How Advertising Works: Repetitions, Rhetoric & the System 1 Brain

It’s not the ad customers consciously remember, but the ad their subconscious never forgets that generates the sale.

The statement above is a type of ‘antimetabole’—a rhetorical device that the human brain seems almost hard wired to accept. Advertising that works with the brain, leads to sales gains. (Ryhmes work the same way!)

Nobel Prize winning Behavioural Economist Daniel Khaneman divides the functioning of the human brain into two modes—System 1 and System 2.1

Pure System 1 is intuitive, automatic, unconscious, fast, and takes little to no effort.

Pure System 2 is deliberate, conscious, slow, and takes effort.

System 1 is arriving home from work only being vaguely aware of how you drove home. System 2 is multiplying 32 x 16 in your head. Just try it for a second, you can feel the effort it takes to do math in your head.
The Systems can be thought of as a scale with ‘1’ representing almost no cognitive effort and ‘2’ being focused concentration. We spend much our work-day at about 1.5, which is somewhat effortful, and occasionally spike up to near pure System 2.
As Khaneman says, “many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.” Thus we live most our lives in System 1.
Most advertising is scripted, produced and edited in System 1.5—2. They are received by listeners and viewers in System 1—1.4, which is good for advertisers because System 1 is more accepting of messages than System 2, especially repeated messages.

The repetition of messages has a powerful effect on the brain. Just think of how many songs people can sing along with on the radio and never put any effort into learning the lyrics.

Experiments replicated since the late 1970s2 have found that “Repeated statements feel easier to process, and thus truer, than new ones. Surprisingly, this illusory truth effect occurs even when claims contradict young adults’ stored knowledge (e.g., repeating The fastest land animal is the leopard makes it more believable).”3

In most of the experiments, false information is mixed with factual information. With increased repetitions and exposure, even false statements begin to be considered true and factual. Repetitions of truthful, believable, factual, plausible, information are even more readily accepted.

This effect is similar to what behavioural economists call ‘anchoring’ or ‘priming.’

Khaneman illustrates this effect with an experiment conducted on Realtors in Florida. The real-estate agents would look at a home and read a detailed brochure about the home. In the experiment “half the agents saw an asking price that was substantially higher than the listed price of the house; the other half saw an asking price that was substantially lower.” The agents were then asked their opinion about reasonable buying/selling prices of the house and the factors that has affected their judgement. As Khaneman notes, “the asking price was not one of these factors; the agents took pride in their ability to ignore it. They insisted that the listing price had no effect on their responses, but they were wrong: the anchoring effect was 41%” Agents who saw a higher price, estimated higher. Agents who saw a lower price estimated lower.1

The anchoring effect is very powerful. Professional Realtors “were almost as susceptible to anchoring effects as business students with no real-estate experience whose anchoring index was 48%. The only difference between the two groups was that the students conceded that they were influenced by the anchor; while professionals denied that influence.”

Everyone is affected by anchoring and priming effects of repeated exposure to an idea or message. Advertising and marketing are about anchoring and priming a prospect for the time when the product or service is relevant to the potential customer.
The brain is also more likely to accept information when people are distracted or under time pressure.

In a series of experiments Daniel Gilbert found time constraints, speed reading and “interruption increased the likelihood that subjects would consider a false assertion to be true but did not decrease the likelihood that they would consider a true assertion to be false.”4

The fast thinking System 1 accepts information especially when distracted, tired and if the information is repeated. Radio ads are a powerful medium because most people are in System 1 when driving, in most cases their System 1 is consumed with driving (Distraction!) and the repetition of the ad over time creates acceptance of the message. Television has two levels of engagement—attentional on the couch and background sound. Background sound is effectively radio. Attentional on the couch is slightly higher on the System Scale and dependent on context of the viewer. Are they alert? or Tired? Are they watching at the start of the day with a full store of mental energy or later in the day after expending energy?

Information is rejected by System 2. To trigger System 2 rejection, the information usually is counter to a quickly accessed, strongly held System 1 memory. Think of the statement from a few paragraphs above about the fastest land mammal. Many people will know it is a cheetah, but if not a strongly held System 1 memory, System 2 does not kick in to analyze the information and repetitions can be effective.

A very visible example is partisan politics. Strong supporters of Red or Blue candidates are rarely ever swayed by advertising or news coverage. Less partisan voters can be swayed.
Advertising should be crafted with the attention level of the recipient in mind and designed to slip past any rejection by System 2.

Ads that are attention getting, distinctive or easily remembered on first exposure are more likely to catch the attention of the System 2 brain and thus be scrutinized and possibly rejected.

Two methods to slip past System 2 are innovative framing and rhetorical styling.

A large body of research has confirmed what we all know: Rhyme Leads to Reason.5 Or as Atlantic Monthly writer Derek Thompson says, “people process the rhyme, then seek the reason.” And since we know the brain is lazy and avoids true System 2 reflection—the rhyme or rhetoric is not subjected to reason.

The list of linguistic tactics ranges from the antimetabole and antithesis to parallelism and tricolon. The distinguishing feature of these linguistic tactics is the smooth, sing-song structure of the sentences. (Alliteration!)

Dale Carnegie was a master of lyrical aphorisms and axioms: “Don’t be afraid of the enemies who attack you, be afraid the friends who flatter you.” Or, as I like to say: The smoother the expression, the stronger the impression.

Innovative framing is a twist used in conjunction with the linguistic tactics and is exemplified in TED Talks and Malcolm Gladwell books.

The TED/Gladwell technique is to ask a rhetorical question that people may not have a strong System 1 answer in their memory or intuition. In the instant that System is drawing a blank or weak response, an answer is given that few recipients would have ever considered.

For a Financial Advisor who specializes in retirement income planning, an open-ended rhetorical question might be something like "what is the most important thing to know before you retire?"

Most people’s System 1 will likely leap to some obvious answers like ‘having enough money’ or ‘health insurance.’

The TED/Gladwell innovative framing goes deeper into the structures of money and health insurance and might be something like:
Advisor—“Minutes. Money. Meaning. How to replace what work provides. How are you going to replace the 2,400 minutes of free time a week that used to be filled with work? How are you going to structure your savings to replace a pay check and cover health insurance premiums that were a part of the paycheck? How are you going to replace the purpose and meaning you earned from work, from doing important and valuable things?”

When it comes to politics, public policy and legislation, issues that have not been defined as Red or Blue are most likely to slip past System 2. (Rhyme!) In VCreek’s national polling in the Spring of 2019 respondents age 45-65 were asked, “What should leaders in Washington, DC do to ensure more Americans have a secure retirement?” Forty-three percent favored tax incentives for workers to save more, 21% said increase taxes on the wealthy to fund Social Security, 9% selected mandatory savings and 27% said “Incentives for private companies to offer pension plans.” The legislation that could lead to incentives for private companies to offer pension plans is the SECURE Act, and the pensions would actually be annuities purchased within a 401k. There were Red/Blue partisan splits on Social Security/Tax Incentives, which is to be expected, but “incentives for private companies to offer pension plans” showed no partisan lean because the issue has not been defined as Red/Blue and slipped past System 2. The SECURE Act passed with bi-partisan majorities.

Ads and messages that slip past System 2 are accepted by System 1 and are the ads that, with enough repetitions, the subconscious never forgets.


  1. Kahneman, Daniel Thinking Fast and Slow