Classical and Operant Conditioning in Advertising

Associative learning, an essential form of conditioned learning commonly known as classical conditioning, which is accepted in consumer behaviour literature as a mechanism pertinent for understanding and generating advertising effects like persuasion (Allen and Madden, 1985). Schiffman and Kanuk state that “a great deal of advertising fits the model of conditioned learning” (1983, p. 176). With others also stating that “the ability of commercials to form associations by classical conditioning is well established and widely used” (Hawkins, Best, and Coney 1983, p. 314). It is indicated by Gormezano, Prokasy and Thompson (1987) that Pavlov’s theory revolves around a classical conditioned form of learning where an unconditioned stimuli (US), generates an automatic response known as an unconditioned response (UR), then allowing conditioned stimuli (CS) to encourage a conditioned response (CR). This method of learning is evident in Snickers’ recent advertisement featuring Mr.Bean (Rowan Atkinson).

Before this advertising approach, the product may have had a neutral response; however the use of celebrity endorsements within the commercial optimistically adjusts consumer behaviour substantially (Zwilling and Fruchter, 2014). In this setting, the US would be the Snickers bar with the UR being both hunger, and familiarity with the brand. Rowan Atkinson would be the CS in this setting therefore optimistically forming a CR, that being the consumer associating Snickers with Mr. Bean.  The commercial attempts to be persuasive via the use of humour, and again celebrity endorsements. According to Mail Online (2014) the public have a positive perception of Rowan Atkinson and find him amusing, therefore consumers are vulnerable from the offset in regards to any attempts of humour carried out by the comedian. With Humour being a widely accepted tactic within the advertising industry (Duncan and nelson, 1985), it is evident that this approach from Snickers is appropriate and significant, with Brooker 1981; Kennedy 1972; Kilpela 1961; Lull 1940; Pokorney and Grüner 1969 stating how humorous messages prove to be more effective than serious versions of the same communication. In addition to this, Snickers using celebrity endorsement to grip the viewers’ attention is paramount in this attempt, and according to Pringle (2004) it is a highly effective strategy.

The method of Operant Conditioning founded by Skinner (1938) is a process of learning in which behaviour is controlled and maintained by its consequences (Staddon 2003; McSweeney and Murphy, n.d.). McSweeney and Murphy (n.d.) also state how positive and negative punishment cancels out unwanted behaviour, and prevents reoccurrence.  A recent ‘Dannon’ advertisement provides an example of operant conditioning.

The advert gives a prime example of negative punishment, as the husband in the scene somewhat teases his wife with the ‘Oikos’ yoghurt, which is evidently an unwanted behaviour, so she therefore attacks him and takes the yoghurt away from him. By removing the desirable object, it decreases the chances of the husband repeating the behaviour again (Staddon, 2003). However, regarding the relationship between the advertisement and the consumer, the fact that the product caused conflict in the ad between two loved ones, gives the viewer an idea as to how irresistible the yoghurt is, therefore making the product desirable. The element of learning behaviour communicates with the demographic via negative punishment, portraying the product as enticing. Dannon attempt to be persuasive with a combination of humour and shock tactics in the form of conflict- an intelligent move by the brand as shock tactics prove to be one of the most effective ways to increase brand sales (Virvilaitė and Matulevičienė, 2013), and with humour being a common success in regards to advertising techniques used within the industry (Duncan and nelson, 1985).

Another brand taking advantage of operant conditioning is FedEx with their ‘caveman’ advertisement.

The learning method applied is evident in the perceived message sent out from the ad, that seeming to be that if you do not use FedEx to send off your package, then it will not reach its destination. Negative reinforcement and positive punishment are the forms of operant conditioning that prove momentous in the outcome of the ad. FedEx with this advertisement somewhat warn the demographic about consequences that may occur if they do not use their service- with the ad showing the caveman getting punished for not using their service. The caveman in the advert seems to purposely represent a present potential consumer for FedEx, with the ad portraying in an exaggerated and unrealistic manor, what would happen to the consumer if they have a lack of involvement with the brand. This is done in order to eliminate behaviour therefore increasing the chances of the consumer capitalising the service in the future (Lovata, 1987). The advertisement shows elements of persuasiveness in the form of wit and humour as the surplus amount of humour in the ad helps make the ad a lot more memorable, therefore aiding the initiation of brand recall, which is optimistic and significant (O’Guinn, 2009).

To conclude, it is evident that learning methods like classical and operant conditioning were used in the advertisements in subject, and prove effective and useful when used correctly as the methods somewhat change the consumers behaviour and perception involuntarily, in order to accommodate the companies preferences. Snickers by using classical conditioning will have increased their chances in having an impact on their demographic regarding brand image, and brand recall. Also, by Dannon using operant conditioning within their ad, they were able to encourage a perception of irresistibility amongst their market. Finally with operant conditioning assisting FedEx in having an impact on their consumers in a way that makes them feel as though FedEx are the only option when it comes to sending off parcels. Both theories are influential and ideal when it comes to advertising.


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Mail Online, (2014). The older generation doesn’t like ‘aggressive humour’, study finds. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Feb. 2015].

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Pokorny, G.F. and Charles R. Grüner (1969), “An Experimental Study of the Effect of Satire Used as Support in a Persuasive Speech,” Western Speech, 33 (Summer), 204-11.

Pringle, H. (2004). Celebrity sells. Chichester, West Sussex, England: J. Wiley.

Schiffman, L. and Kanuk, L. (1983). Instructor’s manual with tests and transparency masters (to accompany) Consumer behaviour, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Staddon, J.E.R. & Cerutti, D.T. 2003, “Operant conditioning”, Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 115-144.

Skinner, B. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York, London: D. Appleton-Century Company, Incorporated.

Virvilaitė, R. and Matulevičienė, M. (2013). THE IMPACT OF SHOCKING ADVERTISING TO CONSUMER BUYING BEHAVIOR. ecoman, 18(1).

Zwilling, M. and Fruchter, G. (2014). Matching Product Attributes to Celebrities Who Reinforce the Brand: An Innovative Algorithmic Selection Model. J. Adv. Res., 53(4), p.391.

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