How Advertising Works

A lot of people like to say that advertising doesn't "work" on them—that, as rational beings, they're not likely to be swayed by advertising. And yet, companies spend billions on advertising every year.

What work is done by advertising for these companies?

Kevin Simler identifies some of the ways that advertising influences consumer behaviours and mindsets:

  • Advertising raises awareness: It alerts or reminds us that a product exists and what it does;
  • Advertising persuades: It presents an argument for the product or brand being advertised, perhaps through an appeal to authority (9 out of 10 dentists recommend...);
  • Advertising makes promises: It explicitly (through a guarantee or warranty) or implicitly (through a relationship of trust cultivated by the brand) promises something to win the trust of the consumer;
  • Advertising provokes emotion: It induces an emotional response with us such that the product then becomes associated with that emotion;
  • Advertising signals: It assures us, simply by existing, that the product or services is trustworthy. That is, if it can afford advertising, it must have something going for it;
    • This is perhaps a kind of conspicuous consumption: a huge billboard suggests that "We're so confident in our product that we're willing to spend on a giant billboard promoting it."
    • Byron sharp suggests, too, that advertising acts as a signal that the brand is financially secure and therefore reliable.
  • Advertising [[Advertising changes the cultural meaning of products|changes how we are perceived by others]]: Simler calls this "cultural imprinting" and suggests that advertising creates narratives that we use to fashion ourselves to others
    • See also Sharp, who suggests that people use brands to signal to others



Sharp, Byron. How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know. Illustrated edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Simler, Kevin. “Ads Don’t Work That Way.” Melting Asphalt (blog). Accessed November 22, 2020.