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Historical Initiatives in Marketing Mind Control

Marketing teams use mind control to change the way consumers view their brand, sometimes with such efficiency the change in public perception seems to happen overnight. This viral brand awareness effect occurs when messaging uses the three pillars of rhetoric in equal balance. With facts to gain the customer’s trust, a sense of shared values, and the right appeal to emotion, brands achieve campaigns that do more than just improve sales and awareness. Here are three examples of marketing initiatives that made history with their efficiency at convincing audiences to act.

Volkswagen: Think Small

Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

Known as “The ad that changed advertising,” VW’s “Think Small” campaign is a master course in mind control all on its own. Consider the position of Volkswagen in 1959, the year the Think Small campaign was created by Doyle Dane Berbach ad agency. Volkswagen was a German company ready to claim a stake in the international market, faced with overcoming bitter cultural memory in American buyers. They almost went with Vilkommen, or “Welcome” as the tagline for this mission, but “Think Small” won out.

Think Small didn’t stop at pressing the big cultural perception shift of Making Germany Safe Again after World War II. A close-up look at the ad reveals the innovative nature of the copy against existing expectations. The layout mimics the three-column ads that were traditional to that point, but the writing itself is fresh for the era. It doesn’t rely too much on convincing the consumer, just lays out the facts about why small cars might be better and lets the reader think it over. In fact, it speaks to existing customers. But, any new customers out there drawn in by the ad will still get all the information, without feeling like they must do anything. This roundabout approach is certainly less intimidating than a direct appeal for a new, perhaps suspicious customer’s money.

Ad execs and designers across the world were quick to imitate the tactic of leaving more up to the intelligence of the customer…after setting them up to make the right decision, of course.

Key Takeaways:

Put the Audience’s Emotions First: VW made a great call in not “welcoming” themselves right into the buyer’s household—even though that’s what they wanted and hoped for. Confidence is key, but don’t make the audience feel irrelevant.

Sell Without Selling: Volkswagen shared all the compelling numbers that would convince a buyer but didn’t call them to purchase. Sometimes the indirect appeal is more effective. Give data and information, but let the reader draw the conclusion for themselves.

DeBeers: A Diamond Is Forever

De Beers started as a cartel and went on to hypnotize the entire world into believing a diamond has inherent value. During the Great Depression pretty much the only way they could ensure a steady profit was to convince every American that a marriage proposal must come along with a diamond. And it’s no secret they resoundingly succeeded. How? By hacking into the emotions of men and women alike and convincing all of us that A Diamond is Forever.

Around 1947, De Beers executed a demand-generation strategy under that legendary slogan, which they have used ever since. (Perhaps significantly, the tagline was the work of a woman, Francis Gehrety, and she didn’t think it was very good.) The strategy included celebrity spokespeople and carefully-executed ads and news stories about diamonds and romance, but didn’t stop there. The company even went so far as to send lecturers to high schools to tell young women about how Diamonds Are Forever and why they needed one, how the purity of the stone signified the clear eternity of love, or something like that. I mean, I wasn’t there, but it’s easy to imagine, because we’ve been hearing it ever since.

De Beers invested the diamond with social significance from the top down and the bottom up at the same time, and in general added fuel to the fire of early wedding mania. Today the company is beginning to struggle to pivot and appeal to frugal Millennials—in a world where 50% of marriages end in divorce what does “Forever” even mean anymore?

Key Takeaways:

Use Facts Strategically: Sharing tidbits of diamond lore and legend helped De Beers present this initiative as long accepted truth, even when it was a fresh concept. Facts for your campaign might come from research, history, or even your own subject matter experts.

Different Appeals on Different Channels: DeBeers used all three rhetorical appeals in different ways on different channels where they worked best. The example of a celebrity spokesperson convinced some consumers to covet diamonds, while others responded to the logical appeal of a newspaper article, or the longing emotions evoked by a compelling in-person presenter.

Clairol: Does She or Doesn’t She?

Credit: Nesster

In 1956, Clairol was another America company trying to ride the wave of the post-war boom and changing cultural norms. At that time, pretty much the only women who dyed their hair were sex workers or those generally perceived as promiscuous. At the same time, wholesome housewives across America were staring into the mirror frustrated by appearing grey hairs. Clairol wanted to bridge the gap with a brand-new, totally innovative at-home hair dye kit, and so decided on a risky appeal. They ran ads featuring women with lovely dyed locks, and simply raised the question, Does She or Doesn’t She?

This question succeeded in appealing to Clairol’s target audience because it engaged with the illicit cultural undertones around their brand yet made that potential safe for the everyday woman. A woman purchasing this dye would have a secret all her own, something exciting, yet others would not know for sure. The women in the photos, often with their children, certainly looked nice enough. The fear of Clairol’s target consumer was anticipated, addressed, and pivoted to a positive at once, in five words.

In 1967, the slogan’s creator, Shirley Polykoff, was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame thanks to the campaign’s success. By then, a mere 11 years later, the number of women dyeing their hair at home in America had gone from around 7% to anywhere from 50-70%. (It must be hard to know exactly, if the product performed as advertised.)

Key Takeaways:

Know Them Better: This campaign succeeded in part because it spoke to emotions the average woman might have been unwilling to recognize on her own. If you can make your audience feel safe in sharing a secret or filling a basic need, loyalty is likely to follow.

Ask for Multiple Opinions: In 1956, Life Magazine originally turned down this ad for being too much of a double-entendre. Polykoff challenged the all-male board of editors to show the advertisement to women in the office, who loved it and all knew it was about hair dye. In short, don’t assume your perspective on the right kind of appeal is the correct one, or enforce it without examination and discussion. 

Mind control through marketing and advertising is a powerful thing, one that as we’ve discussed causes larger shifts in cultural consciousness than simple quarterly sales increases. Mind control is powerful, which means it must be used responsibly. As you set out to tell your brand story in an authentic yet effective way, remember to wield these tools with integrity. We’ve laid out the best practices we know in a confidential dossier….take this quiz to find out how you fit into your brand’s content spy team, then download the Content Espionage Field Manual below to get to work.



Agent, you have been selected for one of marketing's most important secret missions: content espionage. On your assignment, you'll be expected to gather intelligence about your target audiences, employ shadow tactics to deliver content at strategic points, and conduct your work in absolute secrecy. Download the Metonymy Media Bureau of Content Marketing's field manual for procedures in reconnaissance, mind control, spy networks, and more for maximum marketing impact. This lead generation form will self-destruct upon completion.