Cognitive dissonance and the impact of advertising

How we cope when our guardian aliens don’t show up

David MacGregor


Many moons ago I studied advertising and marketing at what is now AUT University—class of ’82. One of the papers I enjoyed was social psychology, through which I was introduced to the theory of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is based on the fact that people need to have stable opinions. When those opinions are upset it creates tension, or dissonance, which must be relieved. That means people justify their actions by changing their beliefs. In advertising it is important because it means that changes in attitude usually follow changes in behaviour—not the other way around, as is widely assumed.

This has implications for brand advertising that drives its advocates absolutely bonkers. They argue that they can change attitudes toward brands by creating sexy works of art like the Vodafone ‘mayflies’. It simply doesn’t work that way. (On the other hand, if you have chosen a Vodafone connection plan mayflies might be a positive reinforcement of your ‘now-ness’, or something.)

When a campaign fails to deliver any tangible change in behaviour—such as an increase in sales—then the argument that it was a ‘brand’ ad is deployed. Basically, that the intention was to shift attitudes, not sales.

In a funny sort of way that corresponds with the very discovery of the cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. He observed a UFO cult who prophesied that a great flood would wipe out all of mankind (except members of the cult—of course—who would be taken away by aliens in flying saucers). Before the predicted flood members of the cult were  very secretive and made little comment to the media. Once the deadline for the cataclysm passed without as much as a sunshower, something weird happened. The members of the cult suddenly became very vocal, claiming God had heard their prayers, intervened and saved the world. (Seems a shame that the aliens didn’t nab them.)

Festinger noted, “man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief and that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with unequivocal and undeniable evidence that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may show a new fervour about convincing and converting other people to his view.”

I think this phenomenon explains why so many people in advertising resist innovations such as Food In A Minute and James Hardie Showhomes (‘masthead’ advertising)—because they do not conform to their beliefs and ingrained preferences. (And, yes, Family Health Diary too—mea culpa.)

Mastheads work very well for many clients, who are often cautious to begin with but who become converts when the results come in. On the other hand, devotees of traditional brand ads invoke Catch-22: that one cannot possible measure the value of their messages by anything half as tacky as sales … so long as attitudes shift.

Beam me up Scotty.