Davison dubbed this the “third-person effect,” and it goes a long way toward explaining how lifestyle advertising might influence consumers. When Corona runs its “Find Your Beach” ad campaign, it’s not necessarily targeting you directly—because you, naturally, are too savvy to be manipulated by this kind of ad. But it might be targeting you indirectly, by way of your peers. If you think the ad will change other peoples perceptions of Corona, then it might make sense for you to buy it, even if you know that a beer is just a beer, not a lifestyle. If you’re invited to a casual backyard barbecue, for example, you’d probably prefer to show up with a beer whose brand image will be appealing to the other guests. In this context, it makes more sense to bring a beer that says, “Let’s chill out,” rather than a beer that says, “Let’s get drunk and wild!”
Unless we’re paying careful attention, the third-person effect can be hard to notice. In part, this is because we typically assume that ads are targeting us directly, as individual buyers; indirect influence can be harder to see. But it’s also a mild case of the elephant in the brain…
Sometimes it’s even necessary to do something risky or wasteful in order to prove that you have a desirable trait. This is known as the handicap principle. It explains why species with good defense mechanisms, like skunks and poison dart frogs, evolve high-contrast colors: unless it can defend itself, an animal that stands out quickly becomes another animal’s lunch. For a nonbiological example, consider the difference between blue jeans and dress pants. Jeans are durable and don’t need to be washed every day, whereas dress pants demand a bit more in terms of upkeep—which is precisely why they’re considered more formal attire.
In the human social realm, honest signaling and the handicap principle are best reflected in the dictum, “Actions speak louder than words.” The problem with words is that they cost almost nothing; talk is usually too cheap. Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: being told “great job!” or getting a raise?
We rely heavily on honest signals in the competitive arenas we’ve been discussing—that is, whenever we try to evaluate others as potential mates, friends, and allies.