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Why evolution matters in advertising

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Ahmad Abu Zannad, strategic planning director at Leo Burnett Saudi Arabia, says advertisers should look into evolutionary psychology

July 19, 2012 12:00 by

It goes without saying that good advertising is based on key human insights. But to get these, it is crucial to first understand how people are expected to “process” your advertising messages, and the most effective tool to achieve that is the “Elaboration Likelihood Model” (ELM), according to which two factors should be taken into consid­eration: people’s ability and people’s motivation to process an advertising message. Without these two elements, people end up using the “periph­eral route”, being impulsive and processing the information in an intuitive manner, through a set of cues they find evocative. With them, people use the “central route”, thinking more logically and focusing more on information related to the product and/or brand functional attributes.

The tool – known as the Means-End-Chain theory (MEC) – used to identify insights for the central route, has proven to be extremely suffi­cient and effective. However, we’re yet to find an effective tool for the peripheral route.

Interestingly, the basis of ELM is very simi­lar to what psychologists refer to as the “dual process theory”, which states that information is processed through one of two brain systems: S1 (an evolutionary old system, intuitive and instinctive) and/or S2 (an evolutionary recent system, more logic-based, rational, reflective and conscious). When people are using the evolutionary old part of their brain, they go on the “peripheral route”; what would then constitute an evocative cue for them to process our advertising messages? According to [communication academic] Patrick Vyncke, the answer is in evolutionary psychology (EP). Just as evolutionary biology explains how our organic parts have specific functions based on adaptations through the process of natural selec­tion, EP explains how certain human behaviors were shaped as a result of similar adaptations. Understanding these should have an immense effect on advertising research, especially on how to identify cues that evoke the peripheral route of advertising processing.

In his book Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior, evolutionary psychologist Geoffery Miller links cues that people find evoking in advertising to those in human nature, which he calls “fitness cues”: features within our environment that can increase our “fitness opportunities” – our chances of survival and/or reproduction – and that instinct entices us to look for. In advertising, this would translate into identifying cues in messages that play on people’s instinctive needs. For reproduc­tion: one’s ability to attract mates, such as the large, symmetrical, colorful, costly, awkward, high-maintenance, hard-to-fake fitness indicator of the peacock tail and the also large, symmetrical, colorful, costly, awkward, and high-maintenance Hummer H1 in today’s culture. For survival: one’s ability to deter rivals, mainly big horns and/or loud viscous roars in nature and today’s mostly social, financial and emotional rivalry, such as the number of friends on Facebook, an expensive watch, etcetera.

These instinctive behaviors influence people’s consumption behaviors by giving them a need to send out signals about their own personal traits to other people. Vyncke conducted an experiment on the relationship between ad-likeability and the cues for attractive signals for reproduction, utiliz­ing EP’s theories on what constitutes an attractive mate for both genders (physical strength among males, specific waist-to-hip ratio among females, etc). He altered/manipulated 80 ad sets to make the messages or the images more attractive, inserting or enhancing “fitness cues” in the ads. Based on a before/after approach, results showed that in 90 percent of the cases, EP’s “fitness cues” made the ad more effective.

This is not news in the Middle East where the first application of “fitness cues” in advertising goes back to the Amawi ages in the 7th century. Famous retired flirt poet and singer Al-Dramy had traveled to Meddina where he bumped into an old acquaintance of his selling abayas; this merchant had only black abayas to sell and didn’t know what to do with them, so he asked Al-Dramy to help him out. Al-Dramy went back to poetry to recite two verses, which he asked boys to repeat all across town: “Call upon her: the fine woman in the black abaya, for what has she done to a humble worshipper. He has just gotten ready for his prayers, until she stood there for him at the gate of the temple.” The word spread that Al-Dramy had gone back to poetry because of his lust for some woman wearing a black abaya, and women around town bought out the merchant’s stock. More importantly, the trend was set and expanded to the whole region; up until this day, most women in the Middle East and North Africa wear black abayas.

A black abaya bringing Al-Dramy back from retirement is very similar to “the Axe effect” hav­ing women falling for the guy who is wearing an Axe deodorant. This is exactly the kind of “fitness cues” people look for in advertising nowadays.

Evolutionary psychology is a great tool to deeply understand people’s natural traits and iden­tify relevant insights when consumers lack the motivation and ability to process the advertising message. And this is proof that evolution does matter in advertising.

*First published on Communicate

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