“Just Do It”. Nike’s iconic slogan is certainly one of the most recognisable advertising phrases today and to promote the brand’s values of overcoming adversity or innovation, Nike relies heavily on storytelling with advertisements to tell inspiring stories and provoke positive emotions in users. It has been argued that such an advertising tactic digs deep into our psyches with a campaign built around the idea of personal greatness that can be achieved by anyone. By seeking to identify with these values, consumers may be emotionally compelled to purchase the latest products featured in these advertisements – often beyond the purpose of functionality and utility – but simply because of the emotional connection forged through a successful advertising campaign. While some may argue that advertising has a larger purpose of being a force for good by raising awareness of the benefits of products, or directly targets the needs of consumers to buy what they require, I still believe that ultimately, advertising’s main purpose is to persuade the purchase of products people do not exactly need. This is because advertisers – for whom profits are the priority – often evoke emotions to spur additional and often unnecessary purchases by capitalizing on psychological tactics or advertising campaigns to market their products effectively.

To begin, advertising is seen to be largely about persuading people to buy what they do not need by utilising psychology to entice consumers and to work on their emotions. Some of these psychological tricks are often so subtle that many consumers may not be aware of them, thus creating unconscious desires in the process. The use of colours, for instance, is often intentionally capitalised as part of advertising efforts. In fact, a 2011 study in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science examined the science behind how humans process colour, as well as how colour psychology is being used in marketing today. The research revealed that colours have a tremendous impact on how human brains store and process memories, even from a very young age. Some brands have cleverly honed in on the power of color to drive consumers to make purchases, and McDonald’s has mastered that approach when it comes to fast food with its distinctive red and yellow logo. Apparently, the colour red stimulates appetite, and it is linked to emotions of excitement and energy, while yellow tends to connote happiness, optimism and friendliness. The iconic red and yellow McDonald’s logos consumers see on the road or highway, or advertisements found on social media platforms or the televisions, may hence stimulate cravings and impulsive purchases. It may not be actual hunger, but simply a human reaction to the carefully selected use of colours in advertisements. Besides food and beverage businesses, extensive psychological research has also been conducted by other corporations to entice consumers to make impulsive purchases of things they do not actually need. An example is Dove, which challenged the world of beauty advertising and the portrayal of women through its “Campaign for Real Beauty”. While every hair product has arguably the same function of cleaning hair, Dove effectively tapped into consumers’ emotional connection that feeling empowered and glamorous was more important than just having clean hair, and hence people willingly paid a premium for these emotional benefits. Not surprisingly, Dove was rewarded with 700% uplift in sales, attesting to how advertising can effectively boost profits by forging emotional connections with the target audience, and thus spurring these purchases that consumers arguably do not actually need. In this light, it is evident that psychological tools play a large part in advertising by persuading consumers to be willing to purchase products beyond pure utility. 

Moreover, advertising effectively creates an ostensible impression that consumers can reap significant financial benefits or purchase exclusive products through extensive marketing efforts, hence persuading people to buy beyond what they need. These advertising campaigns often effectively leverage the pragmatism of consumers by misleading them into thinking they can enjoy huge savings from these advertising promotions. Notably, the huge success of e-commerce platforms such as Shopee and Lazada can be attributed to many successful advertising campaigns they have organised. By designating ‘special’ dates such as 11.11 and 12.12, these distinctive and easily remembered dates have been earmarked for e-commerce promotional sales and discounts. The pervasiveness of these advertisements online and even offline (in physical areas) has strengthened brand engagement with consumers. Shopee, for example, boldly uses music and famous brand ambassadors to stand out from other e-commerce players. In 2019, Cristiano Ronaldo dancing to a remix of ‘Baby Shark’ went viral, helping to triple Shopee’s sales, while in 2020, Phua Chu Kang was Shopee’s brand ambassador in Singapore, and his familiar, quirky, Singlish accent played over speakers as he bantered with consumers, urged them not to miss the good deals at Shopee’s 9.9 sales while pairing it with special 9.9 dance moves. These extensive advertising campaigns aim to evoke a sense of urgency and excitement for consumers to act fast and purchase, as these sales are for a limited time and the financial savings seem considerable. This hence persuades impulsive purchases even though people may not necessarily need them but simply because they seem cheaper and more attractive in bulk purchases, discounts, or through the engagement with brands, which are arguably all part of the advertising gimmicks by companies. Besides, advertising campaigns often capitalize on ‘limited-edition’ products to encourage purchase through ‘bandwagon pressuring’. With persuasive writing and the right wording, brands try to convince consumers that they are missing out on these exclusive products that they should be purchasing even if they may not actually need these products. Starbucks Singapore, for example, updated its Spring 2022 series to include two new unique strawberry beverages and two colour-changing reusable cups in addition to its current line-up of limited-edition beverages and cherry blossom-inspired merchandise. The intentionally curated idea of exclusivity has arguably been part of advertising techniques to evoke one’s ‘fear of missing out’, thus leading to impulsive purchases. Thus, these examples do lend weight to the argument that advertising is indeed largely about persuading people to buy what they do not need. 

Yet, while it is clear that advertising largely persuades people to make unnecessary purchases for the sole purpose of boosting profits, this may be not be a wholly fair statement as we must also acknowledge that advertising also does truly target the needs of consumers after market research and analysis, and persuade consumers to purchase what they do need. It may be challenging to advertise and persuade consumers to buy products that they do not need in the first place, and hence advertisers may instead invest money into actual market research on the target audience’s needs rather than spend on frivolous psychological tactics that may not be even effective. Nike, for example, aimed to create compelling advertising content that addressed the concerns of its consumers. Their target audience were looking for new ways to get in shape. As healthier lifestyle changes were increasingly prioritised and jogging became more popular, people wanted more jogging shoes. Nike then smartly positioned the brand not just as a company that made shoes, but as a company that could help their customers achieve their fitness goals (and their shoes happened to support that goal). It then targeted these needs with the information, products, and services to help them make it happen. In this case, consumers would be persuaded to buy what they need – and not what they do not need – through effective advertising. Moreover, with the rise of augmented reality (AR), interactive advertising is becoming increasingly popular. Companies have developed AR apps to allow their viewers to get a first-hand experience of their products, persuading consumers to purchase what they need especially if the sizes or designs are initial concerns. Timberland, for example, launched an AR app to show people how they would look with the Timberland clothes on. By taking a photo of the user at the window, the app then dressed them in different Timberland clothes, effectively creating an AR changing room with minimal effort from the consumer. In view of these examples, it may be cynical to argue that advertising largely persuades people to buy what they do not need when advertising can target the needs of consumers and address their concerns, in turn helping consumers to buy what they actually need.

Lastly, some claim that it is inaccurate to argue that advertising persuades unnecessary purchases as it can enable consumers to make better purchasing decisions by raising awareness and providing access to truly desirable products and services that consumers need. With greater knowledge of these products, consumers may be encouraged to buy these products they need. Many companies have utilised social proof in advertising which is the concept that people are more likely to be encouraged to buy something from a business if other people have already had a positive experience with that business’s products and services. It is often an invaluable source of authenticity that they cannot generate with their own marketing because it relies entirely on the willingness of satisfied customers to express their happiness to others. This is precisely one of the reasons why Amazon introduced its now-famous “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” intelligent recommendations, which automatically informs customers of products that are related to the ones they just purchased. This may better align consumer wants and needs with the products offered by advertising platforms so that purchases are more targeted. Some businesses also utilise trust seals by accrediting organisations in their advertising to give them the seal of approval, such as TRUSTe and BBB Accredited Business. These are but some examples of how advertising can provide confidence and assurance in consumers to purchase what they need if they are hesitant of the products or services offered by businesses. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that advertising does raise awareness of the products and services of businesses particularly when such information may be crucial for consumers to make judicious decisions in purchasing what they need. 

Nonetheless, on the whole, I still believe that advertising is mostly about persuading people to buy what they do not need. While advertising may allow consumers to make better decisions and target their needs and concerns, one must bear in mind that advertisers’ main objective is to ultimately boost revenues and profits. This means that beyond encouraging purchases aligned with the needs of consumers, advertisers often have to persuade consumers to make additional and unnecessary products as well. Unfortunately, it seems that we have to live with the disconcerting truth that advertising is actually more calculated and sophisticated than ever before, resulting in more and more people making purchases that they may later come to question or regret.