Operant conditioning vs. classical conditioning in advertising

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Advertising is an industry worth big money. Global brands and corporations spend billions on advertising each year, with the retail industry being one of the biggest spenders. To make their spending worthwhile, advertisers usually adopt clever behavioural psychological techniques to win your hearts and ultimately, your wallets. In the hope of increasing the demand for their products, marketers often use the two types of psychological conditioning in behavioural learning theory; operant conditioning and classical conditioning. They do this with good reason too, as behaviour affects everything we do.

Classical conditioning

Discovered by famous psychologist Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning can best be explained by learning behaviours by association. This type of behavioural learning works by coupling an environmental stimulus with a neutral or “naturally occurring” stimulus. Pavlov demonstrated this with dogs, by placing the environmental stimulus of a sounded tone whenever the dog salivated upon seeing food (the natural stimulus). Eventually, the dog learned to associate the tone with the food and would salivate on hearing the sound of the tone alone. Although humans aren’t dogs, we are still greatly affected by our behavioural urges. Seeing a delicious cake in a window will often give us the urge to eat that cake and make us feel hungry, even if we tell ourselves it is unhealthy and have just eaten.

Classical conditioning in advertising

Advertisers can use our behavioural urges and classical conditioning to their advantage. One great example in advertising is the typical deodorant and perfume advert you see on TV. There will be a guy or a girl that uses a particular product and then, all of a sudden, becomes surrounded by attractive members of the opposite sex. The neutral stimulus, or behavioural urge, is the desire for love and attachment with an attractive male or female. The environmental stimulus is the product, which when used, appears to enhance the ability to satisfy that behavioural urge.

Operant conditioning

A term first described by psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, operant conditioning is based on the behaviour associated with reward and punishment. The idea behind operant conditioning is that behaviour can be learned through the environmental act of implementing rewards and punishments. Skinner himself said that operant conditioning is "active behaviour that operates upon the environment to generate consequences." For example, a child misbehaving in a classroom may be given detention as a punishment. The hope is that if given detention enough times, the child will stop misbehaving. This is the basis of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning in advertising

In advertising, we most often see implementation of the “reward” side of operant conditioning. Open up your purse or wallet and you’ll probably see a few loyalty cards floating around. These are prime examples of operant conditioning in action. A coffee shop may offer a scheme like “buy five cups of coffee get your sixth free.” The reward of a free cup is enough to keep you going back for more. However, this isn’t the only kind of operant conditioning advertiser’s use. Regularly brands take to the streets to offer you free samples or send you discount rewards in your email or post to encourage you to use their products.

Operant vs. classical

Behaviour is a massive aspect of psychology and the way we act. Both operant and classical conditioning can be equally effective for marketers. The type of conditioning used often depends on the industry being promoted. A motor manufacturer is unlikely to give out a free car in the hope you’ll buy one (operant), but they’ll happily pay for an advert showing an extremely happy person driving their brand new vehicle (classical). Low priced retail advertisers often have the best of both worlds, using classical conditioning in their TV adverts or marketing material, and adopting operant conditioning by handing you free samples or reward cards. Many global brands adopt these psychological techniques. Pay attention and you’ll see just how much they are used in advertising. You may be surprised at how much they can affect your behaviour.

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