Evidence continues to pile up demonstrating that our brains process information without our conscious awareness, and that our behavior can be affected by these stimuli. Last month, a study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), showed that subliminal images triggered similar brain activity to images displayed in a way that they could be processed consciously.

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Dr. Anna Rose Childress and Dr. Charles O’Brien, showed cocaine patients photos of drug-related cues like crack pipes and chunks of cocaine. The images flashed by in just 33 milliseconds — so quickly that the patients were not consciously aware of seeing them. Nonetheless, the unseen images stimulated activity in the limbic system, a brain network involved in emotion and reward, which has been implicated in drug-seeking and craving…

To verify that the patterns of brain activity triggered by the subconscious cues reflected the patients’ feelings about drugs, Childress and her colleagues gave the patients a different test two days later, allowing them to look longer at the drug images. The patients who demonstrated the strongest brain response to unseen cues in the fMRI experiment also felt the strongest positive association with visible drug cues. Childress notes, “It’s striking that the way people feel about these drug-related images is accurately predicted by how strongly their brains respond within just 33 milliseconds.” [From Does the Desire for Drugs Begin Outside Awareness?]

This type of finding may be no big news to regular Neuromarketing readers, but it underscores the key point that consciousness is greatly overrated. Marketers confidently conduct ad recall and brand awareness studies, assuming that what people consciously remember is what counts. While I’d just about always prefer an ad that scored high on a recall test to one that did poorly, it’s entirely possible that the latter still had some impact.

I discussed this topic a few months ago in Subliminal Branding in Milliseconds. In that article, I described research that showed subjects were found to prefer a Chinese ideograph to which they had been exposed very quickly and below their threshold of consciousness. My recommendation remains the same today as it was then. Marketers shouldn’t start inserting milliseconds-long subliminal messages into their ads. Rather, they should be aware that every exposure of their product, brand, or message counts – even when a consumer may not recall seeing it! Logos on products or apparel, product placement in all types of media, and other low key promotion methods may well be more effective than traditional market research might suggest.

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