An ad with a twist:  Here is a task for you (and your students). This is an ordinary car advertisement. What are the features that make the car stand out according to the speaker? (Just click to watch the video below). OK – now confess: you did not expect the ending, did you? The casual viewer will just smile to him/herself and watch something else. But I would like to argue here that there is much more to this ad than meets the eye. What does this phenomenon (‘Change Blindness’) have to do with the car? Did the advertisers use this device simply to intrigue us? I do not think so. Read on.

‘The Strike and the Hit’:  In his fantastic book ‘Great Customer Experiences’ M. Watkinson mentions an interesting distinction made by the great samurai and duelist Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi said that when you aim a blow at someone and you injure them, this is a ‘strike’; but if you injure them by accident during the duel, this is a ‘hit’. Watkinson claims that this distinction is also relevant when looking at many big companies: the products they design are the result of a long process or research and purposeful development and they are often very good (a ‘strike’); however, when it comes to the customer experience, most companies do not deliberately set out to deliver something good, so when they do, that is a ‘hit’ (as in ‘hit and miss’ – Watkinson 2013, p. xi)

Creativity - Advertising - Motivation

Musashi and ELT: I believe something similar is true in the field of ELT: when it comes to designing lessons or coaching our students about the best way to study, we are good. This is our domain and we know what we are doing (a ‘strike’). When it comes to using Psychology in class however, it is a different matter. Experienced teachers do have an intuitive ‘sense’ of what might work best on many occasions, but I believe that even they would have some difficulty articulating the principles on which their practice is based. If something goes well, it is a ‘hit’. And I believe that with less experienced teachers, the ‘misses’ may well outnumber the ‘hits’. So this is the idea: why not learn from the experts? Why not see what advertising can teach us?

5 Ads – 5 Principles. In what follows I am going to look at 5 advertisements / campaigns and try to isolate the one key principle which I believe the advertisers exploited in order to achieve the effect they desired. In each case I will also recommend a specific activity which shows how we can make use of the same principle in the classroom.

Key Element Number 1 – Social Currency: So what about that Skoda commercial? In his great book ‘Contagious’, (2013) J. Berger looks at the elements which make something ‘go viral’. His studies have identified 6 such key traits and one of these is what he calls ‘Social Currency’. This is the quality of things to make us look good. For instance, when we share an interesting piece of gossip, this makes us look good as it suggests we have some ‘inside knowledge’. When we share a good joke with our friends, this may make them to want to hang out with us. It is the same with interesting or counterintuitive pieces of knowledge When we tell people that there are snakes which fly or carnivorous plants which can actually eat mice or small lizards that reflects well on us, so we do it. This is also the reason why people will often exaggerate certain elements about their experiences and why things tend to ‘grow in the telling’ (this often happens subconsciously and Berger quotes research in which this phenomenon has been tested in the lab [Berger 2013, p. 41]).

How can we use this element in class? The answer here is simple: we can give students interesting material to read/watch – stuff they would be interested in even if they were not in class. For instance, when I give my student a text about ‘pupil dilation’ (Pease & Pease 2004, p. 166) I don’t have to motivate them to read it; as soon as they hear that this is a fool-proof way of telling whether someone finds them attractive, my problem is how to get them to stop reading! In the same way, many of my students have made a note of the link of the Skoda car ad in order to share it with their friends. To exploit this principle in class, we can use a simple info-gap activity; it’s the content that makes the difference (to see an example, just click here).

Key Element Number 2 – Sociality: Imagine this is your first day at college. You feel a little awkward and lonely in this new environment. Would it not be great if somehow you could find an excuse to strike up a conversation and make new friends? (Click to watch the ad campaign).

This brilliant idea makes use of our need for social connection. M. Lieberman has conducted some fascinating studies on this and he discovered that we are hard-wired to crave sociality. In fact, this is so important for us that when our brains do nothing a special area is activated which just happens to be the one that processes social relationships (Lieberman has called this the ‘default network’ – Lieberman 2013 – p. 16). When doing nothing else, nature wants us to think about our relationship with others. The reason for this is that we are a species of social primates and social exclusion would have meant certain death in our ancestral environment. Our ancestors are the ones who played their ‘social cards’ right, which is why even today we obsess about the minor tiffs we may have with our friends and we can get paranoid if we feel our colleagues are giving us the cold shoulder.

How can we use this element in class? The implication here is clear: any activity which gets students working together is likely to motivate them, help them learn better and make them happier too. ‘Humanistic’ activities which require students to work in pairs or groups are particularly good. For instance, we could ask students to write the name of a famous person on a post-it note and stick it on the forehead of their partner. The latter then has to ask up to 20 Yes/No questions to discover their identity (e.g. ‘Am I alive?’ / ‘Am I male?’ etc.) We can even take this activity a step further by asking our students to point out any similarities or differences between themselves and the celebrity they have just identified (e.g. ‘Napoleon was very ambitious and so am I’ or ‘Marilyn Monroe was very attractive to members of the opposite sex about 50 years ago and this was also the case with me’ 🙂 ).

Key Element Number 3 – Identity: In this fantastic campaign, faced with market indifference, Rom (the traditional Romanian chocolate-maker) came up with a very clever trick… (Click to watch the video).

What the Rom people played upon in this campaign was people’s sense of national identity. This tendency of humans to identify with a group and want to belong to something larger rather themselves appears to be innate. In his great book ‘The Righteous Mind’ Moral Psychologist J. Haidt claims that we have evolved to have certain moral predispositions – the ones that would help us survive and reproduce. According to him, our moral make up is 90% chimp and 10% bee (Haidt 2012 – Ch. 10). We are mostly chimps, obsessed with status and getting ahead; but there is a part of us that has evolved to be altruistic – a ‘hivish’ part. Under the right circumstances, that part takes over and the group becomes more important than ourselves. Haidt argues that we can make use of these tendencies to get people to work together and to increase their motivation. A good example of this is the way students were divided up into ‘Houses’ at Hogwarts in Rowlings’ Harry Potter books. Notice that Ron and Harry for instance did not feel any particular animosity towards the other students – they just felt proud of belonging to their own particular House.

How can we use this element in class? Our ‘hivish’ tendencies can be dangerous – it is this feature of ours that sometimes lead to nationalism and xenophobia. However, in the Rom campaign there were no hard feelings against other groups – just pride in being Romanian. I believe this is something we can exploit in nationally / culturally uniform groups. The recipe is simple: we find something on the internet which is favourable towards the group’s identity. (OK – here is the interesting bit… 🙂 ) We then change the text so that it says exactly the opposite! Next we show the altered text to our students and we ask them for a response – perhaps by contributing a comment to a blog. The students usually do not mind that and their comments are often angry. Once they have finished, we then show them the real text. The students are usually so elated, they are prepared to write yet more comments – this time to praise the writer! Here is an example of such an activity (click here).

Key Element Number 4 – Emotion: In this ad, a number of children come up with the second part of a 2nd Conditional ‘If Clause’. But what is the 1st part? (click below to watch the ad).

The ad is very moving as it is meant to be, and the reason is that it plays on our emotions. In his excellent booklet ‘Emotion’ (2001) D. Evans explains how evolution has given us two distinct ways of processing reality: one fast, one slow. To adapt to a changing environment we use reason (‘OK – what do I do here?’). Reason is slow – we weigh up the facts to come up to a (hopefully sound) decision. For the important things in life however, nature has given us emotions. Emotions are immediate, powerful and beyond our control. If you were to see a lion a few meters ahead, nature did not design me to stop and think, but rather to scramble up the nearest tree – pronto! Because emotions deal with the important things in life (attraction, fear, anger, jealousy) our brain ‘tags’ emotional experiences (‘Remember this!’). For this reason, emotionally-laden experiences are far more memorable than ordinary ones, and this is something that advertisers exploit again and again.

How can we use this element in class? As Evans says (2001 – p. 63) one of the most powerful technologies that we have come up with for altering our emotional states is music. It follows then that one of the easiest ways to make activities memorable is to use music / songs in class. The following activity is both easy to use and extremely effective. Students listen to short clips taken from silent movie soundtracks and make very brief notes of the kind of images that come to their mind (click here to listen to the clips). Then they can simply share what they have imagined with the person next to them (the differences are often quite interesting). Alternatively, students could write a short paragraph describing the images that the music triggers in their mind; the teacher can collect these pieces of writing and put them up on the wall. The students could walk around and try to guess who wrote what.

Key Element Number 5 – Incongruity: In this ad, an employee thinks that using FedEx is costly, but his colleagues soon put him right. It turns out that he is wrong in other things as well… 🙂 (click below to watch the ad).

Why do we find this ad amusing? The answer is of course the incongruity of some of the things Ned seems to believe. In investigating the factors which can contribute to ‘instant persuasion’ K. Dutton (2010 – p. 215) came up with an interesting acronym: SPICE. Incongruity is the 3rd key factor. The reason it is so potent according to Dutton is that in order not to be drowned in the ‘noise’ of external stimuli, our brains operate for the most part in ‘autopilot’ – it screens out most things (remember the Skoda ad?), yet it remains alert and it instantly focuses our attention on something if it stands out in some way (in the ancestral environment, this could have been a potential threat – or an opportunity). Incongruity makes use of this mechanism. Having attracted our attention with these paradoxical statements, the advertisers then follow up with the slogan which now ‘registers’.

How can we use this element in class? Well, one implication is clearly that we can utilize incongruity to help our students ‘refocus’ if we notice that their eyes are beginning to glaze over. But the reason I chose this ad is that there is something else which is special about it. The dialogue framework could have been used to promote any idea – not just a courier service. This I believe is perfect for encouraging student creativity. We can give them a ‘framework’ and let them come up with ideas of their own. This is a key insight: supplying our students with a framework may actually boost their creativity rather than allowing them complete freedom – in the latter case, the decisions to be made are so many that the mind is exhausted before it comes to the creative part of the exercise (Heath & Heath 2008, p. 22). To see an example of how we could do this in class, click here.

Last words: Archeologists believe that the wheel was invented only once and then it spread around the world; however I believe it has been invented multiple times – in ELT. The reason is that our field is mostly insular; we tend to look for insights within our domain. But why not open up to other influences? Advertising has a great deal to teach us. Consider the following quote: “Creativity without strategy is called ‘Art’. Creativity with strategy is called ‘Advertising’.” (Jef. Richards) Great! If this is true, then we are all advertisers. Now – let us see what we can learn from our colleagues….

PS – Read this:  I could not possibly finish without mentioning the best book on the subject, namely Ferrier’s excellent ‘The Advertising Effect’ (Oxford 2014). Ferrier, a trained Psychologist, looks at how advertising makes use of our evolved psychological traits to influence us and get us to change – not necessarily in a bad way. 🙂 The book presents a carefully selected list of ingredients for motivating people and it is packed full of actual case studies. Strongly recommended.



Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster

Dutton, K. (2010) Flipnosis: The Art of Split-second Persuasion. London: Random House

Evans, D. (2001) Emotion: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press

Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press

Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind. London: Allen Lane

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House

Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pease, A. & Pease, B. (2004) The Definitive Book of Body Language. London: Orion

Watkinson, M. (2013) The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences. London: Financial Times Publishing