Feeling Itchy?

itchy dogI’m guessing marketers of products for itch relief, athlete’s foot, and the like already know this… but itching can be stimulated by seeing other people scratch, and even by images of itch-causing creatures like bedbugs. Last month’s Scientific American Mind had a interesting article on the neuroscience of chronic itching. Much of it was no doubt interesting to the 10% of the population who suffers from chronic itching, but the neuromarketing takeaway from the piece was how easy it was to induce subjects to feel itchy themselves without a real cause.

Thinking about itching, seeing people scratch, looking at pictures of bedbugs or other itch inducers – all can bring on an irresistible urge to flick away that irksome feeling…

Most people need only watch others scratching to start themselves. Just seeing a picture that is connected with scratching – a photograph of fleas, for example – can do the trick as well. But until recently, there was not even any clear scientific evidence of this widely shared experience.

To close this gap, our team, under the direction of medical psychologist Jorg Kupfer, conducted a psychological experiment with students. Our unsuspecting participants were asked to evaluate the educational quality of a lecture on the topic, “Itching – What Is It?” The test subjects – 60 medical and psychology students – attended one of two different lectures. One group viewed images of lice, fleas, bedbugs and allergic skin reactions; the other group saw babies and calming landscapes. Unsurprisingly, the students in the first group scratched themselves significantly more frequently during the presentation than their counterparts in the second one did. [From ScientificAmerican.com - Chronic Itching: Causes and Cures by Uwe Gieler and Bertram Walter.]

The researchers suggest that mirror neurons may be involved in the itch initiation process. These neurons mimic the activity of others in our brains, and have been associated with the “contagion” of yawning.

So, unless you really want to get your customers itchy, keep any images of people scratching and creepy-crawlies likely to suggest itching out of your marketing…


This post was written by:

— who has written 985 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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3 responses to "Feeling Itchy?" — Your Turn


Lee 22. July 2008 at 3:21 pm

Just reading this made me feel like itching and thats not normal for me! Interesting feedback, I didn’t realise it had the same effect as yawning. But I’m not clear, is it good to depict itching related media if you are a brand trying to sell a soothing product or is it best to stay clear and promote the image of being soothed. I suppose a combination of both, from Itchy emotional marketing to depicting relief and being soothed.


Peter 3. August 2008 at 7:25 am

Hh I’ve really started itching when read first few lines :). Btw I am courious about other things like this. For example when you are eating something tasting other people get hungry too. Any other examples like that?


Joe 4. August 2008 at 9:11 pm

I started itching when I first saw that little dog scratching.

Yes, and no. They should both be used strategically. You want to show images of itchiness up close on the display for your product to inspire an impulse purchase. You want to use relief imagery in mass media to build relief into the products identity. Once relief has been built in, AND the shopper suddenly feels itchy, there’s your magic combination. To enhance that, ask retailers to display provided images of itchiness around the store. You want the shoppers to start being annoyed by the itching ASAP and continuously as they shop. A little evil I admit, but effective.


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