Advertising is more than the copy and art on your favorite magazine’s inside cover. That ad is made by an industry that straddles the gap between Art’s and Science’s hands as they approach for a handshake. It’s an industry that uses a scientific approach to human behavior and psychology, in order to create art that effects behavioral change. The websites it develops, the commercials it produces and the press coverage it generates are based on research-heavy understandings of you, the wallet holder. What you see on your screen is often born from behavioral models that bridge the Art and Science gap.
Advertising’s formal advent into human behavioral science is traced back to 1898, when the first known model depicting the theoretical journey a customer takes before purchasing an item was recorded. The AIDA Model, which later evolved into the Purchase Funnel, posits that every customer who wants to buy something starts at the funnel’s wide top with a number of brand options. As need or interest increases, he or she follows the linear path towards the stem, removing brands from the consideration set until a single brand remains, which is then purchased.
Marketers using this research-supported model followed the image’s suggestion and assumed their customers methodologically made purchasing decisions. They reasoned that awareness’s and interest’s position at the funnel’s top meant they must be achieved in order to survive the customer’s narrowing of the funnel. And their ads reflected this thinking. VW’s “Think Small” ad, considered one of the most memorable ad campaigns of the 20th century (Ad Age), is a prime example. When seen as a whole, the ad’s visual simplicity draws the eye to the advertisement’s only two images — the car and the logo — bringing attention, or awareness, to their existence as independent yet intertwined entities. The “Think Small” copy was meant to spark interest and ensure a position at the beginning of the funnel amongst baby boomers who were buying larger cars than ever before to fit their growing families (Bizjournal). VW’s awareness- and interest- focused ad guaranteed a spot in the funnel’s final stages.
The ad was a success and set a new standard for advertising strategies at the time. In the nearly sixty years between its appearance and today, human behavior, analytic understanding of behavior, and advertising’s artistic creations to reach customers have evolved. The internet, arguably a prominent catalyst behind much of the change, created whole new venues for consumers to explore and discover and gave advertisers a completely new environment to communicate both to and with customers. It dated the AIDA Model and spurred McKinsey to create the Consumer Decision Journey, a new model that stands out for its theories as well as its fairly wide acceptance (1).
The now-spherical model no longer depicts the customer as a purely rational and methodological purchaser. Rather the changes, as McKinsey argues, incorporates the internet-using customer’s non-linear behavior and expectations. These customers who use sites like Amazon tend to add rather than subtract options as they get closer to purchase, negating the funnel’s linearity as well as distinct stages and a cohesive path to purchase (McKinsey). Behavioral targeting and recommendations, an advertising reaction to – as well as catalyst of – the changes are emblematic of the ad industry’s understanding of the digitally savvy. How many times have you gone to Amazon with a single brand in mind and then found yourself with more than 5 recommendation-fueled tabs on your browser with brands or products you never knew existed?
The parallel evolution from Purchase Funnel and “Think Small” to where we stand today reflects both the change in purchase behavior as well as advertising’s understanding of how people buy. What was once thought to be structured and linear is now circular and vague, a sentiment echoed by today’s most renowned decision-making researchers and advertisers (2). The funnel’s creator could never have conceived an advertiser’s ability to enter a customer’s life with a message that appropriately addresses where he or she is in the purchase process. Nor could he in the late-19th century have guessed that most consumers would willingly add products to their consideration set.
As ideas and technology evolve at an ever-faster pace, advertisers will have brought their version of art-and-science to a new place in the not-so-distant future, where theoretically you and your desire to buy will be. After all, the process that you take before you reach into your pocket for your wallet is our fuel for creation.
(1) Numerous models have been suggested over the years but the Consumer Decision Journey stands out as both a widely accepted and wildly divergent model from the original AIDA model. For a more thorough history of the models, see Thomas E. Barry’s 1987 article “The Development of the Hierarchy of Effects: A Historical Perspective” published in the Current Issues and Research in Advertising journal.
(2) Daniel Kahneman’s dual process theory, for instance, supports the idea that people aren’t always rational consumers. For more information, see his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.