My Social Media use changed drastically after researching this article. I look forward to your comments and questions!
How does advertising impact our behavior and beliefs?
The goal of marketing is to affect behavior towards a desired goal. Methods employ use of tactics to change preferences and self-concept. Critics of advertising in the late 50’s and 60’s argued that these techniques exploit a person’s psychological weaknesses and act as a form of mind control causing the person to act against her personal long term interests(1). Marketers and individuals prefer to believe that choices made are made consciously and the role of marketing is to inform and entertain. In this article, I will specifically focus on e-marketing and the neuroscience of marketing; ie, how marketing impacts consumer behavior and the implications on how this methodology could impact society as a whole.
The Economy of Attention.
Most of us spend 2 hours on social media per day and are exposed to 10,000 of ads per day (18, 19). In a world of distraction and competition, marketing focuses on capturing the attention and memory of the target audience. To the degree this is true, careful consideration goes into crafting campaigns which are visually appealing or standout and contain emotional content that influences consumer behavior and enhances memory retention (1, 19). With eye tracking, marketers have ever more access to which ads hold our attention and can target us specifically in the future (20). Most of us scroll past countless ads, ignoring the content: a presumed marketing failure. Ironically, the ads which we spend less time with are the ones which stay with us the longest.
Low Attention Marketing: How our implicit memories determine our behavior.
Implicit memory is what we know without thinking. It feels like our gut instinct. It is our subconscious. Implicit memory can be defined as "unintentional, automatic and unconscious retrieval of information previously stored in memory, without a direct reference to the exposure stage or the information stored itself "(3). Implicit memory stores sense data and emotional content implied by the data perceived unconsciously. Explicit memory, on the other hand, is our conscious observations and includes our conscious understanding of ourselves. The explicit and implicit systems are independent determinants of our behavior (6,9). Most importantly, implicit memory is a more deterministic factor in decision making than our explicit reasoning. The emotional content, also called the Implicit Attitude, is formed without introspection and is a stronger determinant of behavior than attitudes held consciously (2). Which means, we are more likely to make a decision that aligns with our implicit memory compared to our explicit memory. This is true when our implicit and explicit systems agree and even when they do not (10).
We are exposed to incessant pop-up ads which many find uninteresting and unremarkable. Recent research and methods have shown that marketing which is not seen or remembered explicitly has a significant and robust impact on our behavior. For example, research on pop-ups has shown that increased exposure to low-attention ads results in a higher positive evaluation of that brand without consciously knowing anything about the brand(2). In a study of consumer choice, participants were exposed to marketing campaigns for a fictitious company(4). Participants were exposed to pop-ups for these companies while tasked with filling out a questionnaire on a government website and were then tested one week and three months later to determine attitude and recall of the marketing campaigns which varied in the use of words and images. It was shown that the less thought given to the ad and a higher frequency of exposure to an ad resulted in long-term, robust positive evaluation of the brand. While wording gave better control of messaging by the fictitious campaign, participants’ positive recall was the strongest for logo + image pairing after 3 months (4). If you are in marketing, you may feel more hopeful about your next campaign. For the rest of us, we are wondering how we can rescue our subconscious from this unconsented onslaught.
Individual Factors: Individual differences that influence the implicit memory imprinting.
The ability of marketing to subconsciously influence our behavior is influenced by our personal effort, self-esteem, ability to visualize, and the ability to read. Less energetically costly, many of our day-to-day decisions are ruled by our implicit memory (4, 5 , 2). The more effort we put into making a decision, the less influence implicit memory has on our behavior. The act of critical thinking and meaning making activates the explicit memory system. Hence, spending more time with advertising content could reduce the ability of the content to guide your decisions later (2).
The valence, or emotional content, of implicit memory often comes from our self-esteem. Most people have a positive self-evaluation (9,12). Simply associating one’s identity to a product can result in a more positive evaluation of that product in the future. In a study measuring the strength of implicit memory on product choice, participants were asked to associate themselves with a fictitious soda brand(9). Here, participants who were in the soda brand A group, associated it with themselves and evaluated brand A more positively than those who were in brand B or were told that brand A was better, i.e. explicit priming. In addition, the magnitude in which the participant liked “their” brand matched their self-reported attitude towards themselves (9). Another study showed that ads which capture a target’s self-concept, especially ideal self-concept, are more influential on a target's intention to buy (12). Our mood determines how profoundly implicit priming impacts our behavior. In controlled experiments testing the effects of distractions on implicit priming, researchers found that when we are overloaded, we are more susceptible to priming (8). When we are depressed, or more emotional, these moods translate to the brands we are viewing and increase the magnitude of the ads valence. When we are stressed, our cognitive load is burdened and we are less likely to allocate resources to thinking and we are wide open to the subtle influences of implicit priming. Indeed, simple fatigue can set us up to be more easily programmed by implicit exposure and more likely to act congruent with that priming (7,14).
Lastly, Imagery has been shown to be more effective at implicit priming than words. This is thought to be due to the higher cost of word interpretation compared to an image. Interestingly, those who are better at visual imagination are more critical of imagery and therefore less susceptible to visual priming compared to the second half of the population who struggle with visualization (13). When we become literate we are always reading words in our visual field unconsciously and these words are recorded into our implicit memory (4). Words are suggestive of the context of an image and can paint imagery as impactful as a picture (4, 12). Anyone can block this implicit memory channel in their day-to-day life by chewing gum or repeating a word or phrase incessantly, as this activates the same nerves which translate between words and memory (4).
Although not exhaustive, these characteristics may influence how susceptible one is to implicit priming, but no one is immune. Priming guides purchasing behavior and can also lead to dissonance between conscious and unconscious beliefs of the self. Given that implicit memory cannot be consciously programmed suggests that a fast from these stimuli is only half the battle in restoring baseline subconscious activity.
Beyond Brands: How implicit marketing may shape society.
Marketing aims to change behavior and encourage consumers to buy a particular product. How marketers persuade customers explicitly is regulated. False claims about how a product functions or delivers is strictly prohibited (15). Before the internet, marketers could capture our attention in limited circumstances. We could be reached when we chose to read a magazine, watch a movie or a television program. In order to have friends and to work in today’s society, we must be online. And so, we are constantly exposed to ads on social platforms and when we engage in a simple internet search. While subliminal marketing qualifies as deceptive, current regulations assume that these methods are not effective (16). Here I have demonstrated that subliminal, or implicit, marketing techniques do guide consumer behavior. While the marketing is not intentionally subliminal, the manner in which we consume media, allows for marketing messages to slide into our subconscious as we scroll mindlessly or while we are tasked searching for something else on the internet.
The social impact of streaming implicit programming goes beyond our choice to purchase Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Marketing messages can influence our biases and these biases can conflict with our consciously held beliefs. In a study researching the impact of stereotypes in marketing, researchers found that politically liberal participants became more negatively biased when exposed to negative cultural stereotypes about native americans than those who were not. Interestingly, conservative participants were not measurably influenced by the exposure (17).
It is important to note that explicit and implicit attitudes can be in opposition (17, 7). This means that we could act in ways that do not match our conscious belief about who we are and this has both personal and societal consequences. Incongruence between thought and actions is called Cognitive Dissonance and causes anxiety in a person until the difference is reduced (21, 22, 23). To solve this difference, a person must know that they are experiencing dissonance and not stress from an external source and he must know himself (22). The priming we experience online is not simple, rather it is a chaos stream of information. Here we are constantly experiencing dose after dose of dissonance. Long term experience of explicit/implicit motivational conflict can wear down our personal will, reducing self-esteem, and reducing our ability to consciously make change in ourselves (23).
Psychological problems can arise for individuals due to an incongruence of consciously held beliefs and personal behavior guided by the subconscious. A life where we say we believe something, then act opposite to that belief would cause us to lose faith in ourselves and faith in each other at a personal level. In our society which is perpetually exhausted, perpetually online, we are at the whim of whatever comes up on our feed. The less attention we pay to it, the more likely it guides how we act in the future. Not all marketing uses negative stereotypes, but how does online marketing impact our daily decisions in order to support our personal and societal future? At a societal level, humanity faces large obstacles and yet we seem to be making decisions that make our challenges even more challenging. Careful consideration of how marketing impacts society’s subconscious could result in more powerful marketing campaigns for products and better long term outcomes for individuals in society.