In Mad Men, Don Draper learns that self-realization and authenticity are key to one’s happiness. My own life lessons in the advertising industry were less existential but just as practical: Work/life balance is more precious than you think, new business pitches are not glamorous, and consumerism hinges on advertising’s efforts to convince consumers to buy things they don’t need. As a result, capitalism thrives off the efforts of advertising to convince consumers to buy beyond their needs.
As I worked in the advertising and media industry, I became hyper-aware of these efforts. I saw them while watching TV, browsing Instagram, and sifting through my mail. Consuming media became less of a relaxing activity and more like an ongoing anti-consumer epiphany: Since I now knew the inner workings of how ads are served to consumers, I became more impervious to the messages I saw on my own time. As a result, I found that I had a healthier approach to my purchasing decisions and managed to save money and better maintain a balanced budget over time.
My time in advertising created an unexpected life lesson regarding consumerism: Most of the time, the things I want to buy are the result of a company’s extensive research to convince me that I need the product in my life. Advertising is essentially a tool for capitalism to keep people motivated to stimulate the economy, and while spending money is by no means a bad thing, it should not come at the sacrifice of one’s own nest egg. I believe that everyone should catch on to these advertising truths to help ensure the items you invest in are a result of what you genuinely want, and not just what a company wants you to buy.
Companies know you even better than you think they do.
Before you even know you want to buy the product, the company knows who you are. Thus, your choices as a consumer are a result of the company being two steps ahead of you. Agencies work with data-mining companies to identify which media different audiences use, then place ads based on which platform is the best fit with their desired audience. Other targeting practices serve ads based on age, gender, demographic, location, and interests. Agencies then base campaigns around these strategies and channels to ensure the right people view the ads. So if you’re seeing an ad, that means the company thinks you’re the best fit to make the purchase.
Next time you see an ad, ask yourself why you think you’re seeing it. Over time, you’ll start to spot patterns: Certain products air on TV at different times throughout the day, Instagram ads will appear after searching for certain products, and podcast ads align with the subject matter of the episode. Identifying these patterns will help showcase that advertising is a science, and the desire to purchase a product is not a chance happening, but likely a result of this science in action.
Advertising manipulates your opinions, views, and values.
Most companies thrive off consumers’ wants, not needs, and they know what kind of messages help drive the ‘want’ in consumers. As a result, consumerism is largely inspired by the narrative created by these companies. The messages seen in ads are curated to evoke certain emotions from viewers, and advertisers leverage vast research and testing in order to ensure consumers are likely to want the product. Not only is there testing to figure out the optimal message to help drive the most sales, but advertisers know what celebrities and causes will help get consumers on board with their brand. Amazon worked with Taylor Swift surrounding Prime Day 2019, as they knew her fan base would help bring in more sales for the event. Even touting sold-out products are a means to drive interest: Brands purposely stock low on certain products to drive interest based on scarcity, which can translate to exclusivity to consumers. Brands like Supreme have created a business model surrounding this idea: launching limited-edition products in low quantities creates a scarcity frenzy, which results in hype and demand from its consumers.
Time is the best way to ensure you’re making purchase decisions based on things you want, not pressured into buying. Make yourself an ongoing wishlist – if you come across an ad of a product you want, place it on the list, and come back to it after two weeks. If you still want the item after that time, go for it. But many times, you’ll find the drive to purchase the item will fade over time.
The best ads don’t look like ads.
Advertisers are constantly looking for ways to not appear to be advertising, and if a lot of people are interacting with a platform, chances are a company will try to sell you things on there. Companies are well aware that consumers don’t like to be sold to, resulting in leveraging formats that come across as articles or posts from friends versus the typical advertising formats we see. Ever read an article called ‘10 of the Best New Things on Amazon Right Now’? These lists are curated by the company to help drive sales for their products. Companies catch on to where people view their content, and why, and they know how to plug their products in a subtle fashion.
This requires a reader to be savvy and check advertiser disclosure agreements to find if the review is a result of a genuine opinion or a result of a contract between a brand and a publisher. Do your research – both with the product and the company. Read reviews from multiple sources and ask around friends and family to get unpaid opinions; don’t just stick to one source.
Since capitalism rewards innovation, consumerism can be a powerful thing, but don’t let the advertising keep you from making informed decisions because of the tricks advertisers use to convince you to make a purchase. By taking the time and research, you can feel better about your purchases by rewarding companies that make quality products and are in line with your own values. Through research and purchasing power, you can benefit your own wallet and the brands you continue to interact with in the future. You just need to sift through advertising to do so.
Lierin is a Chicago-based digital marketing analyst specializing in financial services research. When she’s not navigating her own financial journey, she’s encouraging her friends to talk about money with her. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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