4 Seconds Or Less

Imagine you have four seconds or less to sell a product on TV (or YouTube). What do you do? Do you start with your company logo? Do you start with pictures of the product in action? Or a famous celebrity/ sports star / politician? A catchy jingle?

The answer is: none of the above. Ads use all of the above elements, but that’s not the most important thing.

In this post, I’m going to do something I generally hate: deconstruct something. I’m going to make an exception when it comes to ads. Unless you are an ad maker or have a vested interest in your product, you are like me: change the channel. This is true especially for political ads or products I have no interest in buying. I write this so that the next time you see an ad, you know exactly what is happening.

You can use this deconstruction for process for all types of products. It really does not matter, whether it’s for insurance, a law firm, a car company, travel and hotel, or political ads.

What ads makers are doing in the first four seconds is to convince you of two things: one, keep watching the ad, and two, associate good feelings with the company or product.

Let me give you an example of how they want you to keep watching. Geico’s latest run of ads show a new homeowner (or renter) and his wife. They begin like this: “This house (apartment) is nice with “X” features, but we have a “Y” problem.” We’re hooked: what’s the “Y” problem? It turns out it is a clever word play: a “rat” problem is really a rock band called “The Ratts”. An “ant” problem is really a bunch of nosy “aunts”; for some Americans, ant/ aunt are pronounced the same. Do you see how they convinced to keep watching instead of changing the channel?

What about good feelings?

By going to your heart, they bypass the rational, cognitive side that might otherwise reject the “product”. (This is even more true for political ads.) Neurobiologists call this the “low road”. We react emotionally in milliseconds while our cognition (high road) takes twice as long. When a hot girl smiles at me, my very male brain does not have to tell my mouth to smile back. It’s the same with negative emotions. The ads makers are not stupid; they want your heart before your head.

A few years ago, I read a provocative blog post: ads are not about the product. Ads are trying to drum up good (or bad) feelings about the product. Let’s look at the car company Subaru. Subaru’s tagline is: “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru.” That is slick. Like all car companies, they show the car driving from Point A to Point B. What they focus on is the average American families talking about how much they love Subaru. During the Christmas season, Subaru augments the feeling by highlighting all the charities they also support. Does it matter which car they want to sell? Not really. They want you to have good feelings about the company.

Political ads do the opposite; they want to drum up good feelings about their candidate while painting their opponent in the most negative light. Both Republicans and Democrats do this. Have you ever notice this? If they are showing the political opponent, they are always shown in muted colors? Meanwhile, the candidate always is shown in vivid, “normal” colors? Our brain is drawn to vivid colors. No matter how rational we think we are, the use of colors subtly affect our decisions.

Why go for the heart? Answer: They don’t want you to think.

They don’t want you to start challenging the ad’s assumptions. Take this Joe Biden ad with a whole bunch of doctors being interviewed about the current COVID-19 crisis. If you have seen it and really thought about it, you’ll see there are 2, 3 assumptions it made that they DON’T want you to challenge. In one statement, they made the assumption that all COVID-19 deaths are unnecessary; had President Trump did a better job, no American would have died. Biden would have done it different. I see a lot of arrogance – that all deaths are preventable. Really? Everyone dies and rarely does anyone ever gets to choose how they die. When it is your time, no amount of doctors can change it.

Second, Biden would listen to the experts. Here’s an assumption: all experts are right. Talk to any trial lawyer; both sides hire their own experts who will testify on their client’s behalf. Both sides believe their experts are right. What happens if the experts are wrong? Time and time again, it’s been shown that humans are hard wired to trust someone who remotely looks like an expert. See a woman in a lab coat? She must be a doctor and thus intelligent. What would you do if you found out that an expert was wrong?

Regardless of your political affiliation, race, or gender, your brain needs to get into gear quickly if you do not want to be easily swayed by whatever you see or hear. That might take more than 4 seconds. We humans make a lot of snap decisions. Sadly, many of our decisions are based on incomplete analyses or gut feelings. Worse, we might have been manipulated into making a decision without ever realizing we have been manipulated in the first place.

Once you start to think critically about what you see and hear, and I mean, really, really think, your decision-making processes will have more basis in reality.

5 thoughts on “4 Seconds Or Less

  1. This is a fascinating post and I agree totally! With the right words, the right inflection, the right images, you can motivate people to swallow just about anything.
    A few decades ago I read a book by Vance Packard, titled, The Hidden Persuaders. He was writing about the motivational research and marketing that started in the 1950s, and he explores much the same territory you do in this post.
    He describes a very clever tactic used by the makers of hats, after the research showed that men bought one hat and it did them for thirty years — or until it fell apart. This was NOT good for hat sales. Rather than advertise new hats they coins and spread a new phrase: “As old as last year’s hat.” Men got the message — or more likely their wives did. (Research revealed that advertising has a lot more motivating effect on women than men.)

    1. I never knew that about hats. I am one of those men who rarely buy new hats or any new clothing. Just wear them until they fall apart.

      BTW, the NatGeo Channel had several interesting documentaries about how our brain works. One was called “Your &$** up Brain” (obviously, they still can’t curse with even today’s censors) and the other was called “Brain Games.” The host asked the average person to solve problems, all to demonstrate how or why we failed to answer them. It’s no fun if you’ve done it before but to see others fall into the same traps, that’s comedy.

      1. This hat scam happened in the 1950s, a long time ago. Men pretty much quit buying formal hats once men’s hair styling came in, mid-60s.
        I think Mr Packard saw this MR approach deceptive so was warning folks to not let themselves be manipulated, but he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
        We don’t have a TV; got rid of ours in 1974, so hopefully have avoided some of this manipulation. It shocks me how far into blatant lies the media has gotten and feels totally justified. RE: some of the political examples you give; it’s been pretty obvious that certain ones were out to destroy Trump and anything could be turned, twisted, stated in such a way, so he was always shown int he worst possible light. He was single-handedly responsible for fires, hurricanes, and probably even the lack of life on Mars.

      2. Yes, I agree with you. The leftist media really do not like Trump. While I am not a huge fan of President Trump as a person, there are certain things he did that I agree with and respect. Some of Trump’s picks for his cabinet were “interesting” while others were great. VP Pentz and Secretary of State Pompeo were men whom I admire after I learned their backgrounds.

        Wow, you got rid of your TV a long time ago. 🙂 I wasn’t even alive then.

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