Unconscious brand exposure affects fashion preference

 In arousal, branding, consciousness, emotion, eye-tracking, neuromarketing, preference, unconscious

It works for FMCG products, high end products, odours and tastes. Brands can affect our experience and preference tremendously.

But what if brands are not seen consciously? Can they still affect your preference and choice?

Several hints from the last decades imply that unconscious brands can indeed affect product preference. In 1957, James Vicary reported that he had successfully affected 45,699 movie goers to buy more popcorn. He claimed that he had inserted brief flashes of the text “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into the regular movie, and observed a tremendous (57.5%) increase in the sales of popcorn after the movie. The Coca-Cola sales effect was less impressive (18.1%) but still statistically significant. The story soon got press and fame, and Vicary was figured in numerous talks, seminars, and even political debates. The unconscious persuaders soon became a theme, both every advertiser’s wet dream and every consumer’s great fear.

Despite Vicary’s fraud, subliminal brand effects still exist as a robust phenomenon

Only a few years later, Vicary admitted that the story was made up. He never actually did the popcorn “experiment”, but was inspired by contemporary talks about the whole topic, and even led to the urban legend of hidden cinema ads. This was also later referred to in movies such as “Fight club”, in which the main character inserted snips of pornographic images into children’s cartoons which led the children to cry during the movies.

Subliminal perception itself is still a robust phenomenon. In a very early study by Sidis (1898), subjects were shown small cardboard cards, each containing a single printed letter or digit. The distance between the person and the cards was such that the they often complained that all they could see on each card was a dim, blurred spot or nothing at all. Based on this, Sidis assumed that the participants were unaware of perceiving either digits or letters. However, when he used a second measure, forced-choice guessing, he discovered that his subjects were able to guess the category of the card (digit or letter). Furthermore, he discovered that the subjects were better than chance at guessing the precise identity of the card. Thus, Sidis uncovered a dissociation between two measures of perception. The subjective, verbal measure from the subjects suggested that they did not ’see’ the critical stimuli, while the behavioural measures from forced-choice guessing suggested that the subjects indeed had perceived the stimuli. Hence, the findings also provoked a theoretical discussion about the relationship between perception and consciousness.

Subliminal perception is a well established phenomenon in psychology

Subliminal perception has also been reported in many special cases. For example, Merikle and Daneman (2000) gave patients undergoing general anaesthesia earphones and a tape recording of repetitions of a series of words. After the surgery, the patients were presented word stems such as ‘gui’ or ‘pro’ and asked to complete these stems to produce a common English word. While these word stems have many possible completions, patients more often used stems of words presented during general anaesthesia (e.g., ‘guide’ and ‘proud’). Merikle and Daneman concluded that “memory for specific stimuli pre- sented during anaesthesia shows that information is at times perceived without any awareness of perceiving during general anaesthesia” (2000, p. 498).

Nevertheless, we still know little about the effects that brands may have on our preference when they are only perceived unconsciously. There is a need for marrying findings from subliminal perception with the studies of brand effects on preference and choice.

…we still know little about the effects that unconscious brands may have on our preference

To alleviate this, my PhD student Dalia Bagdziunaite and myself did a small but impactful study that we will present at the annual convention for the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco in May. Here, 30 women were subliminally exposed to brands prior to evaluating fashion clothing. What we found was that women’s own brand preferences impacted on their ratings of the clothing – despite that they had not seen the brands unconsciously.

We furthermore used eye-tracking running in Attention Tool to assess arousal (pupil dilation) during the test, and found that brand preference was related to changes in arousal already during subliminal brand exposure. Pupil dilation showed a non-linear response pattern, in which pupil dilation was strong for both extremes of brand liking. In other words, when subliminally exposed to brands they either loved or despised, women were aroused. This effect was carried over and even exaggerated during the rating phase, where they evaluated the clothing.

Unconsciously perceived brands affect product preference via emotional arousal

The study demonstrates that brand equity can trigger emotional responses even during unconscious exposure, and then carry on to affect preference of products. Further studies are needed to tease apart the actual mechanisms we observe, and we need to go beyond arousal as a measure – EEG possibly becoming the next thing on the to do list.

To see a draft version of the conference contribution, please download here (PDF).


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