Psychology in Advertising: Part 1

Have you ever wondered how the advertisements that you see everywhere came to be?  How did the teams working on them decide on the colors, the phrases, and the overall look of the ad?  There are of course many factors in this decision-making process, but one that you might not realize is an important factor is psychology.  

That’s right, those advertisements you see in magazines, on TV, and as you’re scrolling through social media are impacted by psychology.  Psychology is all about getting inside your head and understanding how you think, and companies often apply those principles to their ads.  

What are some of the most common psychological principles being used in ads today that you might not have even noticed?  We’re diving into 4 of them below.

1. Right and Left Brain Processing Fluency

As you may or may not know, the two halves of your brain focus on different types of processing.  The left brain processes analytically and logically, while the right brain is where creative functioning takes place.  Businesses often use this to determine placement within their ads.  

The things you see tend to be processed by the opposite side of your brain than the area they are located in your field of vision.  So, visuals are best processed when on the left side, and words are easier processed on the right side of your view.  A research study conducted in 2015 confirmed that ads with visuals on the left and words on the right are in fact processed more quickly and easily.  

Below are a couple of examples.  You can see companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Olive Garden applying the principles of brain processing fluency to shape the way their ads look.

2. Colors and Emotions

Brands can also work with color in their advertisements to shape the way the viewers are feeling.  Numerous studies have been conducted showing that humans tend to associate certain colors with specific traits and emotional states.  Here are some of the most common traits people attribute to the colors red, green, and black.  

  • Red: passion, energy, strength, love, power, determination, intensity, anger, excitement, appetite stimulant. 
  • Green: growth, health, harmony, safety, nature, calm, refreshed.
  • Black: power, strength mystery, elegance, evil, mourning, death, confident, calm, stable, mysterious.

These color associations are especially important for brands in their logos.  They want people to feel and think a certain way when seeing their logo – they want their logo to express important aspects of their brands.  Take a look at the way colors play a role in the following logos.

3. Priming Cues

It probably makes sense to most of us that companies choose to advertise their products via mediums that are related to their offerings.  Women’s beauty magazines often feature ads for perfume, makeup, and high-fashion designers, while children’s television channels usually show advertisements for games and toys.  Intuitively, it makes sense to promote your product or service in a place where your intended audience is most likely to see it.  But this is an even better idea because of something called priming cues. 

People take in and process information better when they have been primed by something similar. After seeing a picture of a hamburger, our brains are more likely to think about a hot dog or fries than if we had not seen that picture of food. By placing advertisements in locations where the content aligns well, marketers are able to apply this principle. Our brains will process a makeup ad more quickly after reading an article about beauty tips than we would after reading an article about fishing. This helps viewers take in more information from the ad, and they are thus more likely to remember seeing it and think about it next time they’re considering making a makeup purchase. 

4. Principles of Persuasion: Authority and Consensus

Finally, companies rely on some of the 6 principles of persuasion developed by Robert Cialdini to enhance the effectiveness of their ads. Cialdini developed these principles as a way to explain the conditions under which people are most easily persuaded.  They offer a framework for the way speech within an advertisement can be written to be most influential.

The two principles that are most often seen in ads are Authority and Consensus. Authority is the idea that the more powerful, or well-educated someone is on a given subject, the more likely you are to believe what they say about it.  Have you ever seen a toothpaste advertisement with the phrase “dentist recommended” or “Approved by the American Dental Association”? In this case, dentists are the authority on cleaning your teeth.  If dentists say a given product is effective, that can persuade you to believe it as well. 

Consensus is the idea that if everyone else is doing or saying something, you feel you should be doing or saying the same as well.  If everyone in your life agrees that a certain brand of screwdrivers is the best, you will probably also buy that brand next time you need a screwdriver.  Companies can use this in their advertisements by collecting a group of customers to speak on their experiences.  They can try to give you the sense that everyone is using their product or service, so you should too.   

We hope all the examples above provide you with a bit of insight into the ways psychology is working in advertisements.  Check back next week for part 2, where we’ll be sharing even more examples of psychology in advertising!


(Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of influence) Cialdini R, Cliffe S. The uses (and abuses) of influenceHarv Bus Rev. 2013;91(7-8):76‐132



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