Advertising tricks revealed

CHOICE reveals the latest tricks companies use to catch our attention and open our wallets.
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  • Updated:26 Mar 2009

01 .Ads everywhere

In brief

  • Consumers are increasingly immune to traditional advertising media such as television, radio and print.
  • The latest advertising techniques are less intrusive and more subliminal.

You may be surprised to learn that in an average day – commuting to work, buying a coffee, shopping, exercising and so on – it’s likely you’ll have been exposed to as many as 5000 advertising messages. While this may sound like an alarming figure, most of us probably won’t have even noticed, consciously at least.

From outdoor billboards, radio commercials and TV ads to shopping dockets and even your coffee cup, advertising is everywhere. With industry research revealing that up to 75% of new products launched on the market are destined to fail, the advertising industry has had to become more creative in the war for our attention. And the weapons they use are as diverse as the products they’re spruiking; from brainscans to chatty hairdressers, the industry has never been more innovative.

So just what are some of the latest techniques advertisers and marketers use to open our hearts, minds, and most importantly, wallets? CHOICE decided to find out.

Consumers bite back

While there’s never been more competition to grab our attention, the news isn’t all bad. With the advent of the internet, social networking sites and mobile phones, never before has the consumer had so much access to information and subsequently to advertisers.

According to Adam Ferrier, consumer psychologist and planning partner for Australian agency Naked Communications, consumers have nothing to fear from the advertising industry. “I think that with digital technology, consumers are much more empowered. You can’t just get away with a glossy ad with bright shiny teeth anymore. These days there is a lot more opportunity for consumers to get what they want, rather than what marketers think they want.”

If you see an advertisement you think has crossed the line for whatever reason, the Advertising Standards Bureau accepts complaints for most forms of advertising. For more information head to

Please note: this information was current as of March 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


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Mission accomplished, advertisers win?

Product placement in films and television is nothing new – the Bond film Die Another Day was dubbed “Buy Another Day” for featuring 23 products in 123 minutes – but until recently the music industry could have been considered the final frontier for advertising and creative integration. While music is often used as the soundtrack in radio and TV advertisements, products are now being increasingly incorporated into the original music itself.

Recently, chart-topping singer Fergie hosed down rumours that her next album was to be sponsored by a major clothing label and include product names in the lyrics. While her management has denied this partnership, other artists have been less shy; in 2007, as part of a brand partnership he had with American Express, hip-hop artist Kanye West cavorted with an animated red Amex card in his film clip Good Life.

Adam Kluger, Head of Brand Partnerships at the LA-based Kluger Agency, specialises in what he calls “brand dropping” in the music industry. Although declining to name the partnerships he currently manages, he believes music works more effectively than traditional forms of advertising, especially with younger audiences. “There is no other form of repetitive entertainment that is constantly being viewed as much as the music video,” he says. “If the core demographic of a brand matches the target audience of the artist, not only do we have a successful advertising campaign, we now have a product on the fast track to being an iconic brand.”

Adam Ferrier, consumer psychologist and planning partner for Australian agency Naked Communications, even suggests that younger people are now so used to everything being branded, it can be viewed as a stamp of approval. “If there’s an event that is heavily branded with a whole lot of cool brands and logos compared with an event with none, they are likely to think, ‘What’s wrong with that second event? Why doesn’t it have any brands associated with it?’ Brands are no longer seen as an intruder but more a sign of endorsement.”

Subliminal signs

Icon of tvWhen Channel Ten broadcast the ARIA Awards in 2007, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that between the various segments, logos from award sponsors flashed up on the screen for one to four frames, equating on average to a tiny 0.10 of a second. It was literally blink-and-miss-it advertising, but the following year the Australian Communications and Media Authority found that Ten had breached the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice by transmitting images that were below or near the threshold of normal awareness. Ten defended its position, arguing the rapid-cut graphics weren’t meant to be subliminal but merely in keeping with the fast-paced look and feel of the presentation.

While this exercise resulted in a lot of media attention, industry experts contacted by CHOICE say that subliminal advertising in this form is nothing new. “It’s been around since the 1950s,” says Gayle Kerr, Senior Lecturer in Advertising at the Queensland University of Technology. “It’s never really been proven to be effective and isn’t common, though you have to wonder if the purpose this time was simply to create some controversy – it got a lot of attention.”

According to Martin Lindstrom, brand guru and author of the book Buyology, there are plenty of other subliminal techniques used to sell products, particularly in retail. Interestingly, one of the most common is smell. “Of all our senses, smell is the most primal,” says Lindstrom.

Lindstrom suggests that many smart marketers attach fragrance to the products they are selling. A UK clothing brand was once well-known for pumping its stores with the smell of freshly laundered cotton, while many supermarkets now locate their bakeries close to the entrance to attract shoppers. In Northern Europe, some supermarkets don’t even bother with actual bakeries, instead pumping an artificial baked bread smell straight into the aisles.

Brain scanning

Mini Cooper“Cute” and “cuddly” are not the kind of words traditionally associated with a car. Yet when a group of German designers decided to conduct research on various car brands they were in for a surprise. Using a range of classic car designs, including Ferrari and Mini Cooper, the company used fMRI technology (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to scan consumers’ brains for activity as they viewed the images.

While sports cars such as Ferrari predictably stimulated a region of the brain usually associated with reward and reinforcement, the compact Mini Cooper caused a far more unusual reaction: its design activated the same part of the brain that “lights up” when people look at a baby’s face.

Martin Lindstrom, international brand consultant, believes the huge success of the Mini Cooper is due to its design, which makes it more than just a car in people’s minds. “It’s a gleaming little person, Bambi on four wheels. It makes you feel like you want to pinch its chubby metallic cheeks and then drive it away,” he says.

Lindstrom says this kind of reaction is the ultimate goal of most brands. “Brand isn’t rational, it’s purely emotional and that’s exactly what the industry would like to activate in our brains. If we have an emotional response to a brand we’ll be prepared to pay a premium price for it.”

Viruses campaigns

Icon of speach bubblesViral campaigns rely on word of mouth, or more commonly “word of mouse”, working on the theory that if a customer likes something they will be more inclined to share it with their friends online. Ideally, the consumer is recruited involuntarily to spread the message through online interactive games, emails or videos.

One such success is Queensland Tourism’s latest web campaign which reached 162 countries, attracted 34,000 applicants and gained broad international media coverage. Their “Best Job in the World” competition invites job seekers to apply via video for the chance to live rent free on the Barrier Reef for six months. When the campaign launched, the host website crashed with the sheer amount of traffic on the site.

Other viral successes such as “Dancing Matt” – a video featuring a guy dancing in locations all over the globe – started off as a genuinely non-commercial activity but has since attracted high-paying sponsors, such as Visa, keen to catch a piece of the viral action.

Whisper campaigns

Have you ever sat captive in a salon chair while your hairdresser attempts to make talking an Olympic sport? While you chat about the latest TV shows, books or movies, you may not realise your hairdresser, shop assistant or even your personal trainer is actually part of that product’s marketing mix.

Sydney-based MINT PR’s Monique Haylen says she has thousands of “style influencers” on her books. “Whisper marketing is what we refer to as generating authentic word of mouth,” she says. “When we started doing word of mouth it was originally about getting people to talk. We don’t pay but we provide product to people we think it’s appropriate for, or give them information and hope that if they like it they’ll talk about it.” Haylen says determining who should spread the word depends on the client. “If it’s Channel Seven with a preview of a new program, we would probably use hairdressers. They can talk about how they’ve seen an exclusive preview; word of mouth is about engaging people and having a dialogue.”

Haylen also uses other techniques to build brand awareness by stealth. “We’re currently promoting a brand of jewellery by placing it on the hands of bar staff in certain upmarket bars. We might choose style ambassadors such as newsreaders, magazine editors or stylists and give them product to wear. It’s a cost-effective way of getting a message out about a brand and can work well with other kinds of marketing.”

Guerrilla marketing

Icon of person with coat and hatThe phrase “guerrilla marketing” was originally was coined by business author Jay Conrad Levinson in 1984. He defined the technique as achieving conventional goals, such as profits and joy, with unconventional methods, such as investing energy instead of money. These days, guerrilla marketing is commonplace as part of the marketing and advertising mix.

Monique Haylen is the founder of MINT PR, a Sydney agency that specialises in unconventional campaigns using techniques such as ambient media and “brand ambassadors”. According to Haylen, “the challenge for us is how do we interrupt someone’s normal life without being offensive so they can pay attention to a brand? Humour works, creativity works.”

Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier says humour and creativity can work well for the right market. “One of the most successful campaigns we did was for a streetwear brand where we played on the misconception that advertisers brainwashed people,” he says. “We had events where we hypnotised people in public and pretended that they would become brand advocates for life. The media were totally outraged by it and the whole thing was a joke. This doubled the distribution of the brand, sales went up and we won an award at Cannes [advertising industry awards].”

Coke Zero: zero response

Coke Zero banner

While it may seem that many of the tricks used on consumers are unfair, experts we spoke to were unanimous that consumers have never been better positioned to bite back if they don’t like something – and advertisers who aren’t quick to respond will get savaged. In 2006, Coca-Cola anonymously launched a new product in Australia, Coke Zero, by setting up the “Zero Movement”, which appeared to be a grassroots street campaign using chalk drawings, pamphlets and a blog of the same name – none of which directly linked back to Coke.

While the campaign created buzz, it was for all the wrong reasons as consumers quickly discovered who was behind it and hit back with a blog of their own, attacking the brand and drawing negative media attention. Within weeks the original material on the blog was removed, with Coke admitting that the campaign “wasn’t for everyone”. “The greatest benefit of technology has been that it empowers consumers to talk back,” says QUT’s Gayle Kerr.

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