July 12, 2018

How do advertising and evolutionary theory connect?



The advertising industry is often held up as the posterchild for the wastage, excesses, and manipulations of modern-day capitalism. However, what many people fail to appreciate is just how much advertising, in one form or another, has been heavily influencing the origin and evolution of  species since the dawn of time. This blog takes a look at how advertising perennially manifests itself in nature, how it disproportionately shapes our interactions with one another, and how we might ultimately leverage the principles of  evolutionary theory in a bid to create more effective advertising.


Advertising in nature

A definition of advertising is ‘to notify (someone) of something’. Ethan Decker PhD, an ecologist who moved into advertising, has shown the parallels been advertising and evolution.  Species advertise their genes, nutrition, danger and health. And we see it everywhere: peacocks are a clear example of having features (beautiful feathers) which have little benefit apart from signalling to a potential mate. We also see this is in deer’s antlers to fight off males to attract females; equally, brightly coloured flowers are to advertise to pollinators. And of course, there is deceptive advertising, with many animals showing black and yellow colours to promote danger with no actual ability to do so.

We see this ‘advertising’ in humans. As studies have even shown we are more attracted to individuals with symmetry as it signals genetic quality and developmental stability. This advertising is called sexual selection, a conspicuous way to advertise.

Image result for deer antler

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How we all advertise as humans

Advertising in humans evidently doesn’t just stop at genetics. ‘Peacocking’ means we show signals to our social groups through symbols. For example, a Rolex indicates having resources and money. We merge and adapt into our own environments so that different symbols are more useful in some contexts than others. For example, for an academic, intellect is valued and dressing like a Banker, may not be appropriate and be viewed as superficial. The materials we choose to present ourselves aren’t superficial but symbolic.

Advertising is not just entertainment, but it is useful to navigate the invisible. When deciding which brands to use, we are trying to guess which one will give you what you want. You are guessing at the invisible – so you use the visible to navigate which qualities you value and want, just as seen in nature. Advertising uses the visible to understand the invisible, like every species. Decker concludes ‘Advertising isn’t evil it’s nature’.


How we use evolutionary theory principles to make effective advertising?

So, we know we’re hardwired to look out for certain signals. And we would not have survived as a species if we had not paid attention to certain stimuli. In particular, faces are very important for humans. Faces signal health, genetics but especially emotion which has allowed empathy and co-operation, which has played a large part in our survival. 

There are plenty of examples where we can tap into these evolutionary principles through advertising. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is through emotion. Many advertisers tap into the importance of emotion, especially our own examples of Cadbury, O2 and CompareTheMarket including adorable animals. Research into ‘What Makes Online Content Go Viral?’ found that an increase in emotional salience made a New York Times article 18% more likely to reach the ‘most emailed’ list. And you are twice as likely to recall adverts two weeks later if they are emotional. Emotive advertising is not a new phenomenon, with many recognising the effectiveness of it, but the evolutionary theory can help us understand why it is so effective. 



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Ultimately, by understanding that advertising is present in nature and the extent to which evolution has shaped us, we dramatically improve our chances of creating work that appeals to the ape in all of us!

Stay Curious





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Team Curious

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