One of the more intriguing concepts in neuromarketing is priming, i.e., influencing an individual’s behavior by the introduction of various subtle cues. This often occurs in a subliminal manner, i.e., the individual is entirely unaware that he has received cues of any nature or that his behavior has been affected in any way. See Priming the Customer and Thinking About Money for descriptions of some of the fascinating research on priming. While reading Words that Work by Frank Luntz, we ran across a phenomenon that we’ll call priming by order. In a nutshell, research conducted by Luntz and his firm showed that the order in which three films about a political candidate were played dramatically affected perception of that candidate by focus group participants.

First, a quick comment on Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear – this is a book that should be required reading for anyone in marketing or public relations. In fact, it’s a good read for anyone who wants to understand how to use language to get results, or to understand how others use language to shape perceptions. The author, Dr. Frank Luntz, has built a career and a business around advising politicians and corporations how to choose the right words. Though Luntz may come across as a sort of verbal Svengali, most of his recommendations are based on specific research. He doesn’t just come up with magic words, like renaming the inheritance tax the “death tax,” or calling drilling for oil “energy exploration” – he uses polls and focus groups to find out what really works. I’ve always been a fan of quantitative marketing, so when someone backs up their claims with hard numbers I tend to listen. This book really demonstrates how changing a word or phrase can dramatically alter its acceptance in the marketplace.

Back to priming… The kind of priming we’ve talked about in the past is extremely subtle – individuals are exposed, say, to words or pictures with no particular attention drawn to them. Often, the “loaded” words or images seem to be part of the general background, or are mixed in with neutral content. Subsequently, the behavior of these subjects is observed to be different – a money image on a computer screen saver, for example, causes the individuals who saw it to behave in a more selfish fashion after exposure to it. In Luntz’s book, he describes a somewhat different phenomenon that we think resembles other priming examples.

Luntz’s test began as an accident. In 1992, he was showing focus groups three short films of presidential candidate Ross Perot – a biography, testimonials praising Ross Perot, and a recorded speech by Perot himself. In one session, he inadvertently showed the speech first, and was stunned to find that the individuals in that group were far more negative about Perot than all of his previous groups. Further testing showed that leading with the speech was far less effective at creating a positive impression of the candidate. He attributed this to the fact that Perot had an impressive business background and was well respected, but didn’t necessarily communicate this by his personal presence and words. His ideas were a bit different from those of typical politicians, too. As Luntz aptly puts it, “Unless and until you knew something about the man and his background, you would get the impression that his mental tray was not quite in the full, upright, and locked position.” In his book, Luntz lists “getting the order right” as one of his key techniques for preventing message mistakes.

In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised – sales and marketing are a process, and we wouldn’t expect a salesperson to attempt to close the deal before assessing the customer’s needs, describing the product benefits, and answering objections. In another sense, though, Luntz’s experience IS a bit startling. In this case, the subjects were passively viewing information of three different types – they all saw all of the content and there was no interaction to “close” the deal. Nevertheless, the order of viewing made a huge difference in their opinions even after they had viewed all of the content.

This is clearly an effect that marketers should be aware of – in the Perot case, his credibility was irreparably damaged when viewers were exposed to his somewhat outlandish ideas before his credibility had been established by third party narration and testimonials. Once they were turned off, exposure to the rest of the Perot information didn’t turn the subjects back on to him. It’s common in marketing to lead with a powerful claim to grab the viewer’s attention – “The most effective investment management system ever devised!” – and then follow with supporting information. If you buy into the idea of priming by order, it might be more effective to lead with, “Developed by a company that has been managing its clients’ money for more than 150 years… Described by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as ‘an amazing breakthrough that even I can be irrationally exuberant about…’” and then segue into the actual claims.

Certainly, every situation is different. Perhaps if Perot hadn’t been a big-eared short guy without much hair and didn’t have a manner of speaking that was part cracker and part nails-on-chalkboard, Luntz’s testing of order wouldn’t have yielded such dramatic results. Nevertheless, marketers will ignore this data at their peril – introducing an idea and then backing it up may be less effective than preparing the audience to accept it first.