Gordon Pinsent was on the radio, chatting about cheese curds, when things suddenly turned weird. This was in the middle of an advertisement for the fast-food restaurant New York Fries, and its butter chicken poutine dish. "Only the best ingredients coming together for something so perfect," Mr. Pinsent promised, in a soothing purr. And then his voice jumped an octave, and he began to coo: "Like finding the perfect pair of jeans for your kitten. Little designer ones that sit low on the hips, so that little kitten can work those little designer jeans all sassy-like. Yup: perfect."
When Julie Sedivy heard that the other day, she pronounced it wonderfully complex. "It starts out like a straight-up radio ad, with prototypical language and delivery - you know, we're talking about a new product, talking about its features," she observed, "and then abruptly just veers away and goes off into Crazyland."
Ms. Sedivy doesn't relate to ads the way most people do. That's because, as a professor of psychology, she has been using them for the past 15 years or so as a filter through which she believes we can better understand the process of human thought.
"So much of our cognition happens below the surface of awareness," she said, over the phone.
"Most people have the intuition that they make choices by sifting through the pros and cons using a very deliberate reasoning process, and that does happen at some level, but it also engages a system of thinking that's much more unconscious," she continued.
"It was partly an interest in that tension that spurred my own interest in thinking about advertising. Partly as a way to demonstrate how much it is about our own minds we don't know, and as a way to encourage people to be a little bit more aware of some of the mechanisms that are at work when people are persuaded."
Listening to the New York Fries ad, she suggested, is like driving down the road when something unusual pops into your peripheral vision and grabs your attention, triggering a primal reflex known as an orienting response.
"In a way, I think what this ad does is create a version of an auditory orienting response, and it does it by first playing along with your expectations of what a typical radio ad sounds like, and then violating those expectations abruptly. So, that would capture your attention in much the same way that you're walking down the street and you see a buttoned-up, conservative-looking businessman suddenly throw down his briefcase and start break-dancing," she said.
Currently an adjunct professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of Calgary, Ms. Sedivy has been teaching the psychology of persuasion since she was a doctoral candidate at the University of Rochester. Earlier this month, her first book arrived in stores, co-authored with her former academic adviser at Rochester, Greg Carlson.
Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You reinforces the notion that advertising is more than just simple communication for the sake of commerce: that it plays on our biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and all the other important subjects you thought you left behind when you fulfilled the humanities requirement of your undergraduate degree. If the book contains little original research, it smartly weaves together reams of studies from a variety of fields that marketers and agencies would do well to remember.
Let's stay with that New York Fries ad, by the Toronto agency Juniper Park, for another moment. In Sold on Language, Ms. Sedivy discusses the growing willingness of advertisers to allow audiences (a.k.a. consumers) to create the meaning of an ad.
"What that does psychologically is create a sense of internalization in the audience that wouldn't necessarily happen if you were just being told something about the product," she suggested. "Because you've kind of constructed the meaning yourself, you kind of share some responsibility for that message. And there's some evidence in the literature that when people connect the dots to arrive at a conclusion, that those conclusions are a little bit more robust than if they'd simply been told a conclusion."
Offering a puzzling, comical payoff (little kitten jeans riding low on the hips?) may deepen the engagement even more. Human beings naturally seek out puzzles - whether newspaper crosswords, subway sudoku, or in ads. "Incongruity warms up the same part of the brain that responds to the kinds of things people are often in hot pursuit of: food, sex, money, drugs, and beauty," Ms. Sedivy writes in the book. "And some scientists think that humour, which depends on incongruity, has evolved as a special kind of reward for heavy cognitive lifting."
Still, it's not all fun and games and poutine and pussycats; marketing, after all, sells more than just stuff for people to buy. This weekend, Canadians may see the official kickoff to a federal election campaign that inevitably will be filled with all manner of messaging - and some very careful wordsmithing that will likely be influenced by the research of Ms. Sedivy and others in her field.
In Sold on Language, Ms. Sedivy writes about the way former U.S. president Bill Clinton altered his rhetoric while running for re-election in 1996. After research indicated voters were skeptical of his direct boasts, he began framing them as presuppositions: Rather than claiming he'd created "seven million jobs," he said in speeches that he wanted to pass a tax deduction for college tuition because, "the seven million jobs we've created won't be much use if we can't find educated people to fill them."
"Really subtle wording changes can have the sense of creating this impression that there's a consensus about a particular issue," said Ms. Sedivy. Are people - consumers and citizens alike - as aware of those tactics as we think we are? On the morning that Ms. Sedivy and I spoke, she had just read an editorial in a local Calgary paper which scoffed at the idea that politicians might be able to persuade voters of something "through superficial tricks of messaging."
"I think, for the most part, people still have the belief that their responses are often consciously reasoned out, when they may not be, entirely," she said. The reality, in which we may be, "pushed around by these unconscious drives and forces … is very threatening. What happens to the notion of democracy, and a free market? Those are deeply, deeply threatening ideas."