Operant Conditioning vs. Classical Conditioning in Advertising


Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are psychological reactions exploited by advertisers to convince us to buy their products. In classical conditioning, consumers respond to a stimulus in a particular, unconscious way – for example, by salivating when they see a picture of delicious food. In operant conditioning, advertisers try to change consumers' behavior by using rewards or punishment. For example, by giving consumers money back after buying a particular product.

Advertising image of a hamburger.
Advertising image of a hamburger. (Image: Francesco Ridolfi/iStock/Getty Images)

Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, the advertiser attempts to get consumers to associate their product with a particular feeling or response, in the hope that the consumer will then buy the product. For example, an ad for a fast food restaurant will usually make the food look delicious and mouth-watering so that consumers will feel hungry when they watch the ad and want to go out and buy some of the food. Another example of classical conditioning occurs in ads where you see people having a good time using a product. Consumers may then associate good feelings and having fun with the product and may be more likely to buy the product.

Lifestyle photo of woman smiling and eating salad.
Lifestyle photo of woman smiling and eating salad. (Image: Warren Goldswain/iStock/Getty Images)

Use of Music

Advertising that uses music is taking advantage of classical conditioning. Music that is happy and repetitive helps consumers to feel happy when they hear it. Consumers then associate the feelings of happiness with the product and may be more likely to buy the product. Jingles that stick in the mind, such as rhyming jingles, or tunes based on popular songs, can also act as a form of classical conditioning. Every time the consumer remembers the tune, they unconsciously also remember the product associated with it. This may make the consumer more likely to buy the product.

Close up of guitar.
Close up of guitar. (Image: Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

Positive Reinforcement

This is a type of operant conditioning in which consumers are rewarded for buying a product or service. The reward acts to reinforce the behavior, making the consumer more likely to continue buying the product. For example, coupons are a form of operant conditioning. Consumers use coupons to buy a product for money off, then continue to buy the product even when the coupons are no longer available, because they become conditioned to buying the product. Free offers are another form of operant conditioning. One operant conditioning strategy is to offer consumers a free sample, then a coupon good for a large discount, then a coupon for a smaller discount. At the end of this, the consumer may be so used to using the product that they continue to buy it at full price. Offers such as “Buy 10, get one free” are another form of operant conditioning.

Woman with coupons.
Woman with coupons. (Image: Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

Negative Reinforcement

This type of operant conditioning may be used to get consumers to stop doing something. For example, electricity companies may charge more for electricity used during peak hours. This is a way to get people to use less electricity during peak hours. Salespeople who call at inconvenient times or use pressure to convince you to buy a product or service are also using negative conditioning. The idea is that you will buy the product in order to stop the pestering. Another form of negative conditioning is a threat to void a warranty if the consumer does not use the company's repair and maintenance products. For example, voiding the warranty of a printer if you do not use the manufacturer's branded ink cartridges.

Telemarketers. (Image: George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

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