Respect your enemy : Advertising

Mad MenI was recently in London meeting a friend in Soho just around the corner from the Groucho Club.

As I walked through Soho, I was struck by the achingly hip bars,  boutiques and offices full of bright young things in the film, music and advertising industries.  Obviously I blended right in. 😉

The Escape Artist has always wondered what it would be like to work in advertising.  Could I learn to air-kiss and flounce around Soho drinking frappucinos brought to me by fawning interns? Or be all brooding machismo like Don Draper from Mad Men with an unlimited expense account on Madison Avenue?

Since my CV is a bit short of formal advertising experience, it looks like I am going to have to start at the bottom of the ladder and get the coffees myself. I’ve started with this guide to classic adverts for anyone who wonders how / why ads work.

I’ve long admired the creativity of funny ads.  But it’s only recently that I’ve realised just how fiendishly clever the best adverts are and how they play to our deepest psychological biases, hopes and fears.

By reviewing classic ads we gain perspective and see what levers the advertisers pull as they try to get us to spend, spend, spend.

So enjoy these classics…but be warned! Advertising is like radiation: harmless in small doses but toxic in higher quantities. Remove it from your life where possible.

You need it…

For me, watching this advert is like a glimpse behind the scenes into a world of emotional manipulation.  We see how the advertiser uses a range of sensations: visuals, sounds, taste and texture to engage our feelings.

You’d have to be a Vegan robot to watch this without starting to taste that bacon sandwich. Remember the experiment with the bell and Pavlov’s dog?

Note how the advert places us into an emotionally and sensorily receptive state, teeing up the punchline and the call to action.

I love the punchline for its sheer brutal honesty.  Here The Man tells us we are pathetic and that’s why we need his product.  You have to admire the front.

Because I’m worth it!

Is this the most successful advertising campaign in history?

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to guess how this one works.  Humans are an incredibly social species and most people are desparate to feel accepted and validated by the rest of The Tribe.

The reason it can feel so uncomfortable to depart from the social norms is because for most of our evolutionary history, being rejected by The Tribe would have meant almost certain death. The “we’re worth it” strapline shamelessly panders to the insecurities of the target audience.  As any psychic knows, the trick when reading palms is to tell the punter what they want to hear.

Brilliantly, the strapline not only gives the victim consumer validation, it also gives them permission to spend lots of money on the product. How kind!

Reassuringly expensive

In traditional micro-economics, we are taught that consumers are rational decision makers and the demand curve slopes downward (ie people buy less) as the price goes up.  But in this classic landmark ad, Stella Artois turn conventional economics on its head.

Instead of listing out the features of the product or even vaguely attempting to justify the premium pricing, Stella make the higher price the key selling feature itself.

This plays on human pyschology because it’s hard to value things rigorously. So we look for easy to spot clues to anchor on and use heuristics (mental short cuts) to assess price and value. We assume that the most expensive product must be better.

It may be convenient to believe that the market is always efficient and we get what we pay for but, as I showed here, that’s just not true.

What’s the worst that could happen?

In markets and consumerism there are two powerful emotions that drive human behaviour and those are greed and fear.

These classic Dr Pepper adverts speak directly to the ancient parts of our brain that feel fear. Dr Pepper realised that they could never compete with Coke on brand strength and that people’s habits are slow to change for a range of reasons, including fear of the unknown.

So Dr Pepper make a joke of this by exaggerating the fear to an absurd extreme. For a teenage boy, can there be more terrifying prospect than being cut out of their underwear in front of TV cameras?

You are not a Salmon

The Man is nothing if not resourceful.  In these ads for KitKat, The Man recruits some of the concepts of financial independence…to sell us chocolate!

Having created the whole infrastucture of consumerism, The Man then turns round and offers to sell us sugary medication to make us briefly feel better about our situation.  Its important that the hit be short lasting and somewhat addictive so we are back for the next one before long.  Again, you have to admire the ambition of The Man.

In The Salmon we are encouraged to stop being a Walking Wallet for a minute and live in the moment to enjoy a chocolate bar.  Its a bit like mindfulness training for consumer suckers.The Escape Artist likes chocolate and has no problem with the occasional chocolate-based dopamine hit.  But if taken to extremes, we end up continually self-medicating and as fat as the helpless humans in Wall-E.

I remember watching this when I was stressed and working in the Prison Camp and it resonated with me. It feels like KitKat are on our side rather than selling us shit : genius.

The Mexican Fisherman

There isn’t just one true path to financial independence…an observation which is neatly illustrated by the parable of The Mexican Fisherman.

At one end of the spectrum we have the traditional view of early retirement, as explained by The American Businessman, which says early retirement is only possible if we start a business, work crazy hard for years and then sell for millions.

At the other end of the spectrum we have The Mexican Fisherman who will never earn huge amounts of money but lives a good life based on frugality, gratitude, meaningful work and relationships.

The Mexican Fisherman may not be rich by the American’s criteria but he is free and has no desire to “retire” as he is already living a good life. Doing meaningful work (fishing in the case of the Mexican) is an integral part of that.

Hey…social proof, baby

The best way to sell a lot of product is to start a craze. Crazes are an illustration of social proof.

Becuase we find it hard to make rational decisions and to assess the true value of many things, we use simple short cuts to make quick decisions.  One such heuristic that worked well over most of human evolution was “Do what everyone else is doing“.

So if all the other monkeys are eating bananas from that tree and look like they are happy, we take that as our cue to eat those bananas rather than the ones from the tree with the dead monkey bodies littered around it.

The “follow the herd” heuristic made sense when we lived on the savannah plains of Africa but these days it can get us into big trouble as investors or consumer suckers.

Once you pop, you can’t stop!

Here we see Pringles use the addictive nature of the product…as a selling point!

Like all advertising, this takes a fundamental truth about the product and turns it into a feature.  Because we instinctively recognise authenticity and we all know how hard it can be to stop once you start eating this stuff, we can relate to the strapline of the advert.

If you have a Pringles (or other carbohydrate) habit that is making you fat, check this out.

Get more!

Sex sells and subtlety is (usually) wasted on the younger male. As reflected by this deodorant advert:

If you are a young, single male and can’t be bothered with the prospect of showering, cleaning your teeth and tidying up your bedroom and your fridge, then this is the product for you.

You can be as lazy as you want. You don’t need to do any work on yourself. All you need do is spray on a load of these factory-made chemicals and you will become irresistible to women. Only £2.99 a can!

The Ambassador’s Reception

Ah…the Ambassadors Reception!  This advert combines a vision of sophistication with accents that would make an actor playing a Bond villain wince.

Monsieur, wiz Ferrero Rocher you are rilly spoiling uz!

Admit it, there is something about this advert that speaks to our desire to spend our way into a world of taste, affluence and beautiful people.  We think that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. We all want to be at The Ambassador’s Reception with the lovely lady wiz ze Fronch accont breathing in our ear about how she loves to be spoilt, the naughty minx.

No? OK, its just me then.


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  1. Thank you for another really good article. I really enjoy reading your website. Although it is a bit off-topic, I thought you might like to have a read of this link
    as tomorrow is “Black Friday”, where wasting money is almost state-sanctioned duty. I like their stance.

    1. Thanks for the comment Chandon….I am not even going to mention Black Friday!

  2. I’ve always liked the Mexican fisherman story, and it makes me think of my client at work today who was talking about taking his company’s profit from $3m to $6m. He didn’t know why he wanted that money, probably to turn around and buy the same amount of freedom that he could have right now if he really thought about it!

    And while I have nothing against Jason Statham and his movies, it surprises me that he could be involved with anything as philosophical as the Mexican fisherman story!

  3. I loved the ”Happiness is a cigar called hamlet” series, the gist being if everything in life gets too much, just give up & chill by smoking a product whose purpose by definition was to debilitate your life & probably kill you – the deliciousness of the irony mixed with the despair at people’s gullibility.

    For creativity, I respected that one [some insurance company – isn’t it another irony that you often can’t remember the company who paid for the Ad anyway?] where they played on your fear that something unexpected & awful would happen to you, but no worries, you could relax because you’d already made a plan so could sing ”There may be trouble ahead, lets face the music & dance” …..& do a couple of twirls, cos y’know, you’re cool Brah, that’s just the way you roll.

    I actually knew a guy in the industry who delighted in bringing to my attention that while I earned a pittance at the time as a scientist, with several biology degrees, working on diseases nearly everyone would never hear of, he was wealthy off selling shampoo by convincing the sheeple that they could absorb proteins into their hair from it. [anyone who believes this is possible, I have a whole lot of other things you may be interested in investing in, cos y’know, you’re worth it ‘n that] I do see that it was funny in their brutally cynical world, that you can pull off this feat so effortlessly.

    The psychology is just so powerful, I remember starting smoking in school because I wanted to impress the class knockout. Even back then, when the tobacco companies had full control, as a 14 year-old I knew the chances of getting cancer were 50:50 over a life time, but seeing her up close again reduced our judgement to male preying mantis level again 🙂 (Yes, gave up years ago)

    As for Black Friday, C’mon man, lighten up, that there’s the ass in aspirational, enjoy watching them punch each others’ lights out on the news, for the honor of getting poorer faster, ’tis evolution in action sir, like lemming time …….

  4. Another fine post, thanks.

    This doesn’t add to the debate but I feel the cartoon ad with the anthropomorphic Pepperami stick, and the tagline “Its a bit of an animal” deserves a mention…

  5. The Mexican Fisherman story and advert applies to FIRE. I worked, worked, worked, saved, saved, saved so that one day, I could retire and really not worry about the finances. I never really stopped to ask myself seriously how much money I thought I’d need and at what age would I start to draw it? And what did I really enjoy in life, and how much did those things cost? What did I do “on holiday” that made those breaks so relaxing? Well, I would read those books I always wanted to, swim and exercise every day followed by a leisurely coffee and read of the paper. I’d then write up my journal, take a long lunch with my DOH and a glass or two of wine if I felt so inclined, walk that off in the afternoon before preparing to cook dinner with fresh food, before settling into the evening with a good book, movie or box set. What does that cost a day? About a tenner, at most. To me, that’s still a sobering realisation! As long as I avoid those bloody adverts and endless consumerism, you don’t need that much to enjoy life.

    1. You raise an interesting point SHMD….which is that there are a surprising number of people out there who are already FI (or close to it)….without even realising it!

    2. So true SHMD!
      The simple things in life, reading a book, having a coffee, exercise and good food. We get so hung up on consuming and spending we forget what is really important.

  6. @TEA, Yup, Allied Dunbar is is/was …..I forgot because I actually deliberately try to avoid noticing who adverts are by, to dodge the subliminal messaging.

    Interestingly, when I asked my acquaintance in the industry whether advertising could ever be a good thing, he pointed out the example of the standard plastic lemon in most supermarkets, containing lemon juice ….. he also said it was a star for simplicity & effectiveness – you know exactly what it is immediately, even from a distance, so no need to say any more.

    If I genuinely need something & it’s worth thinking about, I usually ask people whose opinions I respect what they use, then how they rate that product & why – I took a leaf out of the procedure book from work practice, because that process at least is common sense.

  7. I think you might be giving the enemy too much credit. I like a bit of Ad deconstruction, but I suspect that not that much thought goes into the original construction.
    Instead of thinking of the evil ad physiologist designing ever more elaborate skinner boxes, think of a large number of chemically fuelled monkeys flinging their excreta against the wall. Some of it will stick, most of it won’t. The monkey doesn’t have time to ponder why it sticks, he is too busy flinging more.
    The only ad in this bunch I remember is the Ferrero Rocher one, I always hoped it was post modern irony rather than just excruciatingly naff.

    1. Thanks for the comment but I think some of those monkeys are pretty smart…

  8. paullypips · · Reply

    As always thank-you for a most welcome and thought provoking post (and discussion).
    If Stella Artois is “reassuringly expensive”, how come it’s the cheapest branded beer in my local Tesco supermarket?

  9. […] toss what new stuff is out there for sale. And busting TV out of my life gets rid of a lot of ads. Respect your enemy. It’s why I use ad-blockers too on the […]

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