The way subliminal advertising is portrayed in movies and hyped in some media outlets, briefly and imperceptibly flashing a brand name during a TV show can turn people into mindless cyborgs who can’t resist the urge to shop at a particular store or drink a certain brand of beer. Overhyped as these claims may be, there is a grain of truth in them — as a recent post in Neuromarketing points out, subliminal images really can affect our preferences:
In Your Money and Your Brain, Philip Zweig describes a study conducted by psychologist Robert Zajonc almost forty years ago. Zajonc exposed a two groups of non-Chinese-speaking subjects to a series of five Chinese ideographs; one group received five exposures to the symbols, while the other group just got one. In all cases, the exposures lasted only five milliseconds or less, too fast to be processed consciously. Then, Zajonc showed the subjects a larger group of images which included the original set as well as new ideographs and other symbols. The subjects were allowed to view the images for a full second, more than enough time to be conscious of seeing them, and asked how much they liked each one.
The subjects who received five subliminal exposures to an ideograph liked it much better than the subjects who had seen it only once.
So if we’re exposed to an unfamiliar image — even unconsciouly — we’ll say we like it more than people who’ve had less exposure to the same image. And scientists have known about this phenomenon for over 40 years! Does that mean we’ve been secretly brainwashed all this time?
I’d say that’s doubtful. After all, the question for advertisers isn’t so much whether multiple subliminal exposures is better than one or no subliminal exposures — it’s whether subliminal advertising is better than ordinary, in-your-face advertising. You see, there’s also plenty of evidence that ordinary advertising works.
If we’ve heard a message multiple times — even if that message came from the same source each time — we find it more reliable than a message we hear only once. So repetition works both subliminally and overtly.
What’s more, we’ve reported on research suggesting that overt repetition is more effective than subliminal repetition:
Listeners prefer the items they remember, rather than those they know–when they believe they recall hearing a specific excerpt, they like it better. Wang and Chang argue that this result supports the uncertainty reduction hypothesis. They suggest that we prefer things we’ve seen or heard before because these things are less likely to be dangerous: after all, if it didn’t kill us the first time we saw it, it’s probably safe.
Why would an advertiser risk charges of “brainwashing” and “subliminal suggestion” when good-old-fashioned front-and-center advertising is more effective? You don’t have to trick someone in order to affect their preferences. Sometimes the best method of persuasion is the most obvious one.