An exploration of the reasons why ambient advertising has such a powerful impact on consumer behaviour.
The War of Advertisements:
Advertising is changing. The number of brands on the shelves in our supermarkets has increased around fourteen-fold in the last twenty years (Lucas 2006: 15) and therefore advertising agencies are left with no choice but to explore alternative channels of communication. Contemporary technologies such as ad blockers and mute buttons mean that consumers nowadays are predominantly self-governors of the media they ingest and consequently advertisers can no longer ‘spoon feed’ (Lucas 2006: 15) information to the masses in television ad breaks as they would have once done. The general public is even getting better at avoiding or ‘mentally blocking’ campaigns completely, so while traditional marketing campaigns – billboard, print, radio – are costly to implement, in the life of the modern day shopper, they have merely resided into ‘background noise’ (Lucas 2006: 17). Agencies that neglect this shift in consumer habit, overlook the imperativeness of placing consumer insight at the front end of the creative process and fail to ‘change [their] conduct with the times’ (Machiavelli 1940: 74) are in danger of becoming extinct. Differentiation and evolution is becoming imperative in the survival of the ad agency and consequently new innovative agencies are emerging and many major existing agencies have established ‘non-traditional advertising’ departments. Wieden & Kennedy London launched a communications division in 2005 called WK Fat in order to embrace the modern changes in advertising and – in the words of the managing director - create ‘new ways of building strong and provocative relationships between our clients’ brands and their consumers’ (Christie: 2005). Similarly, Saatchi & Saatchi X has recently emerged as an extension to the existing company, intending to have a stronger influence on consumer behaviour by challenging traditional marketing and revolutionising the shopping experience.
To make their campaigns ground-breaking, novel and ensure they stand out from their competitors, agencies are now seizing and subverting people’s attention when and where they least expect it. American author Jay Conrad Levinson coined this fresh, ‘eye-catching’ advertising as Guerrilla Marketing: ‘as different from traditional marketing as guerrilla warfare is from traditional warfare’ (Levinson 2007: 47). Existing under the umbrella of this high energy, imaginative strategy, lies ambient advertising – a technique of arresting consumer attention by placing adverts in unconventional locations that are relevant to the brand being promoted. The term evolved from a need to apply a single phrase to what was an increasing request from clients for ‘something a bit different’ in their advertising’ (Luxton 2000: 735) – clients concerned with issues of cut-throat competition, decreased effectiveness and disinterested audiences now want advertising ‘with bite’ (Luxton 2000: 735) from their agencies. Ambient advertising is not only creative and new, but can be time effective, have a broad outreach, is often difficult to avoid or ‘mute’ and can also lead to mainstream media coverage through word-of-mouth and social media. This essay will explore why – in a war of different modern day marketing types battling to conquer the consumer’s mind (Ries and Trout 1986) – ambient marketing triumphs in the competition of unusualness and therefore provokes a higher level of interest in the consumer than any other medium of advertising.
The Tortoise and the Hare Brain:
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, American psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, establishes the notion that ‘intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention’ (Kahneman 2001: 23). Arguably, this is precisely what has happened to the majority of the population – they have become ‘blind’ to the mundane advertisements that require effortful concentration, that bombard and suffocate them in the everyday world. Clearly, this is one of the chief reasons ambient marketing appears to exert such a powerful hold over the onlooker; it is designed to generate an immediate, uncomplicated and intuitional response. This is illustrated in the ambient advert in figure 1:
Launched to promote the 2013 superhero film Man of Steel, this innovative advert is not only more effective than a traditional film poster because it has been placed in an ‘unusual and unexpected place’ (Luxton 2000: 735), but also because of the way the mechanism of the ‘shirt ripping’ is mimicked by the opening doors. This contrivance grabs the attention of the consumer on a quicker, more effortless and more memorable level. Kahneman categorises this fast, unconscious, automatic everyday reaction as ‘system 1’ – a mode of thinking that operates ‘with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control’ (Kahneman 2001: 21). Owing to the fact that the majority of the general public would recognise this iconic scene of strength and identity displayed in figure 1, the unusual advert plays on our automatic associative memory, subconsciously ‘activating a wider range of background knowledge and prompting a more spontaneous elaboration than material which is mundane’ (Waddill 1998: 109). Seeing as the average consumer subconsciously ‘blocks out’ traditional adverts that necessitate cognitive effort, the ambient campaign that is designed to generate an immediate response and play off associative memory through our instinctive ‘system 1’ has – arguably - a greater effect on consumer response than a copy-heavy, lacklustre print campaign.
On the other hand, there are also countless ambient schemes that employ ‘the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration’ - what Kahneman coined as his ‘system 2’ (Kahneman 2001: 21). See figure 2 below:
Although the casual shopper passing underneath the piece of ambient marketing displayed in figure 2 would automatically and involuntarily associate the advert with the famous childhood tale Alice in Wonderland and naturally jump to the conclusion that it was a ‘clever’ piece of advertising (system 1), it would be their intellectual ‘system 2’ that would articulate meditated, rational judgement and confirm or deny any doubts sparked by ‘system 1’. For example, while the automated mechanics of ‘system 1’ may spark the question of why the two-dimensional Alice pictured is exceptionally large and gazing at the shoppers through a sizeable hole, it is ‘system 2’ that would provide the answers to this conundrum. Seeing as ‘system 2’ ‘searches memory to find answers’ (Kahneman 2001: 89), the consumer should start to recall scenes from the renowned tale and realise that the size and position of Alice is based off how she would look to someone gazing up from out of the rabbit hole that she tumbles into. Therefore, through the workings of ‘system 2’, the passer-by morphs into a character from the story, an inhabitant of the world inside the rabbit hole. The brilliance and boldness of this campaign means that the average consumer cannot help but employ cognitive effort to discover the intended, subconscious depth to this advert – by ‘making the consumer part of the brand’ (Belić 2012: 16) and part of the fairy tale, this advert becomes more engaging than any commonplace billboard ever could be.
Taking the Shortcut:
Ambient marketing is designed around more than just our automatic and effortful cerebral functions. In order to not be overwhelmed by stimuli (the hundreds of brand messages we are assailed by daily), our brain employs ‘mental shortcuts’ to help us filter through information. Contemporary advertisers are now endorsing the deliberate designs of choice architecture in order to play off and at times even confuse our psychological heuristics and consequently nudge the consumer towards their promoted product/service. This is something that basic traditional campaigns simply cannot do.
While there is no denying that the traditional print campaign (figure 3) is simple and self-explanatory, the ambient advert (figure 4) adds a much deeper dimension to the idea of ‘having a break’ – by positioning the billboard as abandoned, it becomes clear that the workman is on a break himself, and supposedly eating a KitKat. This alludes to a literal ‘pause’ which is significantly more effective than printing one on a page. Additionally, the campaign by JWT (figure 4) is the epitome of an ambient advert that is devised to startle our ‘mental shotguns’ (Kahneman 2001: 99) that attempt to generate quick answers to difficult questions without imposing arduous labour on the lazy ‘system 2’. The main heuristic this KitKat advert (figure 4) unsettles is the representativeness heuristic – the intuitive leap to make judgements based on how similar something is to our mental prototypes. The everyman would expect the average billboard to be beautifully devised and highly finished - let alone actually complete – because his representativeness ‘shortcut’ would compare the billboard pictured to his mental library of archetypal billboards that he has previously seen. Kahneman describes representativeness in the everyday world by comparing it to stereotyping: ‘the representativeness heuristic is involved when someone says ‘he won’t go far as an academic; too many tattoos’ (Kahneman 2001: 151). Just as a heavily tattooed professor may stand out in a highly esteemed institution because of his conspicuousness, similarly, this unfinished and abandoned billboard challenges our mental stereotype of the ‘traditional’ roadside billboard and therefore would succeed in capturing consumer attention. On the other hand, the commonplace print campaign (figure 3) would achieve no such thing – as it is identical to most other billboards, it would fail to spark our representativeness heuristic and therefore, most probably go unnoticed.
Big, Bold and Beautiful:
While heuristics can be extremely helpful mental shortcuts, they can occasionally send us off course and ‘trip us up’, providing ambient creatives with another opportune chance to design their campaigns based off of our errors of intuitive judgement: our cognitive biases. Although ‘system 1’ distinguishes the ‘surprising’ from the ‘normal’, it simultaneously operates automatically and is consequently particularly gullible and inclined to be instinctively drawn towards that which is noticeable. This type of ‘noticeability’ - in advertising in particular - was defined by Dr Byron Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute as ‘salience’ – ‘not creating meaningful differentiation between brands but meaningless distinctiveness’ (Sharp 2010: 112). Ambient adverts make a brand entirely unique instead of merely slightly different, they increase brand fame and keep the product name constantly before the public eye - all key factors in driving sales. Basic print campaigns (see figure 5) are very rarely ‘salient’ in comparison to ambient marketing techniques and are therefore very unlikely to be mentally retained by the consumer - ‘a salient event that attracts your attention will be easily retrieved from memory’ (Kahneman 2001: 13).
BMW’s Mini Cooper are giants in the world of ambient advertising and connoisseurs when it comes to ‘noticeability’. See figures 6 and 7 below:
Paul Feldwick discusses salience in his book The Anatomy of Humbug, establishing advertising as simply ‘mere publicity’ and defines the purpose of creativity as purely creating images ‘which lodge in long term memory’ (Feldwick 2015: 137). There is no denying that the campaigns featured above are the epitome of indelible, fame seeking stunts. Positioning a 2D mini cooper over the entrance to a tube station is not only an act of innovative promotion, but also a physical, public demonstration of the surprising amount of room inside the vehicle – abolishing the stereotype surrounding the car that small cannot mean spacious. In a similar demand for attention, their second piece of ambient marketing (figure 7) was literally ‘dumped’ in prominent locations around the streets of Amsterdam around the Christmas period to create the illusion that BMW Minis are so small and chic, they can be wrapped, boxed and gifted during the festive period. As well as insinuating to the subconscious mind that the car is the ideal present, the Dutch creatives that launched this campaign evidently devised this audacious idea around the cognitive bias of salience. In this vein, Feldwick highlighted that ‘simply being famous, appearing to be ubiquitous and popular, are in themselves important factors in building brands’ (Feldwick 2015: 140) – empty boxes (figure 7) scattered around the streets of Amsterdam hint at a consumer excitement to hastily ‘unwrap’ the vehicle and abandon the packaging like a child on Christmas day, once again inferring brand popularity and product demand. Owing to the fact that both these ambient campaigns are unexpected, ‘salient’ events that are inconsistent with pre-existing script, they therefore succeed in attracting greater attention because the ‘observer’s cognitive mechanisms work harder to recognise and understand that which is seen’ (Bennett 2000: 32).
As we are biased to be drawn towards dramatic stimuli - that which is large, conspicuous and ‘salient’ – it can be argued that ambient advertising is a type of performance in which agencies employ their best ‘showmen’ to ensure that hundreds of people are captivated by the ‘spectacle’ publicised. P.T. Barnum (an incredible performer and impresario from 1835) referred to this ‘showmanship’ as ‘humbug’ – ‘putting on glittering appearances … novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear’ (Barnum 2014: 19). For Barnum, there may be ‘humbug’ in all walks of life. He argues that it is the only key to success and those who disdain to employ it - however good their product – will never be successful. As a brand, Durex’s ambient adverts wholly embody Barnum’s definition of ‘humbug’:
There is absolutely no denying that this ambient advert (figure 9) was predominantly built to ‘suddenly arrest public attention’; as well as being situated directly in the eye line of the consumer targeted, this ingenious campaign also encourages audience participation – asking the consumer to stand in the ‘feet’ provided and join the ‘showman’ (aka. the creative) in his own comedic performance. Moreover, as evidenced by figure 9, Durex are never ‘ashamed to be popular, vulgar [and] even crass’ (Feldwick 2015: 159) in their ambient campaigns – key attributes when employing ‘humbug’ to win over one’s spectators. If Barnum was a 21st century artist, all his work would have ‘gone viral’ as his talents lay in his ability to get people talking about his shows globally and keeping his name constantly before the public eye. Similarly, by ‘attracting the public by din and tinsel’ (Barnum 2014: 31) and subsequently increasing audience engagement with the product, Durex’s ambient campaign creates a more memorable experience for the consumer – one which they are more likely to share via word of mouth or social media – and thus is successful in reaching a greater mass market. More and more, ‘the business man and advertising man is realising that he must not discard the methods of Barnum in reaching the public’ (Bernays 2005: 101).
Although the conscious, assertive ‘system 2’ likes to believe it is in charge and knows the reasons for its choices, these aforementioned biases can never be completely avoided because often, ‘system 2’ unknowingly endorses or rationalises subjective errors and ideas that were generated by ‘system 1’. We are not objective, rational thinkers and therefore everything influences our judgement, attitude and behaviour – particularly things that we see or hear before we make a choice. This notion sparked American psychologists - Meyer and Schvaneveldt’s - seminal experiments in the early 1970’s and subsequently the concept of the ‘priming bias’ began to emerge. Kahneman visually demonstrates this theory through the example of word association - ‘if you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP’ (Kahneman 2001: 52) – proving how simple events unconsciously sway our thoughts and feelings on a day to day basis. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that ambient advertisers frequently play off this notion of ‘visual priming’ in their campaigns:
Thailand’s branch of Y&R launched this pioneering campaign for Colgate to remind consumers to ‘brush’ after consuming sugary foods. As it has been proven that visual priming works best when the relationships between the two stimuli are semantically related, this ambient advert illustrates perfectly the priming bias in action - the ‘relationship’ between ice cream and brushing away plaque is unmistakable. In placing the Colgate campaign inside an ice cream, Y&R are taking advantage of ‘system 1’s’ automatic, intuitive understanding that sugar induces tooth decay and are therefore ‘priming’ the consumer for the advert by targeting them in a situation where they are already feeling slightly ‘guilty’. Therefore, due to this pre-installed ‘shame’, when the consumer bites down to the toothbrush shaped lolly stick, his ‘system 2’ will have no clue to the error and will consequently adopt this ‘guilt’, ensuring the consumer is more inclined to want to purchase some Colgate to remove the sugar that just settled onto his teeth. This bias to be primed by recently seen stimuli also extends past cognitive thought; people asked to smile find jokes funnier and people reading about the elderly will unconsciously walk slower (Kahneman 2001: 54). When a thought or mental image brings about a seemingly ‘reflexive’ or automatic muscular reaction, it is known as the ideomotor effect. As evidenced by figure 10, the ‘ideomotor effect’ is a common by-product when ambient advertising partners up with the priming bias – not only does the consumer become more mentally aware of the damaging side-effects of sugar, but it is highly likely that after witnessing the hidden advert, the consumer (just like the little girl in the image) will take a contemplative pause and henceforth nibble on the unhealthy snack in a much slower manner. The priming bias is yet another psychological and subliminal technique the industry of ambient advertising can implement to manipulate consumer behaviour.
Spreading like Wildfire:
Another one of the many attributes of ambient interactions is it’s ability to spark an emotional reaction in the client, with the final aim of using spectacular and unexpected marketing techniques to get communities to start talking optimistically about the company/brand; the more people that hold a respectable mental image of a brand, the higher the probability that more people will adopt this positive brand-attitude. As a species we are biased to ‘[be] attracted to what [we] perceive others as valuing’ (Feldwick 2001: 139); when a buzz around a brand begins to circulate, we cannot help but ‘jump on the bandwagon’. Unsurprisingly, this bias is known as the ‘bandwagon effect’ and ambient campaigns work as the perfect springboard for this:
Part of the success of ambient campaigns lies in their ability to provoke a visceral, sentimental response that is so impactful that the consumer cannot help but spread the word. With the goal of eradicating starvation in South Africa, the charity FeedSA reached out to shoppers in moneyed locations by emotionally targeting consumers at the point of food purchase. By placing decals of hungry, begging street children at the bottom of supermarket shopping carts with a call to action and website directive on the trolley handle and food collection bins at checkouts, FeedSA instigated the ‘diffusion effect’. Seeing as the ambient campaign involved piling your food on top of starving children, not only would you have to have a heart of stone not to donate to the charity, but also, the message was so unexpected that the spreading of this piece of ambient marketing ‘became exponential, like a virus’ (Ferguson 2008: 179). Accompanied by the powerful tagline - ‘see how easy feeding the hungry can be?’ – the emotive and locative irregularity of the campaign meant that it would have been very rare for the consumer not to have ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ and mentioned this piece of advertising to a fellow shopper, over a ‘dinner conversation’ or even to have shared it on social media. As interpersonal communication has been shown to be more effective and trustworthy in influencing consumer’s purchasing decisions than advertising alone, the combination of the two in the form of ambient marketing has the greatest power over consumer behaviour.
An Ambient Victory:
Ultimately, as demonstrated, ambient advertising triumphs over other mediums of marketing in the war for consumer approval, attention and interest:
Seeing as the 21st century demands ‘something a bit different’ from advertising, as proven, ambient marketing prospers in ‘changing [it’s] conduct with the times’ (Machiavelli 1940: 74) and thus satisfying modern day society’s need for unusualness. Unfamiliar stimuli are processed more deeply than those that are perceived as ‘commonplace’ and consequently, they provoke a higher level of public interest (figure 12), making the consumer part of the brand, rather than the brand part of the consumer. Arguably, the success of ‘ambience’ in advertising is attributed to much more than it’s uncommon locality. Although Luxton accurately notes that ‘unusual locations lose their point of difference with repetition and time, and so cease to be something different… what might be considered ambient one day may not be the next’ (Luxton 2000: 735) – she completely overlooks the countless other reasons why ambient campaigns are taking the lead in the advertising world. Ambient advertising engages both ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’ – appealing to both our conscious and unconscious psyches, it is designed to influence and manipulate our mental heuristics system, is unavoidably ‘salient’ and almost impossible to ignore (see figure 12), engages the consumer in an entertaining ‘performance’, visually primes and affects our ability to make a mindful decision and also, sparks such an emotive response from the consumer that ‘sharing’ one’s ‘experience’ with others becomes unavoidable. Finally, advertising is not an instruction, but a conversation - by currently featuring as the most creative form of advertising available, ambient marketing forms a convincing, ingenious and gripping ‘conversation’ with the consumer: a conversation everyone will want to be a part of.