The Curious Case of Benjamin Backlash

Juliano Laran, Amy N. Dalton and Eduardo B. Andrade conducted a study titled The Curious Case of Behavioural Backlash. The study examines the priming, or reverse priming effects of persuasive stimuli. There were three different categories of stimuli in the study: brands, slogans and sentences. For each of these categories, Laran et al hypothesized that brands were not perceived to carry intent to persuade, whereas slogans were perceived to be persuasive, and sentences were neither, thus serving as a control.

The way participants perceived these stimuli plays an integral part in the research. Laran et al based their research on three hypotheses. The first hypothesis states that “consumers do not perceive brands as persuasive tactics, [thus] exposure to brands evokes consistent behaviour consistent with behaviour implied by the brand (i.e., a priming effect)” (Laran, Dalton and Andrade 1001). The second hypothesis looks at slogans. Laran et al believed that slogans were perceived as persuasive tactics by consumers, influencing consumers to exhibit behaviour opposite to the behaviour suggested by the slogan. Slogans therefore serve as a reverse prime. The last hypothesis examined in this research explores the possibility that “[e]xposure to slogans activates a nonconscious goal to correct for bias [and that] [t]he correction goal can be satisfied and its behavioural effect eliminated” (Laran, Dalton, and Andrade 1002).

To explore these hypotheses, Laran and his colleagues used a series of five studies. The first two studies measured evaluated the priming, or reverse priming effects of slogans and brands on participants. The third study manipulated the participant’s perception of brands making them appear more like persuasive tactics. The fourth and fifth studies investigate how participants correct for bias unconsciously in reaction to persuasive tactics.

In conclusion to the five studies, Laran et al discovered that the results of the five studies were consistent with their three hypotheses. The participants in their studies exhibited behaviour congruent with behaviour implied by stimuli that were not perceived as persuasion tactics. The opposite held true for stimuli that appeared persuasive. Stimuli perceived as persuasive served as reverse primes, due to a subconscious goal for correction. That is, the mediatory correction process can occur without conscious processing.

The results of this research can benefit both sides of a persuasion interaction. Copywriters possessing this knowledge can focus on manipulating consumers’ interpretation of brands to elicit actions that benefit the brand. Similarly, slogans, due to their reverse priming characteristic can be manipulated to bring forth desirable actions from consumers by implying actions opposite to what the company wants. Consumers educated on the results of these studies can prepare themselves when they are exposed to advertising. Understanding this subject matter can be beneficial to both the persuader and listener.


Laran, Juliano, Amy Dalton, and Eduardo Andrade. “The Curious Case of Behavioral Backlash.” The Journal of Consumer Research 37.6 (2011): 999-1014.


The Fun with Ambiguity

I don’t know about you, but advertisements can be really boring – so boring in fact, that I just don’t bother to pay attention to them. This is quite problematic for advertisers. Over the years advertisers have been doing everything in their power to catch and keep our attention. Ambiguity is one of the ways in which they are successful in doing so; it orientates a response from the audience.

Ambiguity creates surprise and humor through incongruity, which explains why some ads are quite entertaining; it is cognitively engaging and requires some actual brain activity!

Here are two examples of ambiguous sentences in ads I found online – the first is quite distasteful, in my opinion.

spread your legs

“Spread your legs!” Pretty straight forward isn’t it? The first meaning is quite literal: “Stretch your legs!” But why did they use the word spread instead? Hmm. Good question. The answer is of course, to draw multiple meanings at once. Often, one meaning is more prevalent than the other, but both are computed in parallel. Usually there is tension between the two meanings, and I this case – there most definitely is!

The first meaning tells the consumer that the Pontiac Star Chief is spacious; implying that leg-room is abundant. Makes sense, of course you want to be comfortable in your new car.

Do I really have to spell out the second meaning of this phrase? Okay, okay, I’ll just say it! Meaning number two: Spread your legs… in a sexual way! The second meaning implies that there is enough leg room in the car for sexual escapades. It’s obvious that the sexual undertone in this phrase is specific toward women and therefore I find it extremely distasteful. It uses the imperative form and that personalized touch of the pronoun, ‘your’ to really make you a participant in the advertiser’s reality. This is an obvious example of pragmatic ambiguity.

Come on. We all know what is meant by “spread your legs!” It’s hardly ambiguous. Look at the ad itself. The woman is sitting in the back seat of the car. If you were a woman buying this car, wouldn’t you prefer to have your leg room in the front? Wouldn’t you expect to be in the driver’s seat?! Unless you were a nymphomaniac maybe – then all you are concerned with is how much leg room is in the back, so you can get down and busy when the urge arises. This ad looks as though it is geared towards men. He already has his woman in the back seat ready for action. What a nice perk to buying a Pontiac – the backseat can be converted into a brothel!

By no means am I a prude, I applaud the cleverness of the ad. However, because the sexual undertone of the ad exploits women’s sexuality specifically – I find it presumptuous and sexist. It implies that women are ravenous sexual creatures – that, provided they have the means and the leg room, they will spread their legs for anyone anytime. Yuck.

Here is something more to my taste:


I recently stumbled upon this e-card and instantly fell in love with it. Extra clever! There is syntactic ambiguity in this sentence, can you see it? Structurally ambiguous sentences may take longer to read, but the reward is worth the effort.

Even if you disregard the linguist comment at the top, the ad still holds its ambiguity. The first meaning is ‘I love ambiguity more than other people love ambiguity.’ The second means: ‘I love ambiguity more than I love people.’

The icing on the cake is the statement, ‘I’m a linguist.’ As linguists are passionately concerned with the study of language, it is no surprise that linguists love language more than they love people.


Implication: Layers of Meaning

Language carries meaning yet to think all there is to communication is a point A and point B, where A would produce language and all B had to do is decode the language is incorrect. The explanation is simple; language carries within it meaning and not the meaning of the words used but the meaning intended and implied by the speaker. What the speaker means by the language they use can be achieved non-linguistically as well. As it can convey the same non-propositional information as words do because understanding the message requires going beyond the language into the intended meaning. The benefit of this technique is widespread as I will illustrate [Julie sedivy].

One benefit to using non-linguistic cues in advertisement is the fact that the viewer will have to decode the intended implications, this way the business is protected from certain exaggerated claims. By having the viewer come up with his own interpretations and draw his own implications the ad can’t be falsified or held accountable, hence can get away with all sorts of implications.


This ad by ALTOIDS allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the product. Namely, that ALTOIDS are so powerful they will remove the strongest bad breath. If the truth of this implication would be tested then ALTOIDS would not be blamed because they did not directly state anything, rather they allowed the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on certain cues in the ads.

Oh, How Times Have Changed

Ads in present day society are certainly very different from older ads in a number of respects. Advancements in technology alone creates a much different feel. Even the language has changed drastically. Advertising techniques that were effective 40 or 50 years ago would not have the same impact today. I decided to delve into the topic of how advertising has evolved through the years. Lego is a classic toy that almost everyone remembers playing with in his or her childhood. Lego was founded in the 1930’s in Denmark. The name “Lego” is derived from a Danish word that means: play well. An early Lego commercial (from the 1950’s) can be seen below.

This ad definitely seems to be more educational and informative than typical ads today. It is very focused on outlining the purpose of Lego and the type of things you can do with it. Due to the limits in technology, they really had no choice but to rely more on language. They were not able to present the ad in colour, and they did not have the flashy animations that we have today. A lot of this information was also conveyed through the use of direct assertions, which are statements about reality. At one point, the voice over states, “build hotels, animals, people, boats, skyscrapers and more!” A lot of the information in this ad is conveyed through a song about Lego. This song is quite slow moving and the words are clear; you have plenty of time to process the linguistic information. There was also some repetition in this ad, which is characteristic of educational messages. It was mentioned more than once that Lego is used “one by one.” I wonder whether the educational style would still have been prominent in advertising at that time if technology had permitted them to use more persuasive techniques (e.g. flashy graphics etc.).

This is an ad from 1991:

It is actually relatively similar to the ad from the 1950’s. It is even presented in a song format. However, the song format has changed. This commercial shows more of a rap style, while the 1950’s commercial used the tune of This Old Man (Knick-Knack Paddy-Whack). The language has changed as phrases like “word up” are used, which you would not find in the previous commercial. This ad also seems to focus less on showing how to build Lego “one by one” and mostly shows the kids playing with fully built Lego creations.

In the more current Lego commercials, there is definitely a greater focus on visual elements and animation.

In commercials like this one, the Lego characters are animated so it looks as though they have facial expressions (in some ads they are even animated to look as though they are talking). In this Lord of the Rings Lego commercial, there is even a brief animated battle scene; it is not just a kid moving each individual Lego piece or character. This ad seems to move in a more persuasive direction. There are a lot more visuals, moving images and fast editing.

The final ads that I would like to discuss are print ads. The first is from the 1970’s, and the second is from the 2000’s.

old lego

new lego

Both ads focus on Lego and the imagination, but they do so in very different ways. The earlier ad focuses on language. Its reads, “more than just a building toy, LEGO makes anything your child’s mind imagines, anything his hands build.” The very popular ad from the 2000’s conveys basically the same message, but no text is used. Instead, it is more of an implication. It implies that with Lego, you can create anything by using your imagination. I also think this is a fairly strong implication that is likely to be consistent across audiences. This progression through the years really shows that today we rely less on explanatory language in advertisements. Fewer things are explicitly stated, and we allow the audience to draw their own conclusions in order to create a more memorable experience.

Do you think that our purchasing behaviours would be different if all ads today were more educational than persuasive? Really, it is the massive amounts of advertising that we are presented with these days that makes persuasion necessary: it is a constant fight for out scarce attention. I feel like people today don’t have the time, or don’t want to expend the mental effort to analyze an endless stream of language heavy, educational ads. In a world of too much choice, are we less educated about the products we purchase?


Why Lululemon?

My previous roommate is a student and full time skating coach and is somehow always broke. I never understood why. Day in and out she is covered head to toe in Lululemon paraphernalia – Bam! There is the connection! Whatever money she has, she spends on Lululemon attire. I had asked her, why spend all your money on Lululemon when you could buy similar items, or some other brand for half the price? Other than a roll of her eyes and a blank stare I never received a verbal answer. Body language said it all: it’s not the same. But how is it not the same? Active wear is active wear for a reason. The material is breathable, stretchy, comfortable, and anything else active wear should be. So why choose Lululemon over Nike or Adidas?


There is a legitimate explanation for this: for my roommate and others, Lululemon isn’t just a brand, it’s a lovemark.



 Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi claims that great and popular brands are considered lovemarks; they transcend brands in several ways. A lovemark is something you can fall in love with; have an emotional connection to. Lovemarks are a relationship, not a transaction. Take for example Lululemon. It is a company that sells active wear in order to get you fit, to better your mind, body and soul. They give you reusable bags to save the environment, their mottos are always uplifting and positive, challenging you and inspiring you to be the best person you can be. Love your body, love yourself. All these positive associations have become a part of the brand. Lululemon has crawled into the hearts of every consumer wearing and bearing their products, how could you not fall in love with this imagery? If Lululemon ever went bankrupt, my roommate and many others would be utterly devastated.


So yes, we have Nike, Adidas and Reebok. But those are endorsed by professional athletes making money off of their respective sport – as for Lululemon? It is for everyone, all of us nobodies, who only strive to treat ourselves in a healthy manner, caring for own physical as well as emotional well-being. These other brands may be great quality, and perhaps even better. However, they do not have the same emotional attachment for those who love Lululemon. Of course, a brand like Nike can be someone else’s lovemark, Tiger Woods perhaps? J


Images and Sources:

The Unconscious Consumer

Are advertisements effective? Do they succeed in persuading viewers to buy their products or services?

The advertisement industry has quickly caught on to the fact that displaying product description in ads just wasn’t as effective. What is effective however is the use of new psychological persuasive techniques to relate to the consumer and tap into their desires, aspirations, fears and insecurities. 

It wasn’t long till most marketers caught on to the persuasive power of drawing on more powerful emotions to drive purchases. The question became how much choice is really offered to individuals, to make true free decisions on what to purchase and was it possible to persuade people into doing something that is against their interest? And finally, what are the ethical implications and responsibilities of those who persuade?


Freud argues “The behaviour of human beings is shaped by a number of basic drives, many of them unconscious – they are unconscious because they are repressed, being deemed unacceptable by our conscious selves.” And Edward Bernays further expands on the notion of the unconscious drive his uncle Freud introduced by saying: “human behaviour is often driven by unconscious drives rather than conscious, rational choices and that people are not always aware of these drives. Bernay states that there are many unconscious triggers that motivate consumer actions and purchases such as the desire to live long lives, to be successful, to be loved and admired [Julie sedivy].Marketers have taken advantage of this phenomenon, as demonstrated by the following ads: 


This ad from WWF is using the element of fear to persuade people to act against climate change. The use of the visual metaphor of consuming the future as consuming future children elicits anxiety and fear within parents especially and people in general.

Once again, this anti-smoking ad campaign plays on the emotion of fear and the desire to live with the visual metaphor of a cigarette smoke strangling the smoker. 


Environmental Exposure

A study done by Jonah Berger and Grainne Fitzsimons explores the relationship between conceptual cues, that is, stimuli related to a particular product, and consumer choice. In their study, Berger and Fitzsimons use a series of four experiments and two field tests, providing surveys to participants in different environments, and evaluating their corresponding purchasing behaviour recorded. The result of this study provides insight for a consumer to understand the effects of high frequency exposure to environmental stimuli. This study can also benefit those aspiring to work in the marketing field as it provides information that can increase sales for a company.

Berger and Fitzsimons explore an array of five hypotheses over a string of two field tests and four experiments. The first three hypotheses state that, due to more frequent exposure to conceptually linked stimuli in the environment, a consumer is more likely to think of a conceptually linked product, more likely to favour, and thus more likely to purchase the conceptually linked product. Evaluations of the conceptually linked product are more likely to be positive, as the fourth hypothesis explains when a participant more frequently exposed to stimuli similar to the product. Lastly, Berger and Fitzsimons hypothesize that “effects to exposure to conceptually linked stimuli do not depend on conscious awareness or deliberate learning” (Berger, and Fitzsimons 3).

In the first of the two field studies, experimenters went to a grocery store on two separate days. One day before Halloween, and one day, a week after Halloween. Berger and Fitzsimons explain that in the days leading up to Halloween, participants in the study were exposed to orange coloured stimuli at a higher frequency (Eg: pumpkins), whereas in the week following Halloween, the frequency of exposure to orange stimuli drops greatly. On both days, experimenters asked participants “[to] list the first things that come to your mind…in the categories of candy/chocolate and soda” (Berger, and Fitzsimons 3). Participants approached on the day before Halloween were more likely to provide answers such as Crush and Reese (orange coloured brands). Participants approached during the week after Halloween did not produce this result.

In the first of the four experiments, participants were asked to write their choice of consumer goods, “some of which were related to the color orange (e.g., Fanta) or green (e.g., Sprite) and others of which were not linked to either color (e.g., Pepsi)” (Berger, and Fitzsimons 4). The participants were given either orange or green pens to complete the survey. Participants given an orange pen were more likely to record a preference to brands associated with orange, whereas participants given the green pen showed a preference towards green brands. Thus it appears that individuals exposed to a conceptually linked stimulus are more likely to choose a brand associated to the stimulus.

The second field study measured the likelihood of students to purchase a music player. Two separate groups of students were chosen for the purpose of the experiment. One group consisted of students who had not yet already moved onto campus prior to starting their semester, whereas the second group was already settled on campus. The first group of students would be presumably more likely to be exposed to stimuli in their environment related to travel in the preparation to move onto campus. The experimenters contacted both groups of students to explain that there was a new music player being introduced, and provided one of two slogans with the email. One slogan contained a conceptual link to travel, whereas the other was associated to dining room trays found on campus. Students in the first group reported that they were more likely to purchase the music player, and were more likely to pay more for the music player.

Experiment two and three had a very similar focus to the second field test and produced a similar result. Instead of exposure to travel, the experimenters focused on the exposure of dining hall trays. Students were categorized in two groups. One group regularly ate in dining halls with trays, the second group did not. The participants again were provided with information on the same music player, and slogans that either primed an association with travel or dining hall trays. Again, students in the first group, exposed to dining room trays and given a slogan with a link to dining room trays were more likely to purchase the music player, and again, were willing to pay more for the music player. The third experiment used the same categories for participants, but linked consumption behaviour with a slogan. Participants were exposed to one of two slogans, one that encouraged fruit consumption with trays, and one that encouraged fruit consumption without the tray association. Students exposed to trays, and those that were shown the first slogan consumed more fruit.

Experiment five aimed at manipulating conceptually linked stimuli, and measuring the participant’s ability to recognize a product associated with the stimuli. Berger and Fitzsimons hypothesized that dogs are strongly associated with cats, and so subjects could recognize Puma branded sneakers quicker if the subjects were exposed to stimuli associated with dogs. After a pretest, and two tasks, Berger and Fitzsimons found that participants identified Puma shoes quicker if they were exposed to a greater number of dog images.

At the end of the six studies, Berger and Fitzsimons found that exposure to conceptually linked stimuli enhanced the fluency of associated products. Exposure to orange Halloween fixtures influences consumers to purchase more orange products such as Reese. Individuals preparing for travel are more willing to spend more on a music player that has been primed to be associated with travelling. Conceptually linked stimuli can influence consumer behaviour.

Consumers and advertisers alike benefit from understanding the outcome this research. Consumers that understand the role of environmental cues on their purchasing habits can consciously mitigate the effect of prolonged exposure. Likewise, advertisers possessing the knowledge of this study can enhance the possibility of consumers to veer towards their products. Marketing teams can increase environmental cues in to enhance the associations of their products with consumers in a geographic region. A company can also choose to design their product to be closely associated with common environmental cues in a specified area, in which consumers already exposed to these stimuli may be more likely to purchase their product. Consumers are constantly exposed to elements in their environment and marketers should take advantage of this.


Berger, Jonah, and Grainne Fitzsimons. “Dogs on the Street, Pumas on Your Feet.”  Journal of Marketing Research (2008): 1-14.

Comparative Advertising

The ad police in Canada is called ASC, short for Advertising Standards Canada. The ASC accepts and responds to consumer complaints about advertising, the ads are reviewed and if found in violation of the code, the advertisers are asked to remove their ad.

One such form of ASC violation is comparative advertisement, which occurs quite often in the advertising world. Comparative advertising occurs when an advert is found guilty of comparing its product or service in an unfair manner to another product or service in order to discredit or disparage that other product and win over customers.

This amusing ad is in violation of the comparative advertising clause because it’s promoting Pepsi while featuring Coca Cola with the main theme of the ad in favour of Pepsi while disparaging the Coca Cola drink. Now this ad might have been produced in the US, in which case different advertising rules would apply but this ad highlights the violation made against the ASC.


This next ad, once again is a BURGER KING advertisement featuring McDonalds. The sole purpose of the advertisement is to discredit McDonalds and endorse BURGER KING by making it appear as the most favoured fast food chain, even among competitors. The advertisement doesn’t provide any promotional information about itself, rather it focuses on dishonouring its competitor.

Comparative advertising is allowed, within limits and regulations in places like the UK, which is regulated by the EU, as well as the United States of America and Australia. The effectiveness of comparative advertising is not so clear. Do they allow for more than humour and entertainment? Can they actually succeed in swaying the general opinion in favour of the brand it’s endorsing?

These are questions I ask you, what are your thoughts on the matter?

Sex and Suicide


Here is another ad I found online that has the potential to violate a clause of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.

        Clause 10 states that:

“Advertisements must not without reason, justifiable on educational or social grounds, display a disregard for safety by depicting situations that might reasonably be interpreted as encouraging unsafe or dangerous practices, or acts.”

Hmm… this ad does seem to encourage some unsafe behavior don’t you think? First, let’s look at the language. By using the pronoun ‘you’, the ad is directly addressing the consumer. There is nothing vague about that. This makes you part of the conversation; a key participant in the dialogue. The ‘you’ intentionally tries to make you feel like you are personally addressed – not just a mere bystander overhearing the conversation. This ‘you’ is creating a reality, enabling you to experience the unreal as real. This is a dangerous game if the ad contains dangerous language.

 Another word that seems to encourage unsafe behavior is the word should. Defined in Oxford Dictionary online, the word should “indicates obligation,” or “an expected state” or “what is probable.” Should is used to “give advice” and “expresses a request.” Gibson is requesting and expecting me to commit suicide if I can’t get laid? How rude!

It is blatantly obvious that this is a joke. Of course no advertisement would really suggest a person to take his or her life if he or she doesn’t engage in sexual activity after purchasing the product. But it doesn’t take away the fact that it is encouraging a dangerous act. This is completely and utterly inappropriate. There is no ambiguity in ‘commit suicide’. This is an asserted statement. If this advertiser was smart, he or she would have made an implicit claim, making it easier to disregard or cancel.

What about those people who abstain from sex in general? Should they kill themselves too? The ad implies that if you are not having sex, life is not worth living. Gibson insinuates that purchasing a guitar is a sure ticket to winning the fornication lottery. And if this can’t help you – nothing will, may as well die. Sorry Gibson, but not everyone wants to bang a musician.



Deception, or Just Bending the Rules?

While casually browsing through a magazine, this ad from Dove caught my attention:


Now let’s play a little game. Can you spot the two asterisks in the text above? How about the fine print that these asterisks are referring to? Look closely; they’re hard to spot.  This can be a tricky business.  A reader whose attention is not focused or who has not expended the effort to engage their mental faculties might miss them altogether. If you couldn’t see them, I don’t blame you. The picture quality of this ad isn’t exactly ideal, and even when staring at the original advertisement, it took me a moment to find them.  The caption at the bottom reads: “This test paper shows how Dove is different. After a few minutes, soap strips the paper similar to how it strips your skin’s moisture*. With ¼ moisturizing cream, Dove doesn’t strip your skin like soap can.” The fine print being referenced is vertically typed at the bottom left corner of the advertisement. It reads, “over time with regular use.” After reading the fine print, I began to wonder whether there were elements of deception in this ad, or if I was just being hyper vigilant. I decided to investigate further.

First of all, let me share exactly what my problem is with this ad and its fine print. The predominant text in this ad reads, “soap can strip the skin’s moisture*” and “after a few minutes, soap strips the paper similar to how it strips your skin’s moisture*.” It seems to me as though this ad is implying that this effect of moisture stripping is almost instantaneous (for both the paper and your skin). Then when I read the fine print (“over time with regular use”) my perspective completely changed. The second asterisked sentence above begins by stating: after a few minutes. Was I the only one who didn’t realize that this time frame only applies to the first part of the sentence? Also, who knows what is meant by over time with regular use? They certainly don’t specify. Does over time mean a week? A month? A year? How about regular use? Does that mean once a week? Once a day? Twice a day? Based on the evidence presented in the ad alone, it doesn’t seem as though this ad is drawing off of scientific evidence. So where is this data coming from?

I decided to conduct my own informal survey in order to discover whether I was the only one who thought this ad was deceptive. I randomly selected 10 people (out of a group of coworkers, friends and family) and showed them this ad. I asked these participants to pay close attention to the asterisked information. After they were done reading, I asked whether they found this ad deceptive; 4 out of 10 said yes. This was not the overwhelming support that I had hoped for, but at least a small portion of people agreed with me.

If I had to specify exactly which clause of Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) this ad contravenes, I would say Clause 1 Accuracy and Clarity:

(a) Advertisements must not contain inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations, either direct or implied, with regard to any identified or identifiable product(s) or service(s).

(d) Disclaimers and asterisked or footnoted information must not contradict more prominent aspects of the message and should be located and presented in such a manner as to be clearly visible and/or audible.

In this case, the issues with this ad seem to be fairly subjective, so it is unlikely that it would be withdrawn from circulation. Either way, it is an excellent practice to look out for deceptive advertising.

Another thing to watch out for is the feeling of truthiness. Truthiness is a feeling you get, rather than a rational conclusion you draw based on ample evidence that you have carefully processed. If you don’t devote enough time to examine this ad, you might see it and think, “Oh, this looks like results from a scientific experiment that shows that Dove is better. Next time I go to buy soap, I’ll pick up some Dove.” But really this is just a feeling based on the appearance of impressive evidence in the ad. It doesn’t actually say anything about scientific evidence, or something being scientifically proven. Additionally, in this brief glance in which the feeling of truthiness is accepted, the asterisks might have been overlooked, and therefore a chunk of information is missing. Whether the deception is subtle or blatantly obvious, your mind can be fooled, especially if you are not paying attention and rationally processing all of the information you are presented with.


Chatelaine (March 2013)