Le Bon’s book on Crowd Psychology was recommended to me as a means to better understand the way in which the mass market receives, interprets, and responds to advertising. But having read it, I’m left with the sense that in most instances the two have nothing to do with one another, and the number of instances in which they do is decreasing.
The theory itself is rather interesting, albeit a bit depressing: that a crowd of human beings is in many ways like a herd of animals – unintelligent, impulsive, incapable of logic, reacting on negative emotions, short-sighted, and other unflattering adjectives as well. Le Bon makes an excellent case for this, along with a plethora of historical examples, as well as coming to the unfortunate but undeniable conclusion that civilization is itself a crowd and all of human history has been shaped by packs of human beings at their very worst behavior.
The point at which this departs form advertising in the mass media is this: that while the advertiser may be broadcasting a message to a large number of people, they are generally not assembled as a crowd when they receive it. They receive the message in different locations and often at different times, and as such they interpret and respond to it as individuals, not as a crowd.
So the assumption that “mass” advertising reaches people who are in the same place at the same time is incorrect in most instances. Advertising at sporting events is likely reaching a large number of people, who are assembled as a crowd and often behave as one – but for the most part, this is not the manner in which a person consumes advertising: they are reading or watching entertainment in a solitary state of mind.
And to Le Bon, it is that collective state of mind that causes a group of people to become a crowd – and until that collective identity forms, it is merely a group of individuals who are coincidentally in the same location. So even if a television advertisement is played in a crowded place, the people it reaches are not in the mindset of a crowd, and do not react as a crowd.
There are likely instances in which this knowledge will serve me well – such as in dealing with teams and committees. Le Bon has much to say about those kinds of crowds – though small and structured, they follow the same behaviors and act with as little intelligence, insight, and forethought of a larger group. However, I remain unconvinced that these principles are applicable to advertising.