Professors Gavan Fitzsimons and Tanya Chartrand of Duke, and Grainne Fitzsimons of Waterloo, in an article scheduled for publication in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, claim that a mere 30-millisecond exposure to famous brand logos can influence view behavior.
Their findings are sure to stir up controversy because they suggest that subliminal advertising, until recently regarded as a hoax, may actually have something to it.
In 1957, a market researcher named James Vicary claimed to have boosted sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn in a movie theater by flashing the messages "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Eat popcorn" so fast that the audience was unaware of the ads. Vicary's reported findings have been largely dismissed, but recent research suggests he might have been on to something.
A 2006 paper by researchers in the Netherlands, "Beyond Vicary's fantasies: The impact of subliminal priming and brand choice," claims that the subliminal priming of a brand-name drink can influence consumer drink choice, provided the consumer is thirsty to begin with.
"The work we're doing is really studying what we call incidental brand exposure," said Gavan Fitzsimons in a video presentation. "What that means is very short exposure to brand logos."
"Certain brands are associated with different personality traits," said Chartrand. "So for instance, the Apple brand has really cultivated an image of creativity and innovativeness. So we thought being exposed to the Apple brand might lead individuals to become more creative or to have a goal to be more creative."
The professors Fitzsimons and Chartrand asked test subjects to come up with creative uses for a brick while showing them images of Apple's logo and IBM's logo.
"What we found is that people who were subliminally primed to the Apple logo were more creative than people who had been subliminally primed to the IBM logo," said Chartrand. (It's worth noting that the Apple logo in the explanatory video was Apple's old rainbow logo, not its current chewed-fruit silhouette.)
Imagine for a moment the scenario: Shown IBM's logo, test subjects stare at a brick and think, "If I only had another, I could build something." Those exposed to Apple's logo, however, saw a myriad of possibilities for said brick: "It's a jail-broken iPhone after an official Apple update, or a door stop, or maybe I could use it to break Microsoft's monopoly. Why, ground up and seasoned properly, it would make a tasty, mineral-rich meal!"
That, more or less, is how the test involving 341 university students went. And the findings are sure to spark a resurgence of interest in subliminal marketing because a follow-up test showed that imperceptible exposure to other well-known brands also produced a response in subjects. When shown the Disney Channel logo, for example, participants behaved more honestly than those shown the E! Channel logo.
In the video, Gavan Fitzsimons observes that while TV ads aren't always effective because people put up mental defenses, extremely brief exposures to brand images bypass such barriers. TV networks, however, may be less than enthusiastic about figuring out how to market and bill hundredths of a second in air time. And that's to say nothing about the possibility that covert manipulation might prompt consumer ire.
For companies like Apple with strong brands, Fitzsimons suggests that product placement and other forms of marketing that emphasize brief brand exposures may be more effective than traditional print and TV ads. It would not be surprising, however, for print and TV outlets to fund follow-up studies that show the opposite.
Perhaps most interesting are the questions the research leaves unanswered: How do Microsoft employees react when exposed to the Apple logo? Will testimony on Capitol Hill be conducted beneath a Disney logo to encourage truthfulness? Could the IBM logo be plastered on cell walls to prevent prisoners from conceiving clever escape schemes?
And does this technique work in reverse? Could Wendy's cause a decrease in sales at McDonald's by flashing the imperceptible image of the biohazard symbol in a video clip showing the Big Mac?
Further research clearly needs to be done.