Advertising & social signaling

Do you think advertising convinces you?

I don’t.

Seeing a commercial on TV or on the internet doesn’t make me immediately think, for example, that drinking Corona will make me a beach person or that driving a Lexus will make me several times more attractive to women. I’d be willing to bet that you don’t find yourself convinced by ads either. And yet, over the entire population, they must work. If they didn’t, why would companies spend so much on Super Bowl commercials that last under a minute?

So based on the prevalence of advertising and the money flowing through the industry we see that it has to be working. No profit-bearing company would spend that kind of money without expecting to see much more in return. So there has to be a large group of people out there who will respond to advertising by spending more money on the products advertised.

Not me, of course. I’m clearly too smart for advertising to work on me.

But if I assume that there’s a group of people whom advertising convinces and this group is sufficiently large to justify advertising budgets, I then have to assume they’re all around me. At every restaurant I go to, every party I attend - I even have to think that a sizable portion of my coworkers are among the group that’s so easily swayed as to have a 5-second YouTube commercial convince them. Every time I step out the door, I am confronted with people who just know that drinking Corona makes you a beach person, even in central Ohio, and that my American-made pickup truck shows I’m a hardworking individual who likes the outdoors.

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That last one sounds good. I’d like to have that associated with me. If my coworkers think I’m hardworking, that’d improve their opinion of me - and would probably have a non-negligible effect on my career. Maybe next time I’m car shopping, to replace my econo-box gas-saver, I’ll think a little harder about getting an F-150 instead. Just to improve the general impression people have of me, you understand. Those Ford commercials clearly don’t work on me.

Social signaling

In conversation, there are multiple layers of communication. Primarily, the way we communicate is by arranging words, chosen for their definitions, in ways that directly express our thoughts. There are several supporting layers of communication also. The most obvious of these is body language: posture, facial expression, whether you shuffle around or not, where you look, how close you stand to your conversational partner, etc. One layer that is less obvious is signaling.

Consider the following sentence: “I’m single.” If I said this and then moved on - perhaps I used it to motivate something in a longer story - it would mean exactly what it says. The response to it would be on the primary layer of meaning, and it either would not be addressed or I’d get a response to the effect of “I didn’t know that.” However, if I were to let this sentence stand on its own, I’m adding meaning to the signal layer (that this detail should be important to the other person). The response would be to the meaning conveyed in the signaling layer - more like “and what’s that got to do with me?” (which again puts most of its meaning in the signaling layer - “buzz off, creep”). Inside jokes are another common method of signaling in conversation. The signal in this case is membership in a group, and the laughter in return signals the same thing. If there are non-group-members present, this signaling can also be that they aren’t welcome.

Signaling can be done via topic choice or emphasis as above. Both are active ways of signaling. If we could connect things about ourselves with the signals we wanted to send to others, we could passively signal things. Tattoos are one method of doing so. With the right tattoo, you can signal that you’re a devil-may-care type person, a biker, proudly religious, etc. There’s social value there: people who value what you’re identifying with will be more amiable to you and possibly respect you more for proudly identifying with it.

Imagine if you could signal by wearing/purchasing/using particular brands and products. That would be handy…

A theory on how advertising works

Maybe ads aren’t meant to convince.

An advertisement is not going to imbue a product with any sort of real value. You are still purchasing the same thing for the same price. In the initial narrative, though, I have become slightly more likely to purchase an F-150. Why? There’s value to me, and to my career, in the social signaling associated with owning an F-150, and that signaling value is what comes from advertising. By associating a product and/or brand with something in the viewer’s mind, we don’t convince them that those two are related on a conscious level. We do convince them that they can have that same thing associated with themselves (in the minds of others) by owning our product or using our brand via social signaling.


There’s a few interesting ideas that naturally result from considering advertising in this way that I’d like to leave you with. Thoughts on these or others? Let me know in the comments.

  • Do we always choose products and brands based exclusively on how we want to appear, or do we signal our identities also? Do we ever signal parts of our identities that we haven’t admitted explicitly to others? To ourselves?
  • Choosing a political party requires you to have made some decisions about your own political identity, but once you have chosen one the party in return will have an effect on you politically. Do brands have a similar effect on identity?
  • Does the subconscious association ever work directly on the ad consumer? Some evidence that it might: Aston Martin’s brand is substantially built on the James Bond movie franchise - Bond drives an Aston. People who’ve owned Astons, even substantially unreliable models, tend to come back to buying Astons. Here’s an anecdote (1:54-2:15):

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  • Does the increase in quantity and variety of advertising that the average person encounters have an effect on the specificity of their identity? Put another way, can we attribute any part of a (hypothetical) increase in individualism to advertising?
  • Does this constitute the majority of how modern people express their identity, and if so, how does this relate to consumerism?