Consumer is king – was never more true than it is now. As marketing gets more and more consumer-centric, there is a greater need for consumer understanding. Yesteryears’ tools used by market research for exploring consumer behaviour and attitudes are not adequate anymore. There is a need for an eclectic approach by borrowing concepts and practices from the behavioural sciences. RR Nair explains the concept of Transactional Analysis and I discuss some of its applications in advertising.

Kamini Banga


One of the techniques that may be adapted to understand communication, advertising in particular, is what is known as Transactional Analysis.
Transactional Analysis is the brainchild of Eric Berne, MD. His focus was on how people behaved and interacted with each other. He referred to exchanges between people as “transactions.” Some transactions build people up, contribute to living and enable healthy community. Some drag people down, spoil life and lead to unhealthy consequences. The discipline he developed for analysing transactions, came to be known as TA or Transactional Analysis.

TA was designed to help people understand the dynamics of human interactions. To develop this discipline of understanding what was going on between people, Berne had to consider what was going on inside each person. From his training in psychoanalysis, Berne worked on the notion of the ego. From his studies, he concluded that each person has consistent states of ego that they tend to use regularly in similar situations or with similar kind of people. Accordingly, he developed a model of understanding human personality based on 3 broad categories of states of the ego, viz. Parent, Adult and Child Ego-States. People interact with each other from their own preferred style of one or other of these three ego-states, moving between them according to the situation and what is going on inside them.

Each of us starts out with the Child, who incorporates messages from the environment into his / her system of thoughts and feelings. As we grow, we develop the Parent Ego-State into which we integrate parental thoughts, instructions and examples of behaviour. Finally, usually after the age of 12, the Adult Ego-State becomes functional; this means that we have acquired the capability for logical thought and can process reality more objectively. The Adult Ego-State operates like a computer; clear, rational thinking, precise and factual, without being emotional judgmental. Even though it has no feelings of its own, feelings in the Child or Parent State can activate it to consider the variables of a situation and to react accordingly. By the time a person has grown, all the three Ego-States operate interchangeably. Although, internal dialogues, transactions with others and the events of daily life can trigger switches from one Ego-State to another, people actually choose to operate predominantly out of a particular Ego-State. Interestingly, most people are not consciously aware of this and this choice is influenced by experiences.

There are many ways to identify people’s Ego-State. Tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, body posture and attitude displayed are some of the keys to identify which Ego-State is operating at a particular moment. Parent Ego-State has two sides to it; Critical Parent (CP) and Nurturing Parent (NP). When a person’s transactions with another person is characterised by criticism, enforcement of one’s own value system or aggressive behaviour, he or she normally operates in CP mode. On the other hand, if the person is empathetic, warm and supportive, he is in NP mode.

Similarly, the Child Ego-State manifests itself in two ways: Free Child (FC) – spontaneous, curious, free, playful and eager. Or Adapted Child (AC) – conforming, adapting, compromising and non-assertive.

When two people interact with each other from a common Ego-State, the interaction can be considered as a “complementary transaction.” To illustrate: “What’s the time please?” asks Nisha. “It’s half-past one,” Rohini replies. Here both are operating from their Adult Ego-States. Such parallel transactions maintain open channels of communication and can be gratified.

If, on the other hand, when George simply asked his wife where he had left his shoes last night (Adult to Adult Ego-State) and if the reply is “If you kept them where you should you would not have trouble finding them!” (Parent to Child Ego-State) the transaction is obviously not parallel. When there is cross communication, the chances are that any dialogue will come to a halt.

There are also many occasions when the vectors of communication may appear to be complementary, but the real message is hidden, resulting in “hidden transactions.” It’s like what a versatile shop salesman would say to a lady: “Madam, that saree is really very expensive,” thereby sending a hidden message to her that the saree is beyond her reach!
While the overt transaction seems Adult to Adult, the hidden engages the Child in the buyer who might feel slighted and actually end up buying the saree.

Now let us look at how brands communicate through advertising. For a brand like Cadbury the communication transaction between the brand and the consumer would be the brand in the Child-Ego State engaging the Child-Ego State in the consumer. Traditionally, a brand like Surf speaks from the Nurturing Parent-Ego State to the Child Ego State in the consumer and it is a parallel transaction.
In the case of consumer durables it is reasonable to assume that advertising would play the role of information provider. The transaction is likely to be Adult to Adult and a parallel transaction. However, it is interesting to see how white goods advertising is incorporating elements that engage both the Child and the Adult -Ego States in the consumer ( Ice ice baby-Whirlpool refrigerator, Godrej Pentacool refrigerators and the new Whirlpool advertising). Even for very high value items like cars, communication is not just information heavy and the treatment is such that it engages the Child Ego State ( the Santro Xing, Santro).
Banks and insurance companies operate from the Parent-Ego State addressing the Parent in the consumer in terms of reminding them about their responsibilities and planning for the future.

The transaction between the brand image as projected by the brand advertising and the consumer sets the tone for the relationship that the consumer is going to develop with the brand. There is reason to believe that advertising that engages just one Ego State in the consumer may not be as good as one that engages more than one Ego State. Addressing the Child-Ego State of the consumer is particularly useful as it helps arrest attention and create interest and involvement. This can be done through humour, using a celebrity, and finally by creative and non traditional ways of presenting your product. The recent ad for Maruti broke the ad clutter for cars using the child and the Dinky car.

Perhaps the best ads are those that can, depending on the product category, successfully engage different Ego States in the consumer.