How to Build a Latticework of Mental Models

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ca$hvertising" by Drew Eric Whitman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are cognitive shortcuts in advertising? How are they used to influence consumer decision-making?

According to Drew Whitman, cognitive shortcuts are an effective marketing strategy for convincing consumers to buy products spontaneously. In his book Ca$hvertising, he offers examples of common advertising techniques that rely on cognitive shortcuts.

Keep reading for some examples of cognitive shortcuts in advertising, according to Whitman.

What Are Cognitive Shortcuts?

According to Whitman, one way to craft strong advertising is to use outside sources like customer testimonials, celebrity endorsements, medical endorsements, and so on to confirm the effectiveness of a product. The reason this works is that humans naturally try to do as little mental work as possible and prefer to rely on cues that signal credibility—an example of the cognitive shortcut process in advertising—like testimonials and logos of organizations. Relying on cognitive shortcuts is mentally easier than doing in-depth research to verify credibility. 

(Shortform note: In Influence, Robert Cialdini calls the phenomenon of believing in a product or idea because others do the Social Proof Principle: We subconsciously feel that because others approve of and use a product, it must be good. The Social Proof Principle, like cognitive shortcuts, is a specific type of reliance on a cue—widespread social approval—that signals credibility and lets us avoid verifying that credibility ourselves.)

Example 1: Endorsement Advertising

According to Whitman, to use a cognitive shortcut in endorsement advertising, it doesn’t matter if consumers have heard of the organization or person offering the endorsement. Simply seeing that an official-seeming group believes in your product is often enough to get consumers to buy it. Similarly, merely seeing the image of a doctor in your ad—even if no doctor endorsed your product—makes consumers believe more in your product. 

(Shortform note: It may pose no ethical concern if a consumer hasn’t heard of an industry organization that’s endorsed your product, but it may be ethically dubious to use an image of a doctor or other professional in your ad—or, many argue, to advertise medicines at all. Advertising budgets for medicines have risen steeply since 2011, and many ads are now for expensive, niche medical treatments that might spur consumers to demand treatments they don’t need or that are unnecessarily expensive. Some suggest that any product that could benefit from the endorsement of a medical or other professional shouldn’t be advertised in the first place and should exist outside of the marketplace (medicines, legal services, and so on).)

To obtain testimonials from customers, simply ask them for their opinion and offer something in return—for instance, copies of the ad in which they appear. 

(Shortform note: Jeffrey Gitomer adds a recommendation for obtaining strong testimonials: Ask the customer to make their testimonial specific, showing how exactly your product helped them.)

Example 2: Bandwagon Advertising

Whitman describes bandwagon advertising as another example of relying on cognitive shortcuts to market a product. Show the audience how your product makes them a part of a group, writes Whitman. Humans have an innate drive to be a part of groups for survival, and if your ad shows them how your product or service includes them in a group they want to be a part of, they’ll be more likely to buy. These groups can be demarcated by age, education, location, politics, and more. 

Once you’ve decided what type of group you want to feature, tailor your advertising to that group. For instance, if you believe customers of your learning platform want to belong to a group of highly educated people, show how taking your courses makes people smarter and more worldly. 

(Shortform note: While the need to belong to a group is innate and helps humans survive, when it becomes too strong, it can lead to groupthink. This is a phenomenon in which people stop thinking independently in service of establishing uniformity within the group. It’s possible groupthink plays into consumer buying choices: Someone might buy the latest Apple product simply because as an existing Apple user, they feel they should remain an Apple user, not because the product is truly superior to competitors’. Advertisers might take advantage of this by creating ads that pressure consumers to buy just because everyone else is buying, but the ethics of such advertising would be questionable.)

Other Examples of Cognitive Shortcuts in Advertising

Here are a few more examples that Whitman offers of common cognitive shortcuts in ads: 

We buy from brands and people we like. So feature well-liked celebrities in your ad or write warm ad copy. (Shortform note: Cancel culture, which arose over a decade after this book was written, might make the inclusion of celebrities in your ads risky: It’s easier than ever before for people to call out and “cancel” a celebrity on social media if that celebrity has behaved badly.)

We buy from brands and people we find attractive. We consider attractive people to be more likable and trustworthy than others, so use attractive models in your ads. (Shortform note: For many years, “attractive” in advertising was defined as being tall, thin, white, and often blond. Now, advertisers are starting to redefine what an appealing face and body are to include people of all ethnic backgrounds and body shapes.)

We buy from companies that have given us something. When we receive something from a company, we feel compelled to give them something in return: our business. So offer the customer something valuable—a free trial, a free sample, and so on—and they’ll feel obliged to buy from you. (Shortform note: What Robert Cialdini refers to as the Reciprocity Principle is a product of evolution: When our ancestors reciprocated favors, they worked together and survived more easily. We’ve thus inherited an impulse to reciprocate any favor made to us.)

We buy when we feel there’s limited availability. Because humans always want what they don’t have, if you show in your ad that your product is only available for a limited time or in limited supply, customers will instantly want it. (Shortform note: You could also create a sense of limited access to a product by restricting access even to information about it. You might thus have a bare-bones website with only a field for the customer to enter their email address, where they’ll receive further information. This makes your product seem exclusive and thus appealing.)

Cognitive Shortcuts in Advertising: Most Common Examples

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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