of consumers, including classical and operant conditioning. Using these techniques, companies can easily train consumers to choose or continue to choose their products, and to sway them from their competitor’s products. These companies use both classical and operant conditioning techniques to train us to purchase their products.
With classical conditioning, consumers are taught to associate naturally occurring biological responses with neutral stimuli, in order to cause those responses to happen when faced with the previously neutral stimuli, which in turn causes certain behaviors. While fear and pain are types of stimuli that can be used in classical conditioning, advertisers generally prefer to associate pleasurable stimuli, such as sex or food, with the product that they are attempting to sell, in order to cause consumers to purchase their products. Because of the biological imperatives underlining this scheme, classical conditioning is a very effective and popular form of conditioning.
Unilever offers an example of this type of conditioning with their ‘Axe Effect’ campaign, which is aimed at men. The Axe Effect is a slogan made famous by Unilever on behalf of their line of men’s body products. An example of their typical advertising is a commercial depicting a multitude of bikini-clad women running through a forest and then swimming through an ocean to converge on a single location, where a man spins euphorically while spraying himself with an Axe fragrance. In this advertisement, Unilever paired their body fragrance, which was the neutral stimulus, with depiction of sexy women, which was the unconditioned stimulus. The unconditioned response to the women is arousal, which led to the conditioned stimulus of desire for the product. After consumers have been conditioned by these advertisements, their conditioned response is a desire to purchase Axe products. In order to extinguish this effect, one might feature the product in a series of ads showing women running screaming from a pungent, scrawny high school aged male, which has the added advantage of being realistic.
The advertisements for Proctor & Gamble’s Old Spice product line are another great example of classical conditioning. In these ads, Proctor & Gamble uses clever humor and conventionally attractive men to present their products. Unlike the advertisements for Unilever’s Axe product line, the Old Spice ads affect both men and women. In these ads, the aptly named ‘Old Spice Guy’ makes a point to address female viewers and attempt to convince them to purchase Old Spice products for the men in their lives. As he presents his case, he treks through locations that suggest fun and adventure, and make the viewer laugh. Old Spice Guy appeals to both men and women by speaking directly to women while giving men the impression that women want men to smell like Old Spice Guy. In this line of advertisements, the Old Spice products used in each advertisement are the neutral stimulus, with the Old Spice Guy’s adventurous lifestyle acting as the unconditioned stimulus. The unconditioned stimulus promotes the unconditioned desire for that lifestyle, which in turn creates desire for the products, which now act as a conditioned stimulus, leading to product purchases as a conditioned response. One method of extinguishing the response would be to show ordinary men living mediocre lives while pointedly using Old Spice products.
Operant conditioning, on the other hand, attempts to modify consumer behavior through a system of reinforcements delivered on a variety of schedules, which act to maintain the modified behavior. Positive reinforcement, the most effective type of operant conditioning, happens when a reward is delivered after the stimulated action, which causes the behavior to occur more often. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, happens when an aversive stimulus is withdrawn after a stimulated action, which causes the behavior to occur less often. There are several times of reinforcement schedules, the most effective of which is a variable ratio schedule, where the reinforcement occurs randomly following the stimulated behavior. Other schedules include a fixed ratio schedule, where the reinforcement will occur after a certain number of behaviors occur, a fixed interval schedule, where the reinforcement occurs after a fixed amount of time in which the stimulated behavior is maintained, and a variable interval schedule, where the reinforcement occurs at random times while the stimulated behavior is maintained.
Operant conditioning is exemplified in the advertisements used by the Chase Manhattan Bank to advertise their Sapphire line of credit. Advertisements for Sapphire credit cards generally feature an older all-American couple discussing the points accrued by using the Chas Sapphire rewards program, which ‘can be used for almost anything’. The commercials feature the couple on expensive vacations and consuming luxury items. Chase’s rewards program utilizes positive reinforcement and a fixed ratio schedule to convince consumers to use their Chad Sapphire line of credit on a more frequent basis.
Expedia, Inc. offers another example of operant conditioning with their Hotels.com venture, which offers online hotel booking at discounted rates. Like Chase, Expedia also offers a rewards program, which is called Welcome Rewards and offers a free night’s stay at the location of the consumer’s choice after ten nights booked with Hotels.com. The Welcome Rewards program also includes random discounts on a variable interval schedule. The Welcome Rewards program uses positive reinforcement and both a variable interval and a fixed ratio schedule to ensure repeat business. In general, positive reinforcement and variable ratio schedules ensure the highest amount of repeat business, but Expedia’s mix of variable interval and fixed ratio schedules offers a program that is both positive and easy to understand, making it a good choice for their product offering.
As you can see, advertising techniques have come a very long way from their clear and direct origins. Classical and operant conditioning are being used every day, all around us. As educated consumers, it is our responsibility to sort through these messages to determine for ourselves which products we want to purchase… especially if it makes us as cool as Old Spice Guy.