Most of the time, cognitive dissonance seems like an internal battle: You believe one thing but act in opposition to that belief, or you believe two contradictory things and are forced to reconcile the inconsistencies within your mind. (1) But, there may be external forces — such as advertising, marketing, or public relations — responsible for creating the dissonance, too.
After all, the main job of these industries is to influence the views and behaviors of consumers like you. (2) Like it or not, you’ve likely experienced?cognitive dissonance?as a result of media or marketing influences, you just may not have recognized it.
Cognitive Dissonance in Advertising
Advertisers try to paint a picture that your life isn’t complete without their product or their service. Many use cognitive dissonance to point out the inconsistencies between the idealized version of you and the real-life you. You experience dissonance because you want to see yourself in that idealized way, but you don’t necessarily use that product or service.
“It’s a tool that marketers and advertisers use all the time,” says?Matt Johnson, PhD, professor and research fellow at?Hult?International Business School who is based in Boston. “A lot of advertisements are set up where they’ll make this explicit claim that you’re only cool or beautiful or worthy (or some other positive attribute)?if?you own this product or service.”
Think about a shampoo commercial. A beautiful woman’s hair blows in the wind. She looks happy, healthy, and gorgeous. The underlying message is that you too could look happy, healthy, and gorgeous if you use the same shampoo she uses. You experience dissonance because you want to look and feel happy, healthy, and gorgeous, but you don’t necessarily use that shampoo.
You, the consumer, are left with a few options, Dr. Johnson explains. You can reject the claim completely (which is what very strong-minded people do, Johnson says). Or you can resolve the dissonance by accepting the message and changing your behavior, meaning you buy the shampoo. Or you can resolve the dissonance by accepting the message and changing your belief. You may start to see yourself as less beautiful and healthy because you?don’t?use that product, Johnson says.
“You can modify your original belief system or you can resolve the cognitive dissonance by actually buying what they’re selling,” Johnson says. The advertiser, of course, wants you to do the latter. And if you choose the former, your self-esteem will likely take a hit since you must acknowledge you don’t possess these positive qualities.
The more persuasive and more compelling the advertisement, the stronger the dissonance and the more urgently you’ll need to resolve it, Johnson adds.
You may have seen this tactic used by luxury companies who set out to sell a lifestyle more than a specific product. “You may not even see what the product is within the advertisement,” Johnson says. “What they’re doing is marketing a lifestyle and marketing a status or a mentality that’s associated with the brand.”
Their goal is to get you to believe in and support that brand because you want to attain that lifestyle.
Cognitive Dissonance in Public Relations
Public relations experts also use cognitive dissonance theory as they try to sway the way people think or behave, usually by presenting information to move people to their side.
As Terence Flynn, PhD, an associate professor in communications at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, wrote in an Institute for Public Relations article: “Persuasive communication is at the heart of public relations.” PR pros attempt to influence the beliefs or actions of the public by presenting information that creates cognitive dissonance. In order to resolve it, you have to change your attitudes or actions (and thus the PR campaign has influenced your attitudes or behavior).
Consider this example: A new personal care brand challenges its PR company with getting consumers to buy its natural line of tampons. It becomes clear to the PR team that many women don’t even realize their tampons might contain unhealthy materials, so they design a campaign that spreads this news and raises awareness. Learning about this information will create tension (dissonance) among women who wear tampons. They’re left with a choice to continue to buy their go-to brand while potentially letting these harmful materials into their bodies or to buy the new, natural brand.
When Cognitive Dissonance Affects What Media We Consume
The role cognitive dissonance plays in communications is not always a manipulative one, though. Another example is how dissonance can sometimes influence and alter our media consumption habits. This is the case when people look to the media, or specific media outlets, to affirm their beliefs. (2)
Let’s say someone is an active National Rifle Association member. When they hear news of a school shooting, they might experience dissonance since this new information (the news that guns were used to carry out a tragedy) challenges their attitudes about guns. They may look to media outlets that promote conservative, anti-gun-control views to find information that reinforces their thoughts about gun rights (and therefore lessens the dissonance they feel). Researchers call this phenomenon “selective exposure” to media. (2)
Cognitive Dissonance in Communication Can Be Manipulative — but It Can Also Do Good
When the product or service being pitched to you is something you don’t need (or worse, something that could harm you), the use of cognitive dissonance in communication seems sneaky, like the advertiser is trying to trick you. Think cigarette ads from the 1960s and 1970s that continued to paint smoking as glamorous even after science had started to reveal its true dangers.
When Cognitive Dissonance Leads to Good Behavior
But ads and public relations can sway people to practice good behavior, too. Maybe an advertisement is trying to persuade you to buy a product or service that’s in your best interest and could benefit your long-term health, Johnson says. A piece of exercise equipment that’ll keep your heart healthy, for example, or even switching to a toxin-free deodorant could end up being a good influence. Public relations campaigns have?rebranded?recycling as “cool.”
Using cognitive dissonance in communications can nudge people into positive behavior, too, Johnson says.
If, however, you’re constantly viewing advertisements that make you reconsider your actions or your beliefs, you’ll inevitably feel stressed because you’ll need to continually resolve these internal conflicts, Johnson says. “If you’re constantly being bombarded by advertisements and having to resolve this, then it can lead to chronic stress, which is really bad.” Being?chronically stressed?for a prolonged time can lead to lowered immunity, heart disease, or changes in your brain.
Can You Avoid It? No, and That’s Okay
The short answer is no, you can’t really avoid feeling cognitive dissonance as a result of communication and the media (without avoiding communication and the media altogether). In 2007 The New York Times?reported that people then were exposed to an average of 5,000 ads each day. (3) By 2022,?Forbes estimates that number had soared to as many as 10,000 per day. (4) From social media to billboards to the sides of buses and taxis, marketing surrounds us.
But the plus side is that acknowledging these ads and resolving any conflicts they present can lead to increased self-awareness, which Johnson says is always a good thing. “Self-awareness is a really great tool at people’s disposal as they try to navigate the commercial world,” he says.
Rather than feeling frustrated by the tension the cognitive dissonance creates, know that it’s a natural process that all human beings go through. Simply recognizing that feeling of tension or dissonance when it happens — and realizing it may be a result of an ad or public relations campaign — can help that conflict feel less significant, Johnson says.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- What Is Cognitive Dissonance? Definitions and Examples. Simply Psychology. February 5, 2018.
- Weeks B, Lane D, Kim DH, et al. Incidental Exposure, Selective Exposure, and Political Information Sharing: Integrating Online Exposure Patterns and Expression on Social Media. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.?October 12, 2017.
- Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad. The New York Times. January 15, 2007.
- The Attention Economy: Standing Out Among the Noise. Forbes. March 23, 2022.
- Flynn, Terence. How Narratives Can Reduce Resistance and Change Attitudes. Institute for Public Relations. November 3, 2015.