A famous model glides down a staircase, removing articles of clothing as she goes. Once she's inside the car being promoted in this British advertisement, she removes her panties and flings them out the window. The only problem with this wildly popular ad? An informal survey by a Welsh psychologist revealed that the visual image was so compelling that virtually no one remembered the brand of car being advertised.

Not only is the ad degrading to women, it's ineffective marketing, according to consumer psychologists, who say that ads like this one are all-too-frequent reminders that psychological expertise isn't being put to use. They're convinced that psychologists--whether they are consumer psychologist or basic scientists--have what it takes to help create more effective campaigns to promote both products and causes. Now that's starting to happen, especially among federal agencies and other groups trying to persuade the public to improve health-related behaviors.

"In the real world of making ads, it often comes down to a creative person saying 'I like this' or 'I like that,' without much reliance on research," says Curtis P. Haugtvedt, PhD, a past president of APA's Div. 23 (Consumer Psychology) and an associate professor of psychology and marketing at Ohio State University. "But psychologists have all this knowledge about persuasion and communication. People need to understand there's a scientific way of making these ads better."

Drawing on psychologists

Vance Packard's 1957 book, "The Hidden Persuaders," revealed how advertising agencies used psychologists and other behavioral scientists to probe deep into consumers' minds and build advertising campaigns based on what they found there.

The book spent six weeks on the best-seller list and convinced generations of Americans that advertisers were using hidden symbols to manipulate consumers into buying products they neither needed nor wanted. In Packard's most famous example, a movie theater supposedly boosted concession-stand sales by flashing orders to buy popcorn on the screen faster than the conscious mind could perceive them.

Although subliminal persuasion turned out to be nonsense and the popcorn experiment a hoax, Packard's book symbolized the golden age of psychologists' involvement in advertising. Throughout the 1950s, advertising agencies relied upon psychologists and other behavioral experts to help construct their ad campaigns.

Today, psychologists have become victims of budgetary constraints at ad agencies. As research budgets have dwindled, many of the research departments that once employed psychologists have closed.

To psychologist Esther Thorson, PhD, a professor and associate dean of graduate studies in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, that's a shame.

"There's a saying in advertising that half of every advertising dollar is wasted, but you don't know which half," she says. "If we had a science of images, we wouldn't make so many mistakes."

Improving ads

Now Thorson and other psychologists are trying to create that science, analyzing ads to learn more about the art of persuasion.

Thorson points to an ad she once tested, in which a frozen cylinder of sausage rolled toward the viewer until it filled the entire screen. Although the voice-over was ridiculous, Thorson remembers, the image was so mesmerizing viewers couldn't take their eyes off it.

In the resulting study, published in Communication Research (Vol. 19, No. 3), Thorson and a colleague measured viewers' physiological responses and discovered that the looming sausage caused a dip in viewers' heart rates. Immediately after that dip, viewers' learning was enhanced. The message for advertisers? Grab viewers' attention, then make your verbal pitch.

Jane E. Raymond, PhD, professor of experimental consumer psychology at the University of Wales in Bangor, often consults with companies directly, testing their ads to make sure they got their money's worth from ad agencies.

According to Raymond, companies could avoid problems (like the panty-flinging model who distracts from the product being advertised) if they would take advantage of the basic research psychologists are doing on vision and perception. Raymond's own work focuses on how people process the rapid-fire imagery of the MTV-like ads popular today. According to Raymond, viewers simply can't take in everything advertisers present to them.

"We have the illusion that every image that's flashed up is somehow coded by the brain," she explains. "Our research suggests that we actually process information in gulps. The brain goes out, grabs a bit of information, digests it, then grabs another bit."

Better timing could help ensure that viewers' brains manage to grab the brand name, Raymond says. In a technique pioneered by Coke and Pepsi in the 1960s, television ads frequently end a series of images with the brand name. By then, says Raymond, viewers are so engrossed in thinking about the preceding images they often don't even notice this so-called punctuation.

One way to help ensure viewers catch the brand is by using a logo, says Raymond. While viewers engaged in visual processing won't take the time to read a word, a logo allows them to process the brand without having to switch to verbal processing. And logos like the Nike "swoosh" can also cross borders more easily than their verbal counterparts--a plus in an increasingly global marketplace.

Raymond is also conducting research with implications for print advertising. Drawing on basic psychological research on the brain's lateralization, she's found faces placed on the left side of a page capture readers' attention better than those placed on the right. Any accompanying text should go to the right of the face. And the brand-name punctuation shouldn't go in its traditional place at the bottom right of a page, where readers have trouble coding it.

"Advertisers don't have any training at all in how the brain works and how they should exploit that," says Raymond. "It's time we transferred some of what we've learned into the real world."

Promoting causes

That knowledge transfer has already begun in the realm of social marketing, which uses persuasive techniques traditionally used to sell products in campaigns designed to improve people's health. Whether they're trying to stop drug abuse, unhealthy eating or the AIDS epidemic, psychologists are helping government agencies, private organizations and others craft more effective health promotion campaigns.

Federal agencies like the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are in the forefront of using psychologists to help hone their public education messages, says persuasion specialist Richard E. Petty, PhD, the chairman and distinguished university professor of psychology at Ohio State. And they can definitely use the help, says Petty.

He points to one television ad as an example of what not to do. With the sound turned off, the boy in the ad seems to be having a great time as he skateboards past a group of smiling girls. But turn the sound on, and a different story emerges.

"Visually there were very positive cues in terms of reinforcement, but the ad ended with an antidrug message," explains Petty. "The ad sent two conflicting signals."

Now Petty and other psychologists are helping agencies avoid mistakes like this one. Martin Fishbein, PhD, for instance, has helped the CDC hone its HIV-prevention messages.

Psychologists have done a good job figuring out what makes people remember ads, says Fishbein, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. Unfortunately, there's little evidence that simply recalling an ad changes behavior. And decades of research have failed to identify factors that encourage viewers to accept information.

"Advertisers are interested in winning Clios and not that interested in changing behavior," he explains. "When they've got an ad that people remember, they think they've got a good ad."

What's really critical is to identify the beliefs ads should target, says Fishbein. In his CDC work, for example, he used community newsletters to reduce HIV-risky behaviors. Each newsletter featured a "role model story" focusing on a specific belief to be targeted.

One story targeted people's reluctance to discuss condom use with partners. In the vignette, a woman from the community explained how she was afraid her partner would be angry if she asked him to use condoms. After two friends died of AIDS, however, she got up her courage and discovered that he had been too worried to bring the issue up with her. According to Fishbein, targeted efforts like this one resulted in significant increases in condom use.

William D. Crano, PhD, is trying to learn more about how to improve receptivity to marketing messages. He heads a NIDA-funded project designed to evaluate the television ads being used in the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign launched by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1998.

"It's not enough for an ad to be creative," says Crano, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. "It has to change minds."

Eager to find ways of reducing students' resistance to the ads' messages, Crano and his team make slight modifications to the ads, show them to middle-school students via CD-ROM and assess students' receptiveness. Once he has finished analyzing data from the 1,300 students who have participated, Crano will feed the study's results back to the advertising professionals creating the ads.

Private organizations devoted to specific causes often invite psychologists to be part of their social marketing teams as well. Psychologist Susan Linn, EdD, for example, is helping the Leadership Conference of Education Fund with a media campaign promoting diversity. In addition to helping the fund create ads that are developmentally appropriate for different age groups, Linn helps prevent problems that she's seen in other campaigns.

In one piece, for instance, the most appealing music occurred as a girl was shooting up. Another ad depicted babies of various backgrounds, then showed a stamp coming down and labeling each one with a racial or ethnic slur as part of a misguided effort to discourage racism.

"What the ad was really doing was teaching kids those terms," says Linn, associate director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Sometimes the most dramatic way to reach people ends up suggesting behaviors the ads might not want to encourage."

Other psychologists do basic research on social marketing. Curtis Haugtvedt hopes social marketers in the field will use what he's learned about persuasion as a result of his laboratory experiments on recycling. So far, he's found that emotional appeals--like the famous ad showing an American Indian with a tear rolling down his face as he confronts pollution--work better than cognitive ones when it comes to persuading people to recycle. Emphasizing that "everyone else is doing it" also helps.

Conducting basic research

Other psychologists are conducting basic scientific research that could be applied to advertising or social marketing efforts.

Consumer psychologists have drawn on the work of researchers like John M. Henderson, PhD. Because vision shuts down during the saccade--the jerky movement as the gaze moves to a new location--the brain produces not a photograph-like representation of a scene but more of a description, Henderson has found.

"Advertisers may assume that people are going to have a photographic memory of whatever they're presenting," explains Henderson, a psychology professor and director of the Cognitive Science Program at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "That's not going to happen. People are going to go away with something more abstract than that."

Henderson's other research interest is how humans direct their eyes to the salient part of a scene. Although advertising has been far from his mind, he admits his research could have implications for a field whose reason for being is capturing people's attention. Since details are registered only at the middle of the field of vision, he explains, advertisers need to attract and keep consumers' gaze. Although he's still trying to determine what works best, he's found that high contrast and texture changes seem to encourage fixation.

Daniel J. Simons, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University, is another researcher whose work has potential implications for advertising. Simons has found that people often fail to notice surprisingly large changes unless they're specifically watching for them.

In one experiment, a researcher asks a passerby for directions. During the conversation, two men carrying a large door pass between them and shield the researcher as he's replaced by another researcher. Only half the passersby notice they're talking to a different person afterward. This research suggests that advertisements shouldn't be overly subtle.

"We don't remember nearly as much as we think we do," says Simons. "For advertisers, the key would be to use whatever cues you possibly can to draw attention to the central object in a scene--the product. And remember that people aren't going to keep track of visual details."

Other researchers are focusing on the interaction of visual perception and emotion. Piotr Winkielman, PhD, for instance, is exploring the factors that influence whether someone likes something. He has discovered that "visual fluency," as he calls it, is key.

"We like things that are easy on the eyes and easy on the mind," explains Winkielman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

Repetition is one way to increase visual fluency and hence appeal. The more people see something, the more they like it. "Advertisers intuitively know that exposing people repetitively to the same stimulus increases liking," says Winkielman. "That's one of the reasons they show the same ad over and over again."

Priming viewers is another way of increasing fluency. In one experiment, Winkielman and his colleagues flashed pictures showing the contours of objects so fast viewers couldn't register them and then showed them full-fledged pictures of the objects. When the contour and picture matched, viewers not only found it easier to process the second picture, but also liked that picture more than if it had been preceded by a contour that didn't match it.

"You're making it easier for the mind to process things," says Winkielman.

This is just the kind of research Jane Raymond thinks advertisers should be drawing on.

"There have been some significant strides made in the last 20 years," she says. "It's time to start applying these findings to real-world stimuli like advertising."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.