The psychology behind advertising shoes

And you just thought going into a shop and buying your favourite pair of shoes was something you did because you wanted to, and that decision, was totally under your conscious control. Well you could be right if you are very strong willed and live devoid of the media, but for most of us we are being manipulated on a grand scale and it starts off with advertising.

The focus of shoe advertising in the first half of the last century put emphasis squarely on quality of manufacture and fashion. At the beginning of the 20th century most adverts appeared in newspapers and magazines as simple sketches of attractive shoes accompanied with descriptive copy highlighting key features of the product. (Baren, 1998). Increased competition and new advancements in technology meant shoe companies developed more astute ways to attract their customers. Manufacturers and retailers worked to create recognisable identities for their products and by the middle of last century stores were developing their own styles, running large adverts in quality fashion magazines through Co-ops. Department stores paid part of the advert in exchange for promotion.

After World War II, changes due to urbanisation and developing suburbs meant new marketing strategies including direct consumer advertising throughout the media. New footwear adverts focused on products and lifestyles which was a radical change from the illustrations and characterisations.

Nike, in the 1970s were the first to present new advertising campaigns with catchy logos that appeared in image laden print. Soon popular personalities were paid to endorse their products in print and by the 80s television commercials began to appear.

As shoe firms launched increasingly attractive and complex campaigns, branding became the emphasis and by the 90's, advertising strove to turn brand names into household words. This strategy was paralleled in fashion marketing as consumers recognised branded labels as the all-important feature rather than the old school qualities synonymous with style and fit.

Vigorito and Curry (1998) described magazine pictures and adverts as carrying significant messages about cultural (material culture of capitalism) norms and values, including the norms of gender relations. The authors believed mass media was the lens through which people saw themselves. The benefit was people could aspire to models of masculinity and femininity but rarely attained the culturally idealised form of these. A convention of mass media was to elicit a positive audience response by presenting images which reinforced stereo-typical gender definitions.

According to McKenzie (1997) the emergence of a sporting culture in the last 150 years has been the acceptance of physically fit athletic men and women as cultural and aesthetic ideals. The perfect body had become an object of desire and consequently most sports clothing were designed not just to be technically efficient and increase a competitor's effectiveness but also to reveal the body beneath it. From the first release of a keep fit, aerobic video in 1982 sports clothing became high fashion items with shoes the pièce de résistance that completed the outfit. Both media and cosmetic industries reinforced their belief in new health exercise and youth movement by promoting it as a market opportunity.

Drab sweat suits became passé and were replaced by fashioned exercise gear, designed specifically to catch the eye in both gym and high street. Freedom of movement and fitness were reflected in contemporary popular music with loose fitting clothing the preferred style of the emerging 80's. Outfits were not complete unless worn with expensive sport shoes, usually endorsed by celebrities from professional sport.

Since the 70's sports shoes have become extremely popular and are now worn as fashionable footwear and not just for sport's purposes. This phenomenon is not new and was first recognised by Morris in The Naked Ape (1967) who postulated most shoe design innovations were, from antiquity, modifications of shoes designed for recreation such as athletics and dancing. Shoes contain a wealth of social messages both literally as well as symbolically and these are strongly affiliated with cultural rhythms (Hanna, 1985; Rossi, 1993).

In terms of sales, baby boomers make up the bulk of the consumer market and one reason for the popularity of sports shoes has been this generation want to be fitter and healthier as they grow older. Although the relationship between young people's identities and their consumer patterns remains relatively uncharted. Miles, (1995) suggested at such a vulnerable time as coming of age one of the few things to make sense is their role as consumers. The author quoted the works of Willis (1990) who attempted an analysis of the relationship between young people’s culture and the state. He conceptualised young people's efforts to use the symbolic resources provided by the cultural industries as a means of creatively fashioning youth experience, identity and expression. The authors of this paper presented some of their findings from a project that dealt with youth, identity and consumption. As part of the information gathering consumers were asked what attracted them to a particular pair of trainers; or why did they think this particular pair was popular among their peers. The priority was for the consumer to discuss the role of training shoes had in their lives and that factors might influence their role. The meanings young people endowed consumer goods with varied according to a whole range of class, gender and ethnic influences. The authors believed consumption provided a language common to all which transcended perceived differences. Trainers were not viewed as simple shoes for sport but instead become a complex system of meanings associated with a specific brand. These according to Miles reflected a complex system of negotiated communal meanings between young consumers. It was not the specific qualities of the training shoe itself that appealed to young people but the meanings endowed in such shoes in peer context.

Young people readily accept the value of consumption as a means of affirming status in the social group and as long as that social group was important to them then consumer trends inevitably played a significant role. Young people focused on their training shoes as an important means of establishing social hierarchies and self-identity within their subcultures. This image is thought to transcend gender.

The primary function of marketing is to move stock and whilst there are standards of advertising protocols, these marshal gross and obvious misrepresentation, and do little to curb the subtle, subliminal messages hidden within adverts. Our brains subconsciously recognise primal images, things we might call symbols, the most obvious have to do with fertility and appropriation. According to Freud these affect our attitudes and behaviours and designers of adverts have used these secret messages to sell their products from the beginning. This of course does not mean to say it is bad, nor are the commodities being advertised are inferior or detrimental in any way. What it does represent is the science of marketing is extremely well developed and will deliberately target our human senses to achieve their objectives.

Some university students were invited to participate in a small study. A group of adverts for shoes from popular magazines aimed at the young and fashionable adult were analysed for symbolism and divided into two types: those with subtle sexual symbolism and those without. Two groups of subjects were randomly selected and the first were shown adverts deemed to contain no symbolism; the other was allowed to examine the ‘dirty pictures’. Both groups were then asked to describe an innocent but ambiguous picture of a young couple. The first group gave a plausible explanation with no smuttiness; whereas the second group had saucier reasons for the coupling. It would appear from this small test images can radically affect our attitudes and from a marketing perspective the hope is this makes us want to buy more.

Most shoe shops display products they are heavily promoting at the front of their premises. This instantly appeals to the spontaneous buyer with no real idea what they want other than an appeal to the eye. Buyers also beware if you detect a mild fragrance on the premises that is another ploy to get you to part with your money. Researchers at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago conducted experiments to discover the effects of fragrance on buyer’s habits. In a shop, which sold Nike–brand athletic shoes they divided potential shoppers into two rooms: one contained only filtered air and the other was scented with a fragrance. People in the scented room expressed more interest in the footgear and were eager to buy them at inflated prices. Shoppers in the unscented room were generally less interested and fewer purchases were made. Similar experiments have been reported in other retail outlets, casinos and museums. Results show people will stay on the premise longer, examine goods/exhibits more carefully and in the case of the casino, play more money. Fruity-floral scents appeal to both men and women whereas spicy scents were less likely to appeal to female shoppers. Now you know.

Baren, M., (1998) Victorian shopping (pp 96-104) London: Michael O'Mara Books Ltd.
Hanna, A., (1985) Design in strude:explorations in shoe design Industrial Design Jan/Feb 40-45.
Kodis M 1998 Love scents Victoria: Penguine Books
McKenzie, J., (1997) The best in sportswear design (pp 20-23) London: BT Batsford.
Miles, S., (1995) Towards an understanding of the relationship between youth identities and consumer culture Youth and Policy 51 25-45.
Morris, D., (1967) The naked ape London: Cape.
Rossi, W. A., (1993) The sexlife of the foot and shoe Florida: Kreiger Publishing Co.
Vigorito, A.J., & Curry, T.J., (1998) Marketing masculinity: gender identity in popular magazines. Sex Roles 39 135-152.

Reviewed 8/03/2016
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