Priming The Customer

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, covers a wide range of topics dealing with the power (and occasional ineffectiveness) of non-cognitive information processing by the human brain. (Or, if you prefer Gladwell’s term, “rapid cognition.”) Intuition, he says, and practiced expert judgment often lead to better conclusions than conscious and detailed analysis.

One of the more interesting phenomena described by Gladwell is “priming”, in which subtle suggestions to the subconscious mind can influence subsequent behavior. The book describes an experiment in which some subjects read a list of words that included some words related to old age and infirmity (think “gray”, “wrinkled”, “Florida”, for example); these subjects were found to walk more slowly to the building’s elevator after the apparent conclusion of the experiment than a control group who did not read the age-related terms.

This is a rather startling, even freakish, result when one considers the subtlety of the cues that ended up changing the behavior of the subjects. They weren’t placed in a nursing home for a day, or shown a lengthy video of elderly people, or asked to imagine what being old might feel like. They simply read a list of apparently neutral words, with a few age -related terms interspersed in a non-obvious way. It’s likely the slowdown effect wasn’t long lasting, but the fact that it occurred at all is interesting. It certainly suggests that “positive thinking”, visualization techniques, and other systems designed to put the user in a particular frame of mind may have some basis in neuroscience.

The marketing implications of priming aren’t clear, but one can speculate that one application might be to prime the viewer of an ad or sales pitch in such a way as to make him most receptive to the message. Of course, this is what most advertising and sales techniques attempt to do, i.e., enhance the beliefs or mood of the target so that the ultimate sales pitch is most effective. Encyclopedia salespeople have known this for years (though they seem to be a dying breed in these days of Google and Wikipedia). Nobody answers the door thinking, “I could really use an expensive encyclopedia right now,” but after an hour of reality distortion by a skilled salesperson many end up buying one. I’m not suggesting that getting consumers to buy something they don’t need is a desirable or ethical marketing practice, but it’s clear that a well-structured sales pitch can have a major influence on behavior.

Priming, though, is different than presenting the target with information, appealing to their needs (real and perceived), and offering tangible and intangible benefits. Priming is subtle and unconscious, and isn’t likely to convince anyone to spend a thousand dollars on a set of reference books. Rather, it might act like the seasoning in a casserole by making the marketing message a bit more palatable.

Imagine an advertisement for a pain reliever. This commercial shows older people experiencing arthritic symptoms, having difficulty with activities requiring manual dexterity, etc. At the conscious level, this ad will be most effective when viewed by people experiencing the exact symptoms described; indeed, advertisers try to target examples that resonate with the maximum number of viewers. One can also speculate, though, that there’s also a priming effect happening. As all viewers watch the images of struggling elderly actors, they will identify in some tiny way with what’s on the screen. To the extent that the message resonates with these viewers (e.g., showing images of youthful vigor returning after using the drug), the company may be effectively reaching a broader market than elderly people with arthritis.

Ads attempting to prime the viewer can be more subtle. Background activity or images may be as effective as what’s happening in the foreground or voiceover. Of course, savvy advertisers have always used subtle cues to enhance their overt message, but understanding priming may help them structure these cues. And, as much as I hate the typical close to a research paper (“more research is needed…”), using priming to enhance marketing is definitely one area where we need more data.

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— who has written 984 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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BenP 6. April 2006 at 3:14 pm

I don’t know but the study about old-related words seems to have a biais. Gray and Florida can lead people to think to relax mood, a rainy day or vacation. If you feel relax you’ll maybe walk slow. The conclusion are maybe rapid cognition…

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