Why Adverts Are Scarier Than Spiders

Are you afraid of spiders? You’re not alone – it’s reported that in the US, 1 in 10 people has a phobia and of these, 40% are related to small animals such as spiders.


At this time of year, there seem to be loads around and they often seem to appear in the evening, heading out across the lounge floor (apparently, this is down to us switching up our heating, which makes the male spiders horny as they think its spring).

But as you settle down in front of the TV to watch your favourite show, at one with the world, instead of being afraid of the next spider, instead we should really be scared of the TV adverts that are issuing forth from the TV. Not convinced? Read on about to find out some of the ways TV ads get inside your mind to change your behaviours and understand why you should be more afraid of the ads than the spiders.


Our perceived needs are an important factor that influence how the TV ads we watch effect us.

According to Maslow and Drive theory (Maslow, 1943), we prioritise satisfying our primary (physiological) needs such as food and water. Then we move on to satisfy secondary (psychological) needs such as social belongingness, competence and problem solving. This forms the hierarchy of needs.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

Even if we have no perceived need for a product or service when we see it advertised, advertisers can manipulate this by inducing or reminding us of an unmet need. Once we perceive that a need is not met, drive theory predicts that people are motivated to reduce these drives. By introducing a product or service that can help satisfy this unmet need, the marketers increase the likelihood that we see the advertisement a means of reducing this drive and hence as being personally relevant and important. This leads to higher levels of involvement – a big factor in how much and to what extent we think about the advertisement.

Advertisers can remind us of a genuine need, however they can also use other more controversial techniques to create invoke these unmet needs and make ads more effective.

For example, in 2005, Marks & Spencer ran a TV advertisement featuring Chocolate pudding. Showing close up images of sweet, calorie laden food such as chocolate can produce an involuntary response of salivation. Salivation is normally associated with food and hunger, a physiological need that affects everyone. To the salivating viewer, the advertisement now has more personal relevance and importance to their (induced) hungry state, causing their involvement with it to increase.

Would a spider consciously manipulate your involuntary reactions in this way?

Level of Involvement plays a large role in how we process an advertisement which in turn also impacts the effect it has on us. The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion (Petty RE et al, 1986) considers 2 distinct methods that people use to process advertisements – Central and Peripheral.

Central processing occurs when involvement is high and our ability to think about the ad is high. Peripheral processing occurs when involvement or our ability to think about an ad is low.

Each method leads to different effects and once again marketers can use these to their advantage.

Central processing leads consumers to think carefully about the claims being made within an ad. Strong arguments and reasons are most persuasive in these circumstances and this tends to lead to the formation of strong attitudes that resist change and strongly influence other judgements and behaviour. However this type of processing is cognitively demanding.

Peripheral processing occurs when involvement or ability to think is low, for example due to time pressures or sheer complexity. This has the benefit that it requires little effort, however the the effect is weaker – attitudes can be changed relatively easily, don’t last long and only weakly influence attitudes.

From a consumer perspective peripheral processing can be risky. Because people don’t think too much about the ad, they are prone to use heuristics and biases to form opinions or make decisions – however these ‘mental shortcuts’ are not perfect and marketers can exploit these through their advertisements.

For example the Telegraph reported on ‘Over 50’s plans – financial products designed to leave a lump sum to relatives but which offer ‘appalling value for money’ according to consumer body Which. In certain ads, marketers chose celebrities such as Michael Parkinson and Gloria Hunniford to endorse these products in TV ads.

Faced with a complex financial investment decision, low ability to comprehend the options can lead to people moving to Peripheral processing.

Even though this is an important decision, potentially costing thousands of pounds, faced with low ability, people are prone to Correspondence Bias (Gilbert D.T. et al, 1995) where the person’s attitude towards the product is influenced by their attitude towards the endorser and whether the endorser likes the product.

Not many spiders could cause you to lose thousands of pounds.

Language can also exert an important influence on the effectiveness of advertisements. People are averse to losses (Kahneman, D et al, 1991) and this leads to a bias in which framing scenarios as a gain leads to different behaviours compared with framing the same outcome as a loss. Gain-framed messages most effective for prevention. In tests, research showed that 71% of people acted on a gain framed message compared with only 51% to a message framed as a loss (Rothman, A.J. et al, 1999).

An example is the wording used in Corsodyl’s ad for mouth wash. eg Corsodyl is clinically proven to help stop bleeding gums.

The choice of words is also important. An analysis of frequency of occurrence of words in advertisements ranked ‘New’ and ‘Free’ as the first and third most often used words. Both these words have been shown to influence people in specific ways.

Allocation of attention is influenced by voluntary and involuntary factors (Kahneman, D. 1973). Salient stimuli draw consumers attention involuntarily (Greenwald, A.G., 1984). Use of the word ‘new’ implies novelty and novelty is a salient stimulus. Hence using the word ‘new’ increases the likelihood of a consumer’s involuntary attention.


Research has also shown that the word ‘Free’ influences customer choice. By introducing a free option in tests involving choosing between different chocolates, Ariely caused consumers to change their behaviour and choose a product for which they had previously shown less preference (Shampanier k.et al, 2007).

Would a spider cause you to choose a less preferable option?

In summary, these examples demonstrate how marketers use adverts to manipulate consumers without their knowledge. From causing involuntary reactions that predispose consumers to take interest in their adverts through exploiting known biases to influence consumer decisions. From framing language to convince you to use a mouthwash to using words that can influence your attention and alter your choices. Marketers use tactics that consumers have difficulty defending themselves against.

By contrast, spiders simply wander across the lounge, looking for a mate.

Which should we really be more scared about?


Buddle, C, 20 May, 2015, Why are we so afraid of spiders? Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/why-are-we-so-afraid-of-spiders-10263450.html [accessed 20 November, 2016]

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological bulletin, 117(1), 21.

Greenwald, A. G., & Leavitt, C. (1984). Audience involvement in advertising: Four levels. Journal of Consumer research, 11(1), 581-592.

www.independent.co.ukChris Buddle (20 May, 2015) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/why-are-we-so-afraid-of-spiders-10263450.html [accessed 2- November 2016)

www.theguardian.com, Jules Howard, 24 September, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/23/horny-male-spiders-scare-stories [Accessed 20 November 2016]

Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The journal of economic perspectives, 5(1), 193-206.

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort (p. 246). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review, 50(4), 370.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York.

Rothman, A. J., Martino, S. C., Bedell, B. T., Detweiler, J. B., & Salovey, P. (1999). The systematic influence of gain-and loss-framed messages on interest in and use of different types of health behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(11), 1355-1369.

Shampanier, K., Mazar, N., & Ariely, D. (2007). Zero as a special price: The true value of free products. Marketing science, 26(6), 742-757.

www.telegraph.co.uk Emma Scott 14 December, 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/savings/8954019/Warning-on-celebrity-endorsed-over-50s-savings-plans.html [accessed 20 November 2016]

3 thoughts on “Why Adverts Are Scarier Than Spiders

  1. I thought this was a really well-written articles, the title drew me in and the argument that formed the scaffolding throughout was really well articulated. I would have liked maybe to get your views on the question of needs versus wants, you referenced how marketers can exploit consumers by drawing attention to their unmet needs, but I would have liked to hear how you felt ‘wants’ sat in this context. I feel I learned a lot from reading your article, a one-stop shop of why not to pay attention to ads, but I feel it is so important that consumers arm themselves with this sort of easy to digest information on how we are taken advantage of and psychologically exploited on such a basic level.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your blog post and thought it was very well written. The adverts used really show how people can be psychologically tricked. As well as ‘new’ and ‘free’, possibly the most important word in advertising is ‘you’. Which is more powerful? “I promise to make people rich” or “I promise to make YOU rich”?

  3. I think the same way as two comments above – you did well in organising your full blown thought of an advert. Advert, somehow, is an area that I think plays a major role in marketing activity – penetratring/introducing new product/brand to increasing repeat purchase. Indeed, it is a tough job for advert designer to make those objectives come true. Another tough job for an advert is to make the message appeals and relevant so that it is engaging (similar term of involvement as you mentioned). When the message is appealing, it becomes salience and attracts consumer attention, and when the message is relevant, it helps the consumer to utilise the information and help to formulate the attitude (Baker & Lutz, 2000)

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