There’s a Good Reason Media, Marketing, and Advertising Feel Like Life and Death

December 18, 2017 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Life and Death.

Love and Hate.

Sex and Violence.

For good or bad, these are the primal forces that shape and influence everything around us including advertising, marketing and media. Renowned authors like Hugo, Hemingway, and Haley understood it. So did composers like Beethoven, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. Movie directors clearly get it. When was the last time you saw a movie without love or hate at the center? Or for that matter, a television show? Just look at what we’re binging: The Walking Dead. The Big Bang Theory. How to Get Away With Murder. This is Us. Game of Thrones. Hate. Love. Hate. Love. Hate AND Love.

None of this is new, of course. But as marketing agencies, advertising agencies, and media agencies, what is new—if we’re willing to pay attention—are the subtle yet impactful social psychology implications of getting our creative messaging and media placement just right.

Anyone who’s been in our business long enough to have a cup of coffee has heard “sex sells” and study after study has shown that to be true. Both sexual and violent stimuli indeed have a unique ability to grab our attention and alter our actions. But what we’re discovering now is that even the subtlest cues can change our behavior.

Take, for instance, the French study Robert Cialdini describes in his new bestseller “PRE-Suasion.” In it, an attractive young woman is directed to ask two sets of middle-aged men she meets on the street to help retrieve her phone from a group of four young thugs who had stolen it from her. In the first set, 20 percent of the men agreed to help her. But in the second set, more than twice that number agreed to help. The difference? Prior to meeting the young woman on the street, the men were each approached by another woman asking for directions. For the first set of men, the woman asked for help finding “Martin Street.” But in the second group, she asked about finding “Valentine Street.” Even the mere mention of “Valentine,” a name associated with a holiday centered around love, sexuality, and virility, altered the bravery and behavior of the men in the second group by a margin of two to one.

Clearly, much of how we act is hard wired even when we don’t consciously realize it. But what Cialdini found is that how we are primed before that action can absolutely alter it. That presents a huge opportunity for us to increase the effectiveness of both marketing and advertising. The question is how.


For more than half a century, we’ve understood how crucial the marriage is between creative content and media placement. But in many cases, media placement was predicated on who the audience was (female, 18-49, single, college educated, income of $55,000 plus) rather than how that audience may be feeling, or how they might interact with the message being presented. Beyond that, it was often too expensive to shoot, edit, and place different versions of the creative to match the buy. On its face, that seems like a lot of variables to control. But maybe not.

In “PRE-Suasion,” Cialdini describes a second experiment that offers great insight into this challenge of getting message and placement exactly right. In the experiment, an ad was created stressing the popularity of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The copy in the spot took an inclusive approach touting the museum as a place “visited by more than a million people each year.” When the spot ran after violent programming, attendance soared. But when the spot was placed after a romantic comedy, attendance tanked. Why? Evolutionarily, when threatened, we yearn to be part of a group for protection. But when sexually stimulated, we prefer instead to be with one other person. The frightening content prompted viewer’s brains to signal a move toward the masses and the Museum “visited by millions” offered just such a place. When the romance triggered signals to be alone, the Museum’s message was incongruent and never landed.

To test the other side of the theory, Cialdini’s group ran a second spot for the Museum, this time leading with a message that suggested the SFMoMA was a place to “stand out from the crowd.” This time, the results completely flipped. The people watching the horror movie weren’t drawn to the museum at all, while the people watching the love story were suddenly moved to visit. Subconsciously, the romantic comedy viewers wanted to be anywhere but in the middle of a big crowd and the copy led them right to the perfect place—a museum patronized by people looking to stand alone.


It’s a difficult thing being this mindful about the media plans and the work we create for our clients, crafting every word, and making sure they play to the most receptive audience. Take a spot like Natalie Portman’s beautiful “What Would You Do For Love?” spot for Miss Dior perfume. You could make a rational argument that placing that spot in “The Walking Dead” could be great counter programming. Strong female characters. Strong female fan base. Strong female protagonist as the brand spokesperson. Sure. Perfume could work. Except evolution and social psychology suggest there’s a much greater chance it won’t.

This is the beautiful blend of art and science in media placement. It’s not quick and it’s not easy. But when we understand the why, in addition to the who and the what, we give our clients and our agencies a far greater chance to succeed, and the viewer a far better opportunity to connect with what we’re selling.

AIMEE HERRON is the Media Director at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog

advertising agencyAimee Herronchallenger brand marketingLoomismarketing agencymedia agencymedia buyingMedia DirectorMedia PlanningPRE-SuasionRobert CialdiniThe Loomis Agencyvoice of the underdog

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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