How 100 years of Marketing has altered our Brains to Click & Live

When we think of the History of Marketing, we immediately think of iconic brands such as Coca-Cola and their sly campaigns and quirky slogans. However, advertising is much more ancient than that. Proper advertising most likely started with the evolution of religion. When certain ideas needed to be transmitted to the masses – symbolism, story-telling, motifs, etc., emerged, and with it advertising took birth.


Pick any temple or church that has been around for hundreds of years, and you will see the achievement of men carved on its walls, or painted on its ceilings. The combined effect of fear of God and the distraction that architectural splendor provided, made common folk flock to these religious places, thereby providing the necessary footfall to make it a legitimate advertising channel for the emperors.

This post is not going to be a timeline of the last hundred years in marketing. Rather, it is going to be an account of some of the iconic breakthroughs in the last 100 years that have altered our expectations as consumers, and also in effect changed how we lead our lives.

Desire – How People became their Things

I’ve never really believed in Maslow’s pyramid of motivation. For starters, it neatly packages human needs and then it goes on to ranking them. I don’t believe that humans have it together so well. The truth is that we haven’t a clue as to what our needs are. And this guy here is prioritizing them!

However, there was another gentleman by the name Ernest Dichter, who was known as the father of motivational research and was far more interesting. His work revolved around two things :

A) Bringing out the inner most desires of mankind, and

B) Using those desires to make them do what he wants.

He did this by way of using psycho analysis in market research and was the first to come up with the idea of focus groups. He was instrumental in developing the fundamentals of market research as we know and use it today. As everything starts with understanding the needs of the consumer, let us start with Dichter and his mass hypnosis.

Most of Dichter’s work was in the 1930s to 1960s. It was the time when the overabundance of consumer products was felt in the market. Competition among brands was picking up and there was a need to understand the whys. Using different combinations of logic, each brand put its best case forward, but they did not know why customers bought brand A and not brand B. Dichter’s methods of market research helped them find answers.


He concluded from his research that consumers did not respond to logic as expected. Instead they were driven by hidden fears, desires and insecurities that would be downright embarrassing to express. Armed with this learning, he toppled the world of advertising by using reason to help consumers mask their own irrationalities – the guilt of smoking a cigarette was offered as a reward, shape of typewriters were made curvier to mimic the shape of women, young girls’ longings to grow up into a beautiful princesses were realized through their Barbie dolls.

It was the success of the ivory soap campaign that cemented the learning that people wanted to define themselves through products with personality – a perfume that was sensual, an SUV that was macho, etc. Slowly the stuff that they owned started becoming an extension of the people who owned them. An expression of their ego. This was probably the most important realization in marketing history, because this marked the beginning of consumerism.

Addiction – How Things became Goals

first TV ad

The first ever TV ad was aired 76 years back, and it was for a watch manufacturer called Bulova. It was a 10 second play of an image and an announcement during some game of sport. Logic might dictate that advertisements are somehow counter-intuitive – that they are basically annoyances that you cluck your tongue at every time they show up in the middle of your favorite TV show. Yet, still they manage to influence purchase decisions. How? Through familiarity. Being exposed to something multiple times results in familiarity, and familiarity in turn leads to trust. Unconsciously we believe in the efficacy of these products. Additionally, TV makes it easy for us to register ads in our memory because it catered to two sensory inputs – sight and sound.

kelloggs children ad

The case study of how Kellogg’s used TV advertising to influence children is something of a classic. Struck by the novel advertising, children took to this particular brand of breakfast staple. Owing to high levels of sugar in cereal those days, addiction to Kellogg’s was commonplace. The fascinating aspect here is that, the childhood conditioning via repeated advertising made it difficult for them to part with the brand even after reaching adulthood.

Likewise we are constantly being conditioned by correlating two different types of stimuli, by repeated associations. In this case the happy hormones released by sugar consumption and Kellogg’s.

Inertia – A Life led by Click Heres

Marketers, in their pursuit for great user experience, have made everything fool proof and easy to use. Fool being the keyword. From packaging to parenting, we use quick start guides for everything. Life is being over-simplified. Our active involvement in decision making has started diminishing and we are getting used to pushing buttons to do life.

kids with smartphones

Continued use of websites, apps, and other digital equipment has taught us to look for signifiers. The best indicator of this is witnessing 5 year olds trying to swipe through everyday objects like they do on tablets and smartphones. Moreover, websites are designed in such a way that they pass the blink test – that is to say a person landing on a page should find what he/she is looking for in a blink of an eye. So we are getting used to this treatment. With our attention spans dwindling and our impatience ever increasing, we are starting to lose grip.

Hope – Virtual Living


This is where it starts to getting really weird, and all the brain in the vat theories start to make sense. Our made-up lives on Social Media have started to take over, and the line is ever so thin now. S03E01 of the TV series Black Mirror tells it as it is. Opinions HAVE to be polarized, if found otherwise, you are ostracized. Social obligations online have become so strangling that it also becoming synonymous to dinner time conversations with parents. Only in this case, your parents, grandparents, your parents friends, your friends’ parents, all are at once breathing down your neck. However, social media is still a good idea because it is a place of fantasy.

Happiness – Complete Loss of Control

Now for some Good news. We are moving towards the general direction of happiness. A world in which you really don’t have to trouble your brain with decisions. The world run by the Internet of Things. Using big data the objects in your living room will compute what is best for you. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the view. Complete lack of control over your life – that is what the future promises. Sounds like a dream doesn’t it?

50 years from now (if climate change hasn’t already destroyed earth by then), mankind would probably be a bunch of morons, completely unaware of how decisions are made. Not that we are any better today. Although to imagine that we will give the reins completely to a few lines of code is sort of unnerving.

In that scenario, will humans have the aforementioned fears, guilt, desires, insecurity, etc.? Will we lose all our complexity by giving into the ease of clicking and living?



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