Cut through Advertising Clutter with Archetypes
We're bombarded with promotional messages and visuals everywhere we go. They're in subways, on TV, in magazines, in the street, and even on the clothes of the people walking by.
So why don't we feel overwhelmed by such a relentless wave of provocative icons? Why are none of us compelled to read each of the subway billboards before we get on the train? Why don't we remember every single TV advertisement during the break?
The reason is desensitization, a process in which our brains learn to filter out periphery messages. This filtering is done subconsciously, which is why we're often aware that we saw a particular advertisement but unable to recall it.
The Power of the Subconscious
Cognitive research tells us that subconsciously, our brains are aware of everything around us all of the time.
This means that as we wade in this vast ocean of icons, our subconscious must decide which of the messages deserves our attention and which don't.
The theory of the subconscious's role in encoding advertising messages has paved the way for a rebirth in Jungian archetypal theory: If we subconsciously filter out external messages and images, then advertising must talk to the subconscious to retain its impact.
For consumer advertising to remain effective, it must be informed by an understanding of the deeper, unarticulated, subconscious needs of its target audience. These needs are what Jung refers to as archetypes.
Jung never made a definitive list of archetypes. However, here are a few of the most clearly recognized archetypes:
- to be immortal (keeping fit, keeping healthy, keeping clean)
- to be loved (being mothered, finding a partner, being popular)
- to be sexual (seducing, hunting, indulging)
- to be secure (investing in the future, feeling part of a community, being protected)
- to be reborn (transforming oneself, overcoming an obstacle, being saved, transcending to an after-life [or given rights to do so], thrill-seeking)
- to be a child (being care-free, finding purity, connecting with the past, beholding a treasure, uniting opposites, changing the future)
- to be a saviour (guiding, saving, caring for others)
- to be a trickster (being subversive, being mischievous, making people laugh, crossing boundaries)
- to be wise (learning, experiencing, teaching, advising, being fatherly)
- to protect (nurturing, mothering, defending)
- to provide (gathering, hunting, giving)
- to be heroic (winning, being a pioneer, exploring, expressing one's individuality, finding status)
Archetypes in Advertising
Look hard enough, and you'll see that a lot of advertisements draw on a universal, deep-seated need (an archetype). They tug on the readers' primitive emotions, playing to their deepest needs, ambitions, desires, and sometimes, fears.
Advertising that reaches out to an archetypal need is often the most persuasive type of advertising, whether you're selling calculators to bankers or toilet tissue to homemakers. As a designer, you need to know which archetype your client's product relates to, and subtly integrate that knowledge into your design approach.
Many different motivational drivers may be at play at the same time, and two or more can join to become one. For example, a calculator can draw upon the wise (advising), secure (being protected), and heroic (exploring) archetypes. Toilet tissue can draw upon the healthy (keeping clean), loved (being mothered), and secure (being protected) archetypes.
Archetypes have negative as well as positive associations. However, people usually respond best to positive advertising messages.
Expressing Archetypes through Images
Images are more effective at communicating unconscious feelings than words because we can't always articulate or recognize archetypal feelings through language.
Language is a surface-level communication tool bound by conscious thought; images often go deeper to engage fears and emotions people may be too embarrassed to admit to, or may not even aware of.
That's why an ad's visual is extremely important. Images don't merely grab attention -- they offer the subconscious a bridge between the product and the archetypal need the product fulfils.
What Makes an Image Archetypal?
Consider the visual you plan to use for your next ad campaign. It may be vivid and eye-catching -- but is it emotive? Is it archetypal?
To investigate, start by dissecting the psychological demographic of your target audience. Discuss with your client which primal motivators are most likely to be shared among the demographic, and which of those the product responds to.
Here are a few basic motivators:
- To feel attractive
- To feel fit and healthy
- To receive acclaim
- To be liked
- To be appreciated
- To feel important
- To feel secure
- To feel relaxed
- To be independent
- To have more than others
- To have fun
- To gain knowledge
- To eliminate worry
- To save embarrassment
- To avoid feeling guilty
- To stop fear
If you see patterns emerging, find an appropriate visual metaphor that communicates the archetype your reader subconsciously is moved by. For example, many people working in sales are thrill-seekers. Closing a sale isn't just about making money, it's about engaging the thrill of the chase. Images symbolizing hunting, heroism, and resurrection can have profound appeal.
Obviously, you must be careful not to over-generalize. Although archetypes are universal, their representations and projections may not be. For instance, the mother archetype may be symbolized as an image of a lion in the dream of one person, and an image of a tree in the dream of another.
Yet within the boundaries of specific cultures, some archetypal images can have common interpretations, such as a phoenix rising from the ashes (resurrection/rejuvenation); monsters hiding in the dark (the shadow archetype); cowboys (the hero archetype); and poltergeists (the trickster archetype).
These images are passed down through generations via myths and stories, and are kept alive today through movies, TV programs, and advertisements.
Figure 1. This advert for Jeep works at an archetypal level. The herd of animals could suggest a sense of belonging, but there's also a more subversive trickster level to the advert, where animals come together in the shape of a mysterious arrow to communicate a subconscious voice.
Figure 2. This advert for condoms uses the sinister side of the child archetype to scare its target audience into buying the product.
Figure 3. This ad for Post-It draws on the stereotypical image of the message in a bottle, a common projection of being lost in the subconscious. It's often attached to the heroic crusader or explorer archetypes, passed down through castaway stories like Robinson Crusoe.
Figure 4. Tunnels and portals are common projections of our voyage into the subconscious.
Figure 5. Water is also a common projection of the subconscious. The first of these two adverts metaphorically travels into the depths of the mind to reveal shadowy secrets. The second ad uses an image of water to convey a feeling of well-being.
Blockbuster Products Fulfil Archetypal Needs
Using archetypes in marketing can go far deeper than choosing a visual for an ad. It can inform the whole branding of a product.
Lots of companies draw upon the wise man archetype to brand their products, such as Werther's Original sweets and Mr. Kipling cakes. Some draw upon the hero archetype, such as Marlboro cigarettes and Gillette razors.
Products in which the actual functionality responds to archetypal needs are likely to be most successful. The iPod is perhaps the most archetypal of archetypal products, appealing to the mobility/freedom of youth that goes way back to the roaming nomad.
Figure 6. The Marlboro ad draws on the hero archetype to promote cigarettes. The iPod promotion responds to an obvious archetypal need for mobility.
Theories around the collective unconscious have never been more important than in today's modern society, where we move away from an age of broadcasting and into an age of globally shared individual experience.
As fast as marketers find new ways to infiltrate the chosen media of consumers (blogging, YouTube, Second Life, etc.), consumers become resistant to interference, striving instead to take ownership of the media and shape their own landscapes.
In this new consumer environment, can advertisers find effective ways of giving brands archetypal meaning?
Shaun Crowley has worked as a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant. He currently works as a communications manager for a major UK publishing company and is the author of The Freelance Designer's Self-Marketing Handbook and 100 Copywriting Tips for Designers and Other Freelance Artists.
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