Classical Conditioning in Advertising – What it Is and Why it Works

Classical Conditioning in Advertising Vs Operant Conditioning in Advertising

classical conditioning in advertisingClassical conditioning and operant conditioning are psychological reactions to stimuli.  These reactions are often exploited by advertisers to convince us to buy their products. Classical conditioning in advertising occurs when consumers respond to a stimulus in a particular, unconscious way.  For example, by salivating when they see a picture of delicious food. Using operant conditioning, advertisers try to change consumers’ behavior by using rewards or punishment. For example, by giving consumers money back after buying a particular product.

Many of the most successful marketing and advertising campaigns throughout history have made use of psychological principles of human behavior. By frequently applying those principles, brands, marketers, and advertisers have been able to have a better understanding of their target audience, which has allowed those brands to build stronger, more meaningful connections.

Use of Conditioning in Advertising and Marketing – How it Works

Why do people buy the things they buy? What compels each of us to purchase one product over another? Why do we choose one brand over another? More importantly, why do people buy those products and services again and again and again?  There are many things that influence the thousands of decisions consumers make each day. But one of the most powerful—and most subtle—of those influencers is that we have been conditioned over time to respond to, be attracted to, and desire those brands, products, and services. Essentially, we, the consumers, have learned to respond to it.

Psychology and the study of human and consumer behavior is one of the most powerful tools in the branding, marketing, and advertising toolbox. When used correctly (i.e., ethically, respectfully, and honestly) it can help brands attract the right audience, compel that audience to purchase products and services, and help brands to build meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with customers.  So how does this all work in marketing and advertising? In classical conditioning, the goal is to get consumers to associate brands with a particular feeling or response. Operant conditioning might be something like an offer or a reward, such as buy one, get one free.

Coca-Cola, for example, has successfully associated its brand with happiness and satisfaction. By associating the beverage with physical activities and environmental factors like sports, the sun, and the beach—things that make you thirsty—Coca-Cola has positioned itself in the minds of consumers across the world as a thirst quencher. So when you’re hot, when you’ve exercised, or when you’re at the beach, there’s a good chance you start thinking about a Coke.  (Source:

Classical Conditioning Basics 

Have you ever heard of Ivan Pavlov and his famous dog experiments? Pavlov was the Russian physiologist who trained his dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with food. After a while, he observed that his dogs would salivate when they heard the bell, even without food. Today, his theories are referred to as classical conditioning.

Classical Conditioning is a theory of psychology that refers to learning through repetition. Its ultimate goal is to create a spontaneous response to a particular situation by repeatedly exposing a subject (consumer) to specific stimuli (a brand, product, or service).  In marketing, the subject is the consumer.  The stimulus is the brand, product, or service being advertised.

Classical Conditioning in Advertising

Using classical conditioning, the advertiser attempts to get consumers to associate their product with a particular feeling or response.  The objective is to ultimately get the consumer to buy their product. For example, an ad for a fast-food restaurant will usually make the food look delicious and mouth-watering.  By association, consumers will feel hungry when they watch the ad and want to go out and buy some of the food. Another example of classical conditioning occurs in ads where you see people having a good time using a product. Consumers may then associate good feelings and having fun with the product and may be more likely to buy the product.  By buying the product, the consumer can then participate in the feeling of well-being.

Advertising is often based on classical conditioning. The idea behind its use is simple. Companies want to make ads that elicit a response in the viewer or reader exposed to the ad. This makes the advertised product the Conditioned Stimulus. The ultimate goal of the ad is to make viewers associate the feeling with the product when they come across it in real life. The objective is that the feeling becomes the Conditioned Response.

Use of Music 

Advertising that uses music is taking advantage of classical conditioning. Music that is happy and repetitive helps consumers to feel happy when they hear it. Consumers then associate the feelings of happiness with the product and may be more likely to buy the product. Jingles that stick in the mind, such as rhyming jingles, or tunes based on popular songs, can also act as a form of classical conditioning. Every time the consumer remembers the tune, they unconsciously also remember the product associated with it. The goal of the advertiser is to make the consumer more likely to buy the product.

Operant Conditioning 

B.F. Skinner’s theory of human behavior refers to changes in behavior as a result of experiences that occur after a response. This is the type of conditioning most people are at least partially aware of.  This is because behavior is controlled, or conditioned, by reinforcement or punishment. 

Positive Reinforcement 

Operant conditioning in advertising occurs when consumers are rewarded for buying a product or service. The reward acts to reinforce the behavior, making the consumer more likely to continue buying the product. For example, coupons are a form of operant conditioning. Consumers use coupons to buy a product at a discount.  The goal is to condition behavior so that they continue to buy the product.  The behavior continues even when the coupons are no longer available.  This is because they become conditioned to buying the product.

Free offers are another form of operant conditioning in advertising. One strategy is to offer consumers a free sample and a coupon good for a large discount.  Included is a coupon for a smaller discount. At the end of this, the consumer may be so used to using the product that they continue to buy it at full price. Offers such as buy 2, get 1 free are another form of operant conditioning.

Negative Reinforcement 

This type of operant conditioning may be used to get consumers to stop doing something. For example, electricity companies may charge more for electricity used during peak hours. This is a way to get people to use less electricity during peak hours. Salespeople who call at inconvenient times or use pressure to convince you to buy a product or service are also using negative conditioning. The idea is that you will buy the product in order to stop the pestering. Another form of negative conditioning is a threat to void a warranty if the consumer does not use the company’s repair and maintenance products. For example, voiding the warranty of a printer if you do not use the manufacturer’s branded ink cartridges.

Classical Conditioning in Advertising – Final Words 

The incredible thing about conditioning as a marketing tool is that, like the case of Coca-Cola, it isn’t at all a negative thing. It presents solutions to problems. Discounts alone can create a negative association with the full price when used too often.  However, classical conditioning in advertising offers incentives and benefits while maintaining the integrity of the brand, product, and consumers. 

Utilizing psychology in this way helps brands connect with consumers as humans beings.  It appeals to a consumer’s mind and needs rather than treating them as transactions. Psychology allows brands to connect with their customers on a deeper, more meaningful, personal level.

Up Next:  What Does “Derogatory Marks on Credit Report” Mean?

If you’ve experienced financial misfortune, from late bills to bankruptcy, that negative information can appear on your credit reports as derogatory marks. It may stay there for several years, but there are a few ways you can address it.  You can dispute the mark if it’s an error, take steps to improve your credit, or wait out the clock.


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