Why Advertising Works: Social Learning
In the last post on classical conditioning I talked about why advertising works even when people are not paying close attention. In terms of the Elaboration Likelihood Model classical conditioning is most actively at work when messages are processed towards the peripheral end of the spectrum. When messages are processed centrally, social learning is a better theoretical model, as it encompasses attention and retention of a message.
Social Learning Theory is a pretty basic (and very broad) theory that basically states that people can learn from observing others – if they pay attention, later remember and then have the motivation and ability to imitate what they saw. Bandura used dolls to show how children can learn by observing behaviour (the Bobo doll experiment). This was a major break from traditional views of learning, which assumed that learning is mostly based on actually received reward and punishment, rather than just observing others.
In practice, the theory has given ample ammunition to the debate about the impact of violence in media (or in games), and how exposure to seeing that type of behaviour can influence people. The influence of social learning is not restricted to just violence. In fact, advertising and marketing also uses it: For example, when someone sees an advert, then advertisers hope that viewers imitate what they see. This may be, for example, by showing how a certain product can be used (hoping that the viewer then uses the product) – or showing how a person feels when they use a product, hoping that the viewer imitates the behaviour and feels similar. Social learning can also be used to explain how (and what) children learn from advertising. For example, in a recent study conducted in Hong Kong, Chan, Ng & Williams show how adolescent girls pick up gender-specific stereotypes and behaviours from (among other) watching advertising. In their study they show how young girls aspire to be much like the adverts they see.
In summary, social learning is a fairly basic, yet powerful way to conceptualise how media images, such as advertising, influence how we behave – and what we think is right or wrong. As it requires remembering and recalling a specific behaviour, it is more likely to be effective for more centrally processed messages – and therefore complements classical conditioning.