Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Why advertising always works, using science, not bullshit

Its my life’s work to persuade indie game developers, computer programmers and other ‘smart’ people, that they are wrong and that advertising works. A lot of people think ads dont work, and some even arrogantly think ads work, but ‘not on them’ because they are ‘too smart’. This is totally and utterly wrong, and the reason these otherwise ‘smart’ people are so wrong is they fundamentally misunderstand how ads work.

The top assumption about ads is that they are trying to consciously persuade you to purchase the product. Ha. No. That was maybe 50-100 years ago. Thats not how ads *actually* work, although frankly 75% of people who actually work in advertising have no idea about this. Sometimes you see really bad ads and its clear they have no idea, but there is plenty of scientific research into ads, and more importantly the working of the brain, which shows how they really work.

Our brains are basically super-parallel pattern recognition machines. Pattern recognition is an excellent way to structure the brain, and also explains why we are so amazing at recognizing faces, but so awful at basic maths. First and foremost, we are not philosophers, scientists, programmers or politicians. First and foremost we are a lump of flesh and bone that wants to find food, and not get killed. Everything else, even sex, is secondary. By having our brains work as big pattern recognizers, we get very good, very accurate and very FAST at recognizing visual images. Computers can run rings around us at math, but still struggle to match our ability to navigate our 3D world by driving a car. We are awesome at recognizing stuff.

If you had to write a very FAST (and thus very short) program for staying alive, and could do only on the basis of visual input, yet had amazing pattern recognition, how would you write the pseudo code? Here is the simplest (and best) code.

IF IfSeenThisBefore() {Relax()} ELSE { RunLikeHell()}

It makes perfect sense. Our basic, animal selves have seen fellow humans all the time, but never seen a lion. So when we see a lion, we run like hell, because it MIGHT be dangerous. Any visual pattern we have hundreds of copies of stored in our brain is a sign that we saw those things a lot AND LIVED. It really is that simple. To put this in less ‘scared mammal’ terms… Fear the unknown.

Xenophobia isn’t all the fault of fox news, its baked into us, and its baked into most mammals too. Be wary when you are in an unfamiliar situation. If you see images you have never seen before, be alert. be prepared to flee at a moments notice. Seek out familiar sights, which are signs that its safe. When you think about it, this explains a whole host of human conditions and situations which we dress up as being more complex.  Scared of going to a party full of strangers? Yup, same phenomena. Scared of first day on new job, Yup, same phenomena. Hate sitting in a restaurant alone waiting for your partner? Yup, same phenomena. We are hardwired to FEAR novelty and to seek out comfort in FAMILIARITY.

So deep down, we always choose the familiar, in all circumstances, when we are not deliberately and consciously over-riding that using our higher-brain functions. And guess what? when we are casually browsing, we are not using our higher brain functions, a load of visual fluff enters our optic nerve and the subconscious brain responds to it, always seeking out the familiar as a sign that things are ok, and nudging us in that direction.

When your brain looks at a sea of capsule art on steam, or GoG or the Humble store, or, its subconsciously checking for anything familiar. If you recognize a logo, even subconsciously, then BAM! Thats the first thing you are going to give your attention to, and maybe click on. You will not do it deliberately, you will not do it consciously, you will deny that this is true, its very possible that even with a gun to your head, you will not be able to recall seeing that logo anywhere beforehand, but even the slightest, faintest, vaguest impression somewhere in your brain will give that logo all it needs to double, triple or quadruple its click-throughs on that store page.

Ads work. Just not how you think.

3 thoughts on Why advertising always works, using science, not bullshit

  1. Thank you for writing this, it makes a lot of sense. Interestingly, it seems like many indies are adverse to the concept of advertising yet lament the current “indiepocolypse” atmosphere where they are just not able to stand out and get their games discovered.

  2. Sorry to tell you ads only work during a certain period when you are a kid and on stupid people who don’t know much about the world as one gains experience with the world one can simply choose to filter out where one places ones attention and time. The reason ads work is because most people are stupid, that’s the hard reality. The same way online drm and steam became a thing – computer literate people did not want drm, only the stupid half of humanity of which there are millions.

    It’s hard to be advertised to when you are knee deep in work for instance or asleep. Basically the easiest way to avoid ads it to have a time sink that needs the focus of your attention.

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