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Tips & Bits #42: Advertising and the Archetype

Recently updated on February 10th, 2021 at 05:58 pm

Human beings are showered with promotional messages and visuals everywhere — on TV, in magazines, in the street, and even on the clothes of people walking by.

What keeps us from being overwhelmed by this relentless onslaught? How is it that we can resist reading all of the billboards we pass while we drive down the street? Why don’t we remember every single TV commercial we watch?

The reason is desensitization, a process in which our brains learn to filter out non-essential messages. Subconsciously, we are often aware that we saw a specific advertisement but are usually unable to recall it.

The Subconscious as Gatekeeper
Cognitive research has revealed that subconsciously, our brains are aware of everything around us all of the time. This means that our subconscious mind must pick and choose which messages deserve our attention and which are to be ignored.

This concept in which the subconscious mind acts as a “gatekeeper” has suggested a revival in Jungian archetypal theory: If external messages and images are subconsciously filtered out, then advertising must communicate with the subconscious to make an impact.

For advertising to be effective, it must take into account the deep, unarticulated, subconscious needs of its audience. These needs are what Jung refers to as archetypes.

Jung’s Archetypes      (he had many more than these examples)

To be immortal           (to be fit, healthy, and 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 hurdles, transcending to an after-life)
To be a child               (being care-free, beholding a treasure, changing the future)
To be a savior            (guiding, saving, caring for others)
To be a trickster          (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, exploring, expressing one’s individuality, finding status)

Using Archetypes in Advertising

Advertisements are designed to connect to a universal, deep-seated need (an archetype). They stimulate the primitive emotions of the audience, arousing their innermost needs, ambitions, desires, and in some cases, fears.

Advertising that ignites an archetypal need can be the most persuasive type of marketing, whether you’re selling briefcases to bankers or honey-nut cereal to homemakers. As a designer or a writer, you need to understand which archetype your client’s product correlates with, and subtly integrate that knowledge into your concepts.

It’s not a simple task.

Several different factors may be operating simultaneously, and two or more can combine. For example, that briefcase can appeal to the wise (advising), secure (being part of a community), and heroic (finding status) archetypes of the banker. Honey-nut cereal can attract the healthy (to be fit), protecting (mothering), and savior (caring for others) archetypes of the homemaker.

Expressing Archetypes with Images
Images are more effective at conveying unconscious feelings than words because human beings are not always able to express or identify archetypal feelings with language.

Language is a superficial tool restricted by conscious thought. Images are able to penetrate deeply to stir up emotions people may be too shy to admit openly, or may not even be aware of. For this reason, visuals and graphics are the essential elements. Images provide the subconscious with a connection between the product and the archetypal need which the product fulfils.

How to select Archetypal Images
A visual may be colorful and attractive — but is it archetypal?  The first step is to understand the psychological demographic (psychographics) of your target audience. Discover which primal motivators are common to the members of the demographic, and which ones the product promises to satisfy.

Some of the most basic human motivators are:
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 elude embarrassment
To avoid feeling guilty
To be free from fear

Next, find a fitting visual metaphor that communicates the archetype by which your reader is subconsciously motivated. For example, top-earning sales representatives tend to be thrill-seekers. Closing the sale means more than earning a commission; it includes experiencing the thrill of the hunt. Therefore, images that evoke hunting, heroism, and resurrection can have a significant influence.

To be sure, over-simplification must be avoided. While archetypes are universal, their representations may not be. For instance, the protector archetype may be portrayed as a lion in the mind of one person, and a castle in the subconscious of another.

Many archetypal images can have widely shared translation, such as the butterfly emerging from a cocoon (resurrection/rejuvenation); cowboys (the hero archetype); and circus clowns (the trickster archetype).

These images are handed down through generations through myths and children’s stories, and are encourage today through movies, TV programs, and (of course) advertisements.

Future directions.

As our newest communications and entertainment technologies and devices move us away from an age of broadcasting and into an era of globally shared individual experience, what does the future hold for the Archetype?

As quickly as advertisers discover new tactics to gain access to the favored media of consumers (blogging, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), the subconscious mind develops a resistance to outside intervention. Will it be possible for advertisers to create effective ways of endowing brands with archetypal meaning? The answer lies in the human subconscious.


2 thoughts on “Tips & Bits #42: Advertising and the Archetype

  1. Hi!

    I am a studying advertising as my majors and was wondering how does one figure out what the archetype of the ad is? Your post above mentions that the advertiser may be intending to convey a certain archetype, however, they may view them as another archetype. Then how do all the advertising agencies claim to make ads having an archetype? and how can we identify the archetype of the ad?

  2. Hi Saloni,

    Great points. I was not the author of this post but I can speak for my own experiences of working in the advertising industry with the following thoughts: The advertising archetype is not so much something that is of great consideration when creating an advertisement and is more of a result of creating an advertisement. When conceiving any kind of ad, there are certain automatic thought patterns that advertisers jump to, to make a quick and instantly recognizable statement. To appeal to people, the route 1 way of making a connection is to describe a common experience and to use that common experience as a way to communicate a specific message, ie, the archetypal clown used in this article represents the idea of humor, fun, and silliness. However, advertisers often see this archetype as something that can mean so much more. In fact, great advertising takes that archetype and degenerates it to make the simple archetypal connection into something funnier or more meaningful to the product they are trying to sell. So if we take the archetypal image of the clown and put a gun in his hand, the clown suddenly means something else; something more menacing and surreal. In this way, the common archetype is viewed by many advertisers as something very different and something to explore in creative ways.

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