It’s a fascinating question: do we absorb advertising messages and subsequently respond to them in a reasoned manner, or are our responses more subliminal?
This question has significant importance, because it relates to the broader issue of whether advertising’s purpose is simply to influence people’s attitudes, or whether we expect it to drive behaviour more directly.
Let’s examine the two sides of the argument.
The Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) was originally proposed by behavioural psychologists Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen in 1975. They asserted that people’s behaviour results from a series of mental processes, and that our actions are cognitive responses to our inner desires, the context in which we become aware of those desires, and the associated societal norms.
In simple terms, the TRA proposes that people evaluate a variety of influences before deciding how to behave.
From this perspective, TRA incorporates elements of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In his seminal study, A Theory of Human Needs, Maslow asserted that people’s behaviour is guided by a predetermined hierarchy of physical and emotional needs:
Maslow suggested that people only attempt to satisfy higher-order needs once needs lower down the hierarchy have been met. I’d contend that a reasonable level of confidence that these lower order needs can or will be satisfied is sufficient for the person to focus on higher-order needs.
So, for example, in a situation where someone is literally dying of thirst, the ‘physiological‘ need is dominant – that person will drink whatever they can find. However, when it comes to having a relaxed, social drink in a bar, ‘love and belonging‘ and ‘self-esteem‘ needs take precedence, and the decision-making process changes.
If we extend this theory to brand communications, we can infer that advertising’s role is to stimulate reasoned behaviour by influencing people’s attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions.
An alternative school of thought suggests that at least some of our behaviour is involuntary – a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to external stimuli.
It builds on a ground-breaking piece of research by Ivan Pavolv. By repeatedly ringing a bell shortly before feeding his dogs, Pavolv noted that, after a while, he could induce them to salivate purely by ringing the bell; the dogs had been ‘conditioned’ to associate the ringing of the bell with the imminent arrival of food.
Some advertisers have taken Pavlov’s findings to mean that we can ‘train’ people to respond directly to advertising stimuli, and so ‘control’ their behaviour. While such a hypothesis may appear extreme, Pavolv’s findings do suggest that such ‘involuntary’ responses are plausible.
However, a more reasonable interpretation of Pavlov’s findings can be found in the principles underlying effective frequency.
What’s the consensus?
Psychologists still can’t agree which side has more validity, as this recent post from Matthew Taylor illustrates.
From an advertising perspective, my personal belief is that Reasoned Response is a more sustainable approach to establishing and nurturing relationships. However, I recognise that others put more faith in the Classical Conditioning model.
What do you think? Let me know by voting in the poll below: