Advertisers turn to subtle persuasion to sell product


Marisa Gartland, Staff

Off of Spring St. in downtown New Albany, there’s a Shell gas station; however this isn’t your everyday fill station. The pumps now include a small monitor which appears to host a miniature newscast – Gas Station Television, or GSTV. There’s an anchor at a news desk, complete with lower-thirds, over-the-shoulder images, and other graphics that make the show appear like any other local news program station. However, with closer inspection, it is discovered that what isn’t news, is actually a string of advertisements.

In today’s fast-paced modern society, a consumer’s attention is much, much more expensive and harder to come by than it used to be. Spotify allows the volume to be turned down during an ad, Youtube allows skips usually after five seconds, plugging in an MP3 player into a car and listening to personally chosen preloaded tunes is taking listeners off of the air, and streaming services like Netflix take away consumers that would traditionally see advertisements on the television, usually for a fraction of the cost.

“When people realize it’s an ad, they kind of just want to turn off their brain and not listen to it,” Brad Cooper, advertising senior said.

Companies and advertising industries alike have to find new ways to sell their product – ways that make an advertisement not look so much like an advertisement at all. They’re doing it because of technology, professor Tammy Voigt said.

“Things like DVR, Tivo, Netflix, etc. have enabled consumers to bypass traditional advertising messages that they deem to be intrusive in the entertainment experience.” Voigt continues, “If traditional methods [of advertising] are being circumvented, we have to find new ways to capture the consumer’s attention …. We as an industry have had to be creative in finding avenues of what we call subtle persuasion.”

However, could there be potential harm done with advertisements disguised as other things? In the instance of GSTV, the average consumer may not be able to differentiate between a normal newscast and the subtle persuasion being passed off as a newscast, potentially leading the consumer to be misinformed about what they may believe to be fact, since it came from the “news.”

“It depends on how they’re used. If they’re used to deceive or to pretend that the product is something that it isn’t, it can be a bad thing. Otherwise, I think subtle persuasion can be a good thing,” Cooper continued. “If it’s an ad for, say, a diet pill, and it pretends that it’s just this great testimony by this guy that’s supposed to be a doctor, and it’s portrayed to be actual information and the consumer can’t tell that not an advertisement, this could be detrimental.”

Subtle persuasion is no new ball game, it’s just modernizing the playing field. Methods like product placement have been around for decades.

“The FCC has made it a law that there has to be a few seconds between a show and a commercial because a child cannot differentiate between a television program and what’s being marketed to them in an advertisement. When you use product placement, that separation vanishes because the product is embedded in the television show,” Voigt said.

“When Elliot drops the Reeses Pieces to lure ET out of the shed, companies started to really notice the power of product placement,” Voigt said.

However, this incorporation of product into entertainment could have consequences if the product doesn’t suit the target audience. For example, potential issue could come out of junk food product placement in children’s shows. Cooper mentioned several referenced to Pizza Hut in the new Ninja Turtles movie.

“A kid is watching this show and his heroes are eating junk food, the child has a hard time differentiating between an advertisement and the show,” Voigt said.”Ethics form by the time you’re six years old. When you’re five and watching these kinds of advertisements, it can form a huge impact on how you perceive yourself.”

Cat Hyle, advertising senior said, “In this situation, the subliminal messages in the advertising can be bad. A lot of your personality, ideas, and basic moral gender bias that makes girls think that they have to be a certain way, and that guys have to be really masculine and macho, when this isn’t the case.”

Product placement doesn’t only appear in entertainment, but often on entertainers. Celebrity product endorsement markets a product to a celebrity’s fans, who will buy them – not because of the extensive research, quality and worthwhileness of the product, but instead because their favorite celebrity is sporting it.

Such tactics can potentially cloud the market, and instead of products being ranked by quality, will instead be ranked by popularity.

“I didn’t know I needed $400 headphones, but now I do, because 50 Cent is wearing them.” Hyle said.

Newer forms of subtle persuasion are in the works and on the rise. Facebook has begun to integrate their ads directly into a user’s newsfeed. Cooper believes that users often can’t tell a difference between what’s an advertisement and what’s an actual post.

“Facebook ads used to be along the side [of the newsfeed], and they had less than 1% of a click-thru rate,” Cooper said. “The new ads show directly in your news feed, and they have likes and comments and even show if your friend has ‘liked’ the page.”

Facebook isn’t the only company out there incorporating this right-in-the-meat-of-the-sandwich method.

“I’ve noticed that Instagram has started to integrate sponsored ads directly into my feed,” Hyle said.

Could this potentially harm the relation with these company’s consumers as what was once an aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-navigate collection of those they follow’s thoughts, images, and ideas becomes plagued with spotted advertisers trying to make an extra buck?

Viral videos are becoming vessels for subtle persuasion. An interesting, popular video, usually perceived to be made by an individual for no other reason than entertainment, can very quickly reach millions of eyes if the target audience gets a hold of it, likes it, and shares it with their friends. It turns out that some of these viral videos are advertisements in disguise.

“You see things like viral videos getting big. The “first kiss” video that went viral turned out to be fake,” Cooper said. In the video, uploaded under an individual’s and not a company’s Youtube account, twenty ‘strangers’ are filmed kissing each other for the first time after just meeting. It was later found out that these were hired actors and actresses. “It was all just an ad for a fall fashion line,” Cooper said.

Levis is another brand who took a swing at the viral video approach, and struck gold.

“People are going to enjoy it more because it’s not explicitly just an advertisement.” Evan Cooke, advertising junior said.

On what appears to be a Youtube account of some normal 20-something guys doing some not so normal stunts, there’s a video of some impressive backflipping into pairs of jeans. There is no text in this video, no voice actor, only men doing parkour into denim. However, in almost every frame, the Levi’s tag or iconic back pocket stitching can be seen. Consumers never even realized. This situation was seen as brilliant ad campaigning, as it reached millions of viewers who never once realized they were watching an advertisement.

A seemingly surefire positive of subtle advertising is the tailoring of the advertisement to the consumer. Google ads as well as Facebook sponsored ads now track web search history and use the information to determine what kind of ads a consumer will see. If someone is shopping for couches and hair dryers, chances are they may see even the very items they were looking for in an advertisement on their Facebook feed.

“Advertising is becoming a lot more personalized, and because there’s so much information, I think we’re going to see a lot more personalization in the future,” Cooper said.

Subtle persuasion seems to almost have the element of a super power; it has the potential to be used for both good and evil, it’s just a matter of what kind of hands it falls into. Voigt believes this to be an age old debate. “Is it good? Is it bad? The world may never know.”