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The Effects of Advertising on the Human Brain

Lisa dedicates her life to studying the behaviours of others. She is currently completing her MA in Counselling Psychology.


The purpose of an advertisement is to alter the state of the human mind. Without the method of manipulation incorporated into the marketer’s strategies, their operations would be quite ineffective. As unsettling as it may be to comprehend that the media sources we tend to absorb on a daily basis are modifying our brain’s activity simply by acknowledging them, advertisements continue to have a massively important impact on the health of the economy and product development. It would be quite difficult to exist within the free market economy without readily knowing what products are out there in order for one to successfully thrive under a capitalist structure.

With that said, capitalism relies on advertisements to keep it operative. Without the constant performance of supply and demand (which relies on advertisements as a type of catalyst), the system would crash. Capitalists rely on growing profits, and to achieve this, the public must continue to consume. Marketers have developed techniques to subconsciously encourage the public to continuously buy their products; this is a form of manipulation, targeting the automatic subconscious with associations that successively cause a response in the viewer (Weiten & McCann, 2016). Psychological manipulation is commonly considered a form of maltreatment within human relationships, yet companies around the globe are doing it to anyone who has access to the Internet or steps outside of their house. This unavoidable bombardment of commercial endorsements conditions and persuades people, commonly out of their will, which can have vast effects on one’s well-being and mental health.

Although advertisements do help to keep the economy healthy and assist with product development to better serve the public, advertisements have become an institutionalized notion of manipulation as companies commonly use covert methods to cunningly persuade the public into consuming products within the free market, consequently altering their brain activity and quality of mental well-being without their knowledge. “The job of a new brand is to create new synapses through experience and advertising, whereas an old brand, no matter how old, simply needs to refresh synapses already in place.” (Ambler et al., 2000).

Persuasion and Conditioning

The action of persuasion can be done extremely effectively, especially if one understands the two basic routes to persuasion: the central route and the peripheral route. These two routes pertain to how an advertisement’s content processes itself within the brain. Stated by Gilovich et al. (2019), the central route occurs in connection to the quality of the advertisement, or the level of understanding that the viewer has concerning the material presented; a logical judgement. The peripheral route is connected to the advertisement’s level of allure and superficial cues; a thoughtless judgement. Both of these cues can be used either together or interchangeably, depending on what the marketer believes to be the most effective method for the specific product that they are attempting to sell.

Peripheral persuasion is usually more effective among those who are distracted, do not understand the message portrayed in the advertisement, or are simply not interested in the product (Gilovich et al., 2019). Yet, the advertisement can still have an effect on them as nonrational influences are open for personal interpretation (Cook et al., 2011). For example, if one glances at an advertisement with a celebrity on it that they find particularly attractive, their eyes will be drawn to the advertisement, triggering their cognitive processing in relation to the product displayed alongside the celebrity (Myers & Spencer, 2006). Stimuli that produces a positive response (some examples being elegant scenery, upbeat music, animals, or physically appealing bodies) in the viewer is one of the keys to a successful advertisement as it causes the viewer to then associate their product with a feeling or pleasure or comfort (Weiten & McCann, 2016).

Central persuasion is usually more effective among those who find the product to be personally relevant to them or have knowledge within that particular domain (Gilovich et al., 2019). Generally, advertisements in popular culture tend to follow a primarily peripheral route as the creators of the advertisements are trying to appeal to a vast audience, so it is therefore more difficult for them to create an effective, persuasive message at such a broad level that must effectively pertain to so many different people.

One may conclude that because peripheral persuasion techniques cannot be effective as they do not contain as much evidence as central persuasion techniques do. But as Gilovich et al. (2019) presents, an effect occurs that can balance this out called the sleeper effect: an effect that occurs when a non-credible source originally does not cause an effect on the subject but eventually causes their views to shift. This occurs due to a dissociation over a period of time between the source of the advertisement and the message within the advertisement itself. Gilovich et al. (2019) also states the potency of peripheral persuasion due to the identifiable victim effect: the impulse to be more highly influenced by content that portrays the predicaments of a few individuals rather than rational statistics. Companies like UNICEF or the SPCA commonly rely on the identifiable victim effect to create a wave of guilt in the viewer for not contributing to their cause by providing a form of payment to their business.

A well-known psychological phenomenon that is an effective method for advertising is Pavlovian classical conditioning. According to Petri & Govern (2013), this is a process where a previously neutral stimulus progresses into a generated response from the person as it has become associated with a separate stimulus that naturally generated the same response in the past. Classical conditioning includes an unconditioned stimulus, an unconditioned response, and a conditioned stimulus, which all synergize to cause the conditioned response. We can infer the process of classical conditioning in specific regards to advertising based on Petri & Govern’s (2013) expertise: the advertisement itself is the unconditioned stimulus as it has an effect on the behaviour of the viewer that was done instinctively. The cognitive effect on the viewer from the advertisement is the unconditioned response, specifying the instinctiveness of this response to the unconditioned stimulus. The positive stimuli within the advertisement is the conditioned stimulus as, though formerly neutral, it refined itself (due to the unconditioned stimulus) to have the ability to create a response called the conditioned response: the change in behaviour due to the impact that the advertisement had on the viewer via classical conditioning. This process is passive in manner, meaning that if the environment is right, we can be conditioned whether we want it to happen or not. This directly ties into the hypothesis that advertisements are a strong form of manipulation as a lot of the time viewers are unaware that they are being conditioned.


Neuromarketing and Areas of the Brain

Neuromarketing, according to Bringer (2013), is a specific sales technique used to control the brain, developed to spark a sense of motive within the mind. It plays on the subconscious to encourage you to buy something through manipulative techniques. But according to Cook et al. (2011), regardless of the technique used, the stimuli that is presented outside of the conscious mind are formatted to manipulate the viewer by targeting one’s autonomic arousal or emotional state, making it biologically more difficult for the subject to reject the effects that the advertisement will have on them. This is especially true as emotional information is prioritized within the brain. Commonly, when someone solely sees a product within a store, an emotional peak becomes present within the brain (Bringer, 2013). This emotional peak effects different areas of the brain, some more than others.

According to Bringer (2013), the area of the brain responsible for creating this type of excitement is the prefrontal cortex. Major brands like to use methods which target the prefrontal cortex to subconsciously cause the viewer to associate their selling product with positive cognitions, changing the pattern of brain activity to cause the viewer to believe that they really enjoy the product when in actuality they might find it to be mediocre or simply not like it at all. This kind of advertising is processed in a series of stages where each step opens the door to the next: cognition --> affect --> behaviour (Ambler et al., 2000). The advertisement causes your mind to think about it, and if that is effective, it will create certain emotions pertaining to the advertised product. If those emotions are strong enough or positive in form, one will be inclined to act upon it and purchase the product. Evidently, the beta activity within both hemispheres of the brain rise when viewing an advertisement from either a paper source or a virtual source (Weinstein et al., 1980).

The parts of the brain primarily associated with emotion and memory (key functions regarding how advertisements can impact the brain) are the limbic association cortex, as well as the cingulate gyrus, the area around the hippocampus, and the amygdala (Ambler et al., 2000). The emotional state that can occur from viewing an advertisement directly impacts the amygdala and the ventro-medial frontal lobes, which assists in the registration and ability to remember a certain advertisement and the way it made one feel while exposed to it (Ambler et al., 2000). Advertisements are made to target these primarily emotional centres of the brain as that increases the association that one will keep between how they felt and the product trying to be sold, as people tend to remember enjoyable and entertaining advertisements; the more pleasure the better it is (Ling et al., 2010). Advertisements also target emotional centres of the brain as manipulation seems to work best if emotions are involved. It would be difficult to manipulate someone using solely logic and statistics.

Within the brain lies the reward circuit: sections within the brain that are responsible for motivational salience and emotions involving contentment as their main characteristic. Although it is a small region, it encompasses a massive imprint on our actions, thoughts, and emotions. As Bringer (2013) states, the reward circuit lies deep within the limbic system, which includes the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens contains a high amount of dopamine (the “feel-good” hormone), so when one even just glances at a product that seems appealing to them or has effective branding, the reward circuit of the brain lights up causing one to be even more so inclined to make the purchase. Even if subjects have no conscious recall of what they viewed within an advertisement or the product itself, neurophysiologic activity can still be changed within the subconscious regarding their judgment of the advertisement or product (Cook et al., 2011).

The way that some people choose to view advertising is not always represented through a negative lens. Advertisements are needed for the economy to remain intact and for products to continue to develop successfully and efficiently. Advertising helps to accelerate the production of new products or improvements on already existing ones, encourages opportunities for employment, and elevates the standard of living (Ling et al., 2010). Internet advertisements are becoming increasingly common. According to Kiang & Chi (2001), this is particularly due to its ability to provide timely information and instant communication between buyers and sellers, and a smoother process when adjusting certain promotions or sales. Web advertising also allows the sellers to gather information on their customers, permitting the business to better their product development in accordance to their customers’ specific needs or desires. A healthy economy and product development is important while wishing to succeed within the free market, but that does not take away the fact that the methods used by a lot of corporations are unethical towards the public.

Mental Health and Wellness

Advertising can take a toll on consumer well-being because of its manipulative and sometimes invasive techniques. LeBesco (2013) speaks to the importance of creating and supporting more complex representations within advertisements to aid in the reduction of ill economic practices and taking responsibility as our own people with how we allow advertisements to be portrayed and represented. Advertisements are targeting the desires of the public (material, emotional, social, or physical) to make sure that they can satisfy them by providing them with their sale product (Lou & Tse, 2020). These components effect consumer well-being, which then consequently effect consumer behaviour, supporting the claim that advertisements disregard the negative impacts that their advertisements can have on their viewers and are simply in it to manipulate the public’s minds to make a profit. There needs to be an increase in the analyzing of these psychological mechanisms that companies are using to manipulate the public from academic researchers, health professionals, and industry practitioners in order to assist in the dismantling of harmful and unavoidable exposure to capitalist schemes (Lou & Tse, 2020).

Advertisements that are selling products that pertain to beauty or bodily enhancements can be particularly damaging, with multiple studies evidencing a connection between women’s exposure to thin models and their own bodily dissatisfaction or disordered eating, anxiety, and low self-esteem (Lou & Tse, 2020). Certain messages from companies can be punishing or encourage unattainable goals that can lead to personal impairment. The linking of economic status and beauty standards aids capitalism yet faults the person trying to exist within capitalism. “Diet and fitness industries prey upon the very insecurities that they help to create, reaping billions of dollars in annual revenue as a result.” (LeBesco, 2013).

According to Lou & Tse (2020), each person has their own four elements of self-concept: actual self, ideal self, social self, and the ideal social self. These four elements impact consumer behaviours as people tend to strive for reinforcement of their self-concepts by choosing brands which exhibit their ambitions in order to subconsciously protect their identity. The manipulation of advertisements assists in the utilization of increasing the public’s brand attitudes, preferences, and purchase objectives.


It has been demonstrated and established that psychological manipulation and neuromarketing prevails as a primary method for merchants. The notion of manipulation is often regarded as a highly negative concept, but it does not seem to be applicable when it comes to making a profit. Money continues to be placed above the importance of a person’s well-being and their access to essential items, curbing people’s ideas surrounding the exploitation that comes with advertising. This relates to the strive towards human equity; making an acknowledgment to the abuse of power that those in the top percentages of the world’s socioeconomic status continue to take advantage of. Complying with these selfish and underhanded actions further encourages acts of economic benefit being more imperative than acts regarding one’s equal opportunity to prosperity and fundamental rights.

There is no doubt that a full omission of advertisements is wholly unrealistic and impractical. The point that is being made is to recognize the greed and egocentric platform that advertisements are being created and published upon. Considering that a multitude of companies have the habit of denying use of neuromarketing techniques, it becomes apparent that marketing methods are clearly not very ethical in their modes of production and practice. Keeping neuromarketing techniques a secret from the public allows merchants to better capitalize their business as consumers then do not know what to look for; marketing manipulation is hidden in plain sight. These profiteering and unscrupulous schemes of neuromarketing within advertising need to be recognized and sanctioned to the general public as unacceptable before public notices of sales become even more unethical and rapacious. While advertising helps to keep the economy safe and leads to product creation in order to better benefit the consumer, advertising has become an entrenched notion of coercion as corporations typically use clandestine methods to persuade the public to continue to heavily purchase goods on the free market, thus altering their brain activity and quality of mental well-being.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Lisa Hallam