Advertising tricks revealed

The tricks companies use to catch your attention and open your wallet.

Wait, was that an ad?

A friend sends you a link to a video, and even though you can see it's really an ad for a product, you like the video so much you post it on social media or email the link to more friends. Congratulations, you've just been part of a viral marketing campaign. Marketers are forever trying techniques like this to get your attention – and ultimately, your money.

On 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. An astonishing figure, but you probably won't have even noticed most of them, 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 brain scans to chatty hairdressers, the industry has never been more innovative.

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 media strategist, 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's a lot more opportunity for consumers to get what they want, rather than what marketers think they want."

And if you don't like what the marketer presents to you – if you see an advertisement you think has crossed the line for whatever reason – the Advertising Standards Bureau is the place to take complaints for most forms of advertising.

Advertising out of the box

Mission accomplished, advertisers win?

Product placement in films and television is nothing new – the James 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.

Singer Fergie had to hose down rumours in 2007 that her next album was to be sponsored by clothing label Candie's and include product names in the lyrics. Her management confirmed there was a commercial deal with Candie's but denied there would be any branding influence on her music or lyrics. 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 for '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 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

When 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

"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.

Lindstrom 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."

Spreading the word

Viral campaigns

Viral campaigns rely on word of mouth, or, as it were, "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. It's not always successful, but some campaigns have struck gold with this approach.

One such success is Queensland Tourism's Best Job in the World web campaign, which reached 162 countries, attracted 34,000 applicants and gained broad international media coverage. It invited jobseekers to apply via video for the chance to live rent-free on the Great Barrier Reef for six months. When the campaign launched, the host website crashed with the sheer amount of traffic on the site.

Another example is Melbourne's Metro Trains public service safety video "Dumb Ways to Die", which was released on social media in 2012 and has racked up over 80 million views.

Other viral successes such as "Dancing Matt" – an online video featuring a guy dancing in locations all over the globe – begin as genuinely non-commercial activities but later attract 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.

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". She said she has thousands of "style influencers" on her books. "Whisper marketing is what we refer to as generating authentic word of mouth," she said. "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

The phrase "guerrilla marketing" 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.

According to Monique 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

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 Coke's 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. This is even truer in the age of social media, where every major brand has a Twitter handle or Facebook page – they might still be pushing a product, but now you have a direct line to let them know when they've gone too far.