Subway Advertising and the Illusion of Choice

I lived in San Francisco for almost exactly a year. I didn’t own a car: I took the subway (the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART).

Going from Berkeley, there were only two available trains, and I could time my arrival at the station to the one that would take me to downtown SF, where my office was. But coming back from SF to Berkeley in the evenings, there were a lot more trains, and timing my arrival was effectively impossible. The net of this was, I spent an awful lot of time standing around at San Francisco BART stops.

At these stations, they have advertisements plastered on the walls. So, as you stand behind the bumpy yellow line and periodically glance at the LED displays overhead, you’re looking in the general direction of the ads.

Often, I would catch myself reading and rereading the same ads over and over, because they didn’t change them too often. But, strangely, I wasn’t getting frustrated.

Historically, on most platforms where advertising spaces existed, they got in the way of the content. The ads before YouTube videos are still a prime example of this: you have to sit there and endure at least 5 seconds of some advertiser yammering before you can get on with the content you actually want to watch.

But in the San Francisco subway, I didn’t get annoyed at the ads. And I think the sole reason is, they weren’t forced on me. They didn’t get in the way of any content I was trying to view, they were just available as things-to-look-at. Not that there was anything else in the things-to-look-at category, but I could still choose to stare at the floor or a section of wall without ads on it, if I wanted to. The fact that the ads were the most visually interesting things in the vicinity didn’t produce any of the same anger I felt at the ads before YouTube videos.

This is a marketing tactic I call the illusion of choice. The decision between “look at an ad” and “look at a blank wall” isn’t really a decision, but it feels that way to you. Your eyes moved to the ad all on their own. The ad wasn’t even moving or flashing or anything, it was just sitting there. So, if you end up rereading an ad over and over, the advertiser’s message is still getting into your brain, but you aren’t annoyed about it, because it felt like your own choice. Contrast this, again, with YouTube ads: getting the same advertisement over and over again when it’s forced on you is tedious, boring, and infuriating.

More and more marketers are learning that providing prospects with the illusion of choice is the key element that transforms annoying ads into tolerable ones. And, over time through repeated exposure, anything that is tolerable becomes likable via the Mere-Exposure Effect.

As people existing in an advertising-saturated space, we need to keep this tactic in mind. Just because it felt like your choice to look at a subway ad, or watch a sponsored skit from your favorite content creator, doesn’t mean it was. And, once something has gotten into your brain as a non-offensive stimulus, repetition will push your opinion of it higher and higher until the company paying for the advertising gets your money.

Before buying something, always consider where the association between the thing and the company you’re planning to buy from originated. Because, if it came from a subway ad, it was probably the illusion of choice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *