Dogs and Adverts: Classical Conditioning

petaHave you ever asked yourself why adverts that are saying, seemingly, pretty little ….actually seem to work? Well, the theoretical underpinning of this phenomenon that has been observed in many different scenarios is actually an almost ancient theory (from the 1890s), linked to… training dogs – called classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning combines two potentially arbitrary and unrelated stimuli, in the classical example the ring of a bell and the arrival of food. What happens is that both stimuli get “mixed up” and inherently connected, so that after a while even if only one stimulus is presented, for example hearing a bell, the dog (or person) reacts in the same way as if food was arriving – although it isn’t. Pavlov showed this originally by measuring the saliva of dogs. Of course, the same “habituation” also works with other stimuli.

Advertising, especially advertising that says little, uses classical conditioning to transfer positive (or negative) emotions to a brand image. For example, by simply showing an attractive model (positive stimuli) and a brand (unrelated stimuli) the adverts hope that the positive emotions towards the model “transfer” to the brand.

An interesting example, attempting a negative emotional connection, is  the current PETA campaign. It connects a negative stimulus (disgust at the untrimmed bikini line) with fur (quite unrelated really). The campaign obviously has some critics, but I’d argue that (disregarding the arguments made in this article, and yes, I agree with what is being said, and that it can be seen as offensive…. but), the advert has at least the potential to be associate negative emotions with a stimulus – because either way, if it creates disgust or offense, then that would hopefully transfer to “wearing fur”. Though this is what I’d argue thing are a little problematic with the ad: the disgust/offence may actually transfer to the brand (PETA) as there isn’t a clear fur stimuli in the advert… In other words, it may not be immediately obvious what the two stimuli are that are being connected, and thus, remembering that the connections are made pretty much subconscious, the negative stimuli may actually transfer to the most obvious other stimuli – which might be the brand (rather than the message).

In short, classical conditioning is an easy and powerful tool – but it needs to be used carefully: the connection between the two stimuli is made subconsciously, and therefore they need to be reasonably clear and not requiring much elaboration. Moreover, adverts relying on classical conditioning, need to be repeated many times for the conditioning to take effect – thus they are by far not a cheap option.

You may also like...