Placebo Effect in Advertising



You probably all know what the placebo effect is. From a scientific point of view, it is a series of positive reactions against a therapy which does not derive so much from its active ingredients but from the patient’s expectations about it. In practice, if a patient believes that a certain therapy is working, he will psychologically place himself in a very positive way against that therapy, regardless of its effectiveness. The result could be a psychosomatic effect that leads the body itself to react to the disease, sometimes with positive results. In medicine, therefore, to assess the effectiveness of a drug, the placebo effect becomes a very important benchmark. In practice, if the healing with a certain drug is not significantly different from that obtained by administering a placebo, that is, a substance or treatment that is ineffective from a specific therapeutic point of view, then you cannot say that such a drug be truly effective.

This is true in medicine. But if it works in the medical field, why should not it work in other sectors? The placebo effect shows that to be convinced of something relative to our body leads to a specific response by the nervous system that, in some cases, produces precisely the intended effect. If this is true for a therapy may also be true in other respects. For example, if a certain advertising is convincing me that a certain toothpaste «is intended to bring home the sensation of cleanliness of the dentist», then chances are that after using that toothpaste I really experience that feeling in question.

Notice how more and more advertising is using misleading adjectives and adverbs, intended to make people believe that a product has an effect that can not objectively have, without, however, that the company risks a lawsuit for false advertising. So, they use terms as «feelings», «impressions», «hair visibly healthier» — which only means that you get the impression that they are, but they are not necessarily so. They also use «hyperbolic» images and videos, that is, with certain effects enhanced beyond measure. A classic example, the wet cloth with a magic detergent that, without any apparent effort, removes grease and fouling from a pan.

The point is that our life is made up essentially of sensations, that is subjective impressions: the sort of issues on which you can trigger a placebo effect. So that particular body soap can leave your skin softer and even reinvigorate you; that beauty product can reduce the signs of aging on your face; that detergent cleans and disinfects leaving surfaces cool to the touch and shiny to the eye. The more we believe, more happens.

They are not optical illusions: our senses often perceive what they expect to perceive and do not perceive what they do not expect to perceive; but in this case, our senses are brought to experience the sensation promised by advertising and to verify, amazed, the veracity. A fake authenticity, just as bogus is the placebo, a drug that is not a drug but that in certain circumstances appears to have miraculous effects. An example of how easy it is to deceive our senses is the so-called selective blindness, that does not make us notice very visible elements in front of us if our attention is focused on something specific.

Back to the placebo effect, it represents a hidden and really undervalued danger of publicity. We are not at levels of subliminal advertising, obviously, or we go under the misleading, but the danger is real and can influence our choices. Just think of breakfast cereals, a low-calorie, substantially tasteless and of little economic value product, transformed, through food industrial processing and a well-thought-out marketing campaign, in a caloric, tasty, expensive and popular product.

Next time, you will look at an ads in front of the television, pay attention to details; do not look at the center of the screen but below, where messages usually appear in a very small font; try to capture adjectives and adverbs that, even if they seem innocuous, change the substantial sense of the sentence and, above all, do try your miracle product to someone who does not know what brand it is, as a counter-proof: you will experiment a world of surprises.

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