Friday, 1 July 2011

The psychology of what we buy - Part 1

We would like to introduce a guest blog by our highly capable marketing intern Sam Hallett from Bournemouth University.  Sam has been helping us out in a number of areas over the last few months and has made a huge difference to our general approach and line of thinking to both our direct and indirect marketing activities.  Anyhow, enough from us and over to Sam:

In this two part article we are going to be tracking the progress of the idea of selling ‘meaning’, i.e. status and image, to different types of individuals.  We will examine purely how the idea of selling meaning came to be common place amongst advertisers.  In this first part were going to have a look at the root of PR and modern marketing techniques using psychology that surrounds us today. 

These days it is widely acknowledged amongst advertisers that consumers buy symbols, by that I mean the symbolic attachments inherent in goods. We all know for example that while a Gucci bag may be a thousand times the price of a Primark one, it probably won’t fit a thousand phones, purses or a thousand tiny bottles of eyeliner.  So why then is it a thousand times better?  It is the symbolic meaning.  A Gucci bag is thousand times more meaningful in terms of conferring status than a Primark one.  If you don’t believe that then go and live in a world where Gucci are yet to sell a single bag.  This article examines how advertisers began to realise they could sell meaning.


Before the work of Freud, consumers were thought to be wholly rational beings. The Rational Economic Man (REM) was the model that exemplified the buying behaviors of man as self-interested and considered actions.  The REM would buy only within his means the goods that he required to fulfill specific needs or further his specific conscious goals that drove him through life.  As such this thinking was reflected both in production and in marketing and advertising.  Through the nineteenth century production orientation had characterised the economy under the philosophy that demand would always exceed supply.  The firm with the means to produce the highest volume of goods relative to the cost was king.  In the early years of the twentieth century however the saturation of the market with huge firms caused by the production orientated economy meant that supply was now surplus.  This paradigm shift meant that to profit firms would now have to directly compete.  Hence product orientation was born. Firms began to produce products to address specific needs that were marketed on the basis of their durability and performance, following the pattern of buying behavior theorised by the REM model.

We can imagine how bizarre this approach would look in today’s climate. “Rayban filter out 17% more sunlight than other brands!”.  “Topshop: the top that tops all others, withstanding fire, acid and even attempts at penetration with stabbing implements.”.

However this was more or less the status quo because firms supposed man shared the same basic needs and thus products and trusted the rational man to select the most appropriate and effective product to meet his needs.  The next change in the way that products were to be sold to consumers would not take place in production; it would be the birth of modern marketing and advertising.


Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and it was he who was the first to apply psychoanalysis, namely Freudian psychoanalysis, to the market place with dramatic results.  Freud theorized that man was not governed by conscious rational decisions but rather a subconscious set of more base animalistic desires and drives.  Freud argued that man was essentially irrational because the subconscious forces at the nexus of man’s psyche were not concerned with modern society.  They were basic constants that could not be cognized or transmuted into rational thought process because they were essentially animal.

Imagine a tiny man on a boat. He is so small that he cannot look over the deck and see the ocean, but he realises the boat is moving.  He believes it is he who governs the direction of the boat.  The man on the boat is our conscious mind.  Unbeknown to him the great primordial ocean of subconscious animal thoughts swirls and swells, flinging his boat where it will.


Long before the theories of Freud were popularized in the USA and the rest of the western world, they were utilized by Edward Bernays to sell products.  Edward Bernays had previously been employed in the Woodrow administration within the committee of public information, which was concerned with distributing the polemic of the American government amongst its peoples and those of the rest of the world.  The essence of this was that America fought, not with reactionary self-interest, but with the aim of bringing democracy around the world.  In one of the most influential moments in the history of modern marketing Bernays saw the effects of his efforts rendered in powerful synecdoche.  As President Wilson walked the streets of France on the day of the Paris peace conference accompanied by Bernays, he was met with the adulation of crowds gathered to celebrate the victory of President Wilson, the man whose nation fought to bring democracy to Europe.  This was the event that for Bernays proved the efficacy of what was soon to be referred to as public relations.


Bernays went on to manage PR campaigns for the government but it was not until he was approached by American Tobacco that he was to utilize his uncle’s work in the aim of selling products.  At this time in America smoking was a social taboo amongst women much to the dismay of American Tobacco who had employed Bernays to effectively double their market.  Bernays consulted a number of eminent psychiatrists to ascertain the subconscious meaning that cigarettes held to American women.  He discovered that cigarettes were a phallic symbol and thus a symbol of man’s masculinity and status. Bernays’ creativity was in implanting this image into the modern zeitgeist concerned with the growing independence of women.  When independent women were seen smoking it signified their owning of a manly member and their independent autonomy, both previously exclusive to men. This was a seminal campaign because it was the first to realise the idea that products could be sold on an irrational basis by appealing to consumers unconscious perceptions.

This was so seminal in fact because what were being sold to women were not cigarettes, but meaning: chiefly independence and social mobility.  From here sprung so many of the advertising campaigns around us to this day.  Half the reasons that consumers buy goods are not for the goods themselves but for their symbolic value.  A good in this sense can be seen as the product itself wrapped in a bundle of subconscious meanings, signifiers and symbols.  In order to sell goods in this way, marketers must be Freudian thinkers because they must understand what symbols will appeal to those unconscious drives. 

Take the Ferrari; it is the object of desire and appeals to many of our unconscious feelings.  It is speed and performance thus it is power.  It is a premium rarity thus it is status.

So the next time you buy something take a second to think how much you are paying for the product and how much extra are you paying for its meaning.


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