What do you want? I’m not being belligerent—that question was rhetorical. But let’s consider it.

The goal of advertising is to sell you what you want. Here’s a secret, though: that usually isn’t the product in the ad. You see, people don’t spend money to buy things they want. They spend money to buy things that will give them what they want.

A simpler way to say that is nobody buys a hammer to have a hammer. You buy a hammer to drive nails. Or to look like a handyman. Or because you’re confused about how to work on your car. The job of advertising is to convince you that a particular hammer will give you that thing. Convince us that a product will give us what we want, and we will sleep in a box like a hobo outside the Apple Store to get it.

So what do you want? I’m serious this time…answer the question. What is it that you want? Happiness? More money? Friends? To open a can of beans? Whatever it is, I believe it falls into one of three categories. These are the “wants” that advertising sells you so that you will buy “stuff.”


1. Want to do

You have a goal. And you’re willing to spend money to make it happen. This is the simplest want that we as consumers bring to the table. It is purely practical in nature. Let’s say you need to get around town. The job of an advertiser, then, is to convince you that if you buy their car, you will be able to get around town. That’s it. Simple. And this approach works great — if there is only one car to buy in your town. But what if there are two? Then your decision will probably depend on one of the other wants.

Notice how the selling points of this 1950's commercial are all about practical features of the car.

2. Want to be

Meeting a practical need is not always the way to a consumer’s wallet. In the previous example, there are two cars to choose from, and they both satisfy the want to do. Let’s assume they are around the same price. What does an advertiser do then? He digs deep and taps into your want to be. This want is about your image. Buy this car, and you will be a happy, successful, manly man of a man. Other men will envy you. Women will want to sleep with you. This is where advertising gets sneaky. By convincing us that their product is the pathway to our favorite version of us, advertisers appeal to our ego instead of our mind. “That car will get you to the PTA meeting. THIS car will get you noticed.”

Notice how the car in this Audi commercial is just part of a story about self-image.

Want to be a cool Dad? This Peanut Butter Cheerios commercial has you covered.

3. Want to belong

Ever think about why humor works in advertising? It’s true that humor is memorable, but what is the promise of a funny commercial? What are they saying the product will give us? Simply put, they are offering us a chance to be in on the joke. To be part of a group of people that has the same sense of humor, the same culture, and the same values. This appeal plays off our desire for relationship. The promise is, “trust us. We’re like you.” Everyone wants this kind of belonging. When you see a message that resonates with what you believe, you feel like you and the advertiser are part of something together.

This Kmart ad is irreverent and hilarious. And it went viral because once we feel like we’re part of a group, we want to bring others into that group.

Dove aligns with the value of true beauty.

When you experience advertising, try to identify which want is being promised to you. And whether that product is actually likely to provide it. Because the truth is, advertising should probably promise a lot less. But then again, maybe we should want a lot less to begin with. Or maybe we should just want better. Because wanting to do something, or be something, or belong somewhere is not such a bad thing.

But who really believes you can get all of that from a shiny new car?