Have you thought about the effects that advertising has on your life? Do you always need the things you buy? How do advertisers manage to get under our skin so much that we are prepared to almost drive ourselves into debt to buy some of the products they advertise?

Perhaps you feel that adverts don’t have much impact on you. You only use social media and watch some television and you don’t really take too much notice of them. If you think this, then you’re more than likely wrong! Advertisers are very clever in the way they approach you and modern advertising is becoming more and more insidious. Advertising is a massive industry.  In 2018 its estimated net worth was $1.2 Trillion which is roughly R 18 Trillion (that has 12 zeros after the 18!). The more we use electronic devices, the more exposed we are to advertising.

Advertising has been around for a very long time. The first ‘advert’ is thought to have come from Ancient Egyptian times, but modern advertising really started in the mid-1800s with the rise of the capitalist economic system This is a system driven by the need to make a profit which means that people need to buy things (in very simple terms)! As technology developed, advertisements appeared in newspapers, magazines, radio and then on television.  The first internet advertisement was placed in October 1994. It was a banner advertisement that was added to the bottom of a website. Once both website owners and advertisers realised that there was a real way of making money and reaching vast numbers of people on the internet, advertisements on the internet have grown into a full-scale industry.

You may be curious about why advertising is so successful in getting people to buy services and products they don’t actually need. You may have a perfectly good cell phone that does everything you need it to do, but you see a fancy new one and you just know you have to have it! How and why does this raging desire for the newest phone happen to us?

Most frequently we see the new, fancy phone via an advertisement. If a friend has one, it’s likely that she saw an advertisement and decided to succumb and buy one. Of course, she will have the bragging rights for having the new phone first. It might seem obvious to you that, of course you need the new phone – everyone does! This is not true, though. Advertisers are very clever in creating this ‘need’ for something new.

In the early 1920s the study of psychology – the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour – began to play an important role in advertising. Advertisers used the information discovered in psychology to make people behave in the way they wanted them to. They focused the advertisements on the basic needs that every human (and therefore every consumer) has. What drives you to buy that phone? The fear of not being the cool person in the group! And so it goes on. Do you want to be loved? Use this deodorant! Of course, advertising is much more sophisticated than this, but this is the basic premise.

Many advertisers use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help them design their adverts. In 1943, Abraham Maslow developed a deep understanding of human needs and how these needs can be met. His theory suggests that people are motivated to fulfil basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs. If advertisers can design their adverts in such a way that they meet user needs rather than user wants, the user is much more likely to think they HAVE to have the product and therefore buy it!

Maslow’s Hierarchy is presented as a pyramid with 5 levels of needs. The needs at the bottom of the pyramid are basic physical requirements, including the needs for food, water, sleep and warmth. Once people have met these needs, then they move to the next level of needs: safety and security.  Once these physical needs have been met, then a human’s needs become more psychological and social. The need for love, friendship and relationships is next. Higher up the pyramid, the need for self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment become important.



An advert for a fast-food restaurant such as McDonalds is appealing to our most basic physical need for food but their adverts are far more targeted than that. They target their adverts at particular ages, genders, income, ethnic background and family life cycle. For example, for parents and young children, MacDonald’s includes a free toy for kids in their Happy Meals. Then, when to appeal to the youth, they create adverts full of bright colours showing scenarios that create a sense of sharing and having fun in a low-cost convenient way (meeting the need for friendship and love).

When you see an advert of a Big Mac, you land up not only craving one on a biological level because you think it looks delicious, but also because you crave the other social aspects in the advert. And advertisers wouldn’t waste their money on all that filming of people laughing, and having a good time, instead of just showing the picture of the burger, if they didn’t know it worked!

Brand recognition also plays an important role. Children as young as 2 years old can recognise brands and logos. Once an emotional attachment with a particular brand has been established, it is very difficult to get rid of (one of the reasons for the Happy Meal toy).

So, the ‘trick’ to advertising is to create targeted adverts that create what feels like an essential need in the person who sees the advert. The more of these adverts you are exposed to on various platforms, the more this need is reinforced until you take ACTION and go out and BUY the product – and subconsciously you feel like you are buying love, or self-esteem, or popularity… Clever, isn’t it?