Cognitive Dissonance and Soap

Hey, buddy… try this!

Photo Credit: Davi Ozolin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Davi Ozolin via Compfight cc

It’ll make you feel good! Real good!

You know you want this!

TRY THIS NOW!!

If a drug pusher or… a pimp… accosted you this way–as you strolled carelessly down the street. Maybe got uncomfortably close? Maybe yelled in your face? Maybe blocked your way?

Would you feel put upon? Call the police?

Would it ruin your otherwise perfect morning and disrupt the serenity of your innocent thoughts on your tree-lined, routine jaunt to Starbucks?

How dare someone!! That would be intolerable! Right?

Then why then do we tolerate such boorish behavior from advertisers who do the same things to us 24/7 on TV sets that we purchase and via cable programming we’re paying for? In short, why do we let advertisers invade our private property and infiltrate our personal space and time?

But seriously…

Am I suggesting that broadcast advertisers are basically pimps and drug pushers? No!

They’re worse. They’re much more influential. Much more pernicious. And despite a few regulations from the FTC, they are largely unrestricted. Drug dealers would like to have it so good!

Most people are blissfully unaware of how many “free choices” they think they are making in everyday life are really the end result of carefully crafted schemes launched on Madison Avenue (or some avenue). And much of the success of advertising is due to the effect of  cognitive dissonance, in which one’s mind is in a state of tension due to an unresolved dilemma. The culprit usually involves a choice which must be made, but there are competing advantages and disadvantages for making each choice. Thus, one experiences tension and stress until the issue is resolved. If the choice and, thus, the cognitive dilemma, is great enough, one may even wrestle with her conscience for some time–and with considerable angst–before deciding what to do.

What does any of this have to do with advertisers?

They create cognitive dissonance in people on purpose (see McLeod, 2008)! Estimates vary greatly, but the range of possible exposures to marketing messages is somewhere between 3,000 and 20,000 per day per consumer. Yes! Per day! Potential consumers are bombarded with dissonance-inducing solicitations designed to cause them to re-evaluate how comfortable they are with their status quo.

Don’t you know you could do so much better than… that?

Photo Credit: Professor Bop via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Professor Bop via Compfight cc

Part One of the sinister plan is to convince people that whatever product or service they’re using could be better… no, should be better! Right now!
Part Two of the sinister plan is to create the appearance of distinction between mostly similar items.
Part Three of the sinister plan is to play up trivial differences as being significant, very significant.

Using this approach, advertisers have convinced us to change out our perfectly good laundry detergent for soap with a more clever name. We have tossed out delicious potato chips for insane flavors, and we have ditched our insurance providers for products sold by lizards and ducks. Yes, you did! Fess up! 

Larry the Cable Guy, spokesman for Prilosec OTC, in one ad quipped humorously that, in this country, “We don’t just make things you want…We make things you didn’t even know you wanted!“ 

Despite the levity, what is missed by most viewers of this ad is that Larry has briefly pulled back the curtain on one of advertisers’ key motives.

What’s the take away for mass comm students?

In class discussions about the effects of media on audiences (and consumers) I think my students see what producers of news, entertainment, and advertising are up to. They generally see the intentionality of the producers who are eliciting certain reactions and/or effects in the content of their messages. However, it’s another challenge to get students “fired up” about the ethical uncertainties of large and powerful groups (e.g., media conglomerates and their advertising shills) wielding almost limitless and generally unquestioned influence on the American psyche. Perhaps they would rather not consider the mind-boggling ramifications that advertisers’ psychological hegemony has on our current financial crises, both personal and institutional.

Jesus encourages us to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Paul warns us that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). Finally, Peter warns us that “by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19)

So… Are you in debt? Hooked on Pringles?

Perhaps it all started with a dose of cognitive dissonance that grew into an unquenchable habit. (Tweet This) And, yes, advertisers intended for it to be so!

Darrell Roe (Ph.D., UGA, 1998) is an Assoc. Prof. of Mass Communication at ETBU. His specialty is analyzing the content of visual media and its effects on audiences.

 

 

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Darrell Roe

Associate Professor of Communication at East Texas Baptist University

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