Marking the marketers. Volvo: A (for clever psychological tricks)

volvo poster - 2013-02-27 11.32.11

This is perhaps one of the most low-involvement car ads I’ve seen – by which I mean, it’s an appeal based purely on emotion, with no attempt at evoking cognitive thought or processing.

There’s no information on offer at all, other than the line announcing the model as new. It doesn’t tell us that this car is sporty, roomy, or award winning. There’s no attempt to target it at particular people – nobody is even visible, let alone of any particular age or description. There are no social or lifestyle clues in the background either; it’s not zipping through nature or past a night club.

There are only two things on this poster, and one is the standard mood-lit front corner view that is mandatory for a car ad (it must be their best look, who knows). The only other thing is a pretty minimal caption:


Thing is, I like it.

The ad assumes that you already know what the car is (Wikipedia says it’s a small family car), but that’s pretty reasonable here; cars are planned purchases and people research them. Potential Volvo family car buyers are probably at least somewhat aware already.

This ad has one job, though, and only one job: to break through the clutter of information that comes at people every minute of the waking day, and get them to think of this as a fun and desirable car.

It does this with three tricks.

The first trick is so obvious that it is practically a commandment of good communication*: Thou shalt shed anything that clutters the message in any way. That explains why there’s not much else on the poster.

The second trick is cooler. The caption violates the rules of grammar just enough that it doesn’t quite make sense on first reading. That violates principles of cognitive closure which say that you can stop paying attention to something once you’ve figured out what it means. Your brain notices that something is wrong, and so loops around to scan it again. You’ve now read it at least twice, and perhaps started getting pulled in. The grammar isn’t so bad that it loses its meaning, though. In fact it uses a childlike tone of voice that makes it seem a little playful and fun – which backs up the central message that the car is fun and desirable.

The third trick is narrative. It doesn’t tell you “this car is fun”. It uses a first person voice: “I want”… that invites you to mentally transport yourself into the part of the speaker, just as movies and novels do when they are written from a first person point of view. It’s a storytelling frame that invites you to imagine life from someone else’s point of view.

There is research which suggests that narratives like this can be persuasive, not because they convince us particularly of anything, but because we suspend our critical thinking in this transported state and absorb the emotions instead (Escalas, Moore & Britton, 2004; Escalas 2007). It might sound strange that we do this, but really makes it sense, else we’d all act like the skeptical crowd in Life of Brian every time we saw TV or watched a book (“Who is this Picard person? I’ve never met him. Have you? And beaming people from one place to another? Clearly impossible!”).

In this case the ad invites us to imagine being someone who looks at the car, and who then playfully wants it. If you, personally, don’t like the car then that is the end of your mental journey. On the other hand, if it is something that you might like, and you’re of an empathetic turn of mind, then the micro-trying-on of this view of the world might resonate with you, and you might find yourself starting to really actually like it. It’s basically a very VERY small scale version of the type of thing that Derren Brown has made a spectacularly entertaining career out of.

I’ll leave you to get lost in Derren’s video’s now. There was a reason I put that link last 🙂

* Almost every good ad. There are exceptions. I’ll post one later.


  • Escalas, J. E., Moore, M. C. & Britton, J. E. 2004, ‘Fishing For Feelings? Hooking Viewers Helps!’, Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 14, no. 1-2, pp. 105-114.
  • Escalas, J. 2007, ‘Self-Referencing and Persuasion: Narrative Transportation versus Analytical Elaboration’, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 421-429.

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