Subliminal Branding in Milliseconds


We are subjected to a constant stream of branding messages – company logos, brand emblems, and even distinctive designs are, quite literally, everywhere. In addition to conventional advertising media, it seems that just about every item that can be used to convey a message has been pressed into service. The net effect of this barrage of branding might seem to be “brand blindness.” Rather like the “banner blindness” that web marketers talk about, we seem to risk inoculating consumers against most advertising – they may simply tune everything out. Indeed, statistics show, for example, that recall of television ads has declined over the years. But before marketers cut back on brand promotion, they should check out research on subliminal exposure to symbols and what has been dubbed the “mere-exposure effect”.

In Your Money and Your Brain, Philip Zweig describes a study conducted by psychologist Robert Zajonc almost forty years ago. Zajonc exposed two groups of non-Chinese-speaking subjects to a series of five Chinese ideographs; one group received five exposures to the symbols, while the other group just got one. In all cases, the exposures lasted only five milliseconds or less, too fast to be processed consciously. Then, Zajonc showed the subjects a larger group of images which included the original set as well as new ideographs and other symbols. The subjects were allowed to view the images for a full second, more than enough time to be conscious of seeing them, and asked how much they liked each one.

The subjects who received five subliminal exposures to an ideograph liked it much better than the subjects who had seen it only once. (Oddly, the high exposure group generally rated other images as more likable and and were in a measurably happier mood, too.) The conclusion was that the presence of familiar things, even when we are unaware of the exposure, makes us feel better. Zweig quotes Zajonc, “The repetition of an experience is intrinsically pleasurable. It augments your mood, and that pleasure spills over to anything which is in the vicinity.” Zweig notes that contrary to the old maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, that in fact in breeds contentment.

Although the study had nothing to do with branding per se, Zweig thinks that repeated brand exposures are why investors tend to overpay for stocks of firms with famous brand names, and why so many people accepted investment guru Peter Lynch’s advice to “buy what you know.” (I suppose that an alternate explanation is that companies with highly recognizable brands have an advantage in the marketplace, and that investors tend to bid up the shares of those firms. And buying shares of unfamiliar companies in unfamiliar industries is at least as risky as buying what you know.)

It would be interesting to repeat Zajonc’s study using fMRI to measure brain activity instead of quizzing the subjects about their image preferences. It wouldn’t surprise me to see even stronger subconscious reactions which the subjects might not be able to articulate when asked.

The neuromarketing message is clear. No, I don’t mean that Nike should start inserting four millisecond subliminal swoosh images in their ads. (Perhaps the swooshes are already there and I simply haven’t consciously processed them. Fortunately, I don’t think the frame rate of current broadcast technology can quite pull that off.) Rather, I mean that the efforts of companies to incorporate a brand image both on their products and in many kinds of media actually DO have a positive effect – even when consumers may not recall being exposed to the brand image.

Frequent exposure is only one part of the total branding process, of course. Consumers have to know what the brand stands for, and that should be positive. The slanted “E” of Enron was a powerful image among the firm’s investors, customers, and employees, until the same symbol was transformed into the “crooked E” and an emblem of corporate malfeasance. Still, I think that seeking out new ways to expose one’s brand image, even in situations where it may not attract conscious attention, is a worthwhile effort.

One example that comes to mind is the once-ubiquitous Samsung logo on airport luggage carts. Wheeled luggage carriers have little to do with the high-end consumer electronics products that Samsung is best known for, and I’d guess nine out of ten harried air travelers wouldn’t have a clue as to whose name or logo was on the gizmo loaded up with their suitcases. At the same time, I’d also guess that a subliminal impression was recorded not just by those who actually used a cart, but by many other bored travelers scanning the crowd while they waited for the luggage carousel to start up.

Proving the ROI of a branding effort is notoriously difficult. I’d recommend looking for lots of eyeballs at a reasonable price, demographically targeted where appropriate. No single effort is likely to have a huge impact on brand familiarity, but multiple exposures in different situations will get the ball rolling. For more discussion on a related topic, see Brain Branding: The Power of Strong Brands and a short followup with some news and blog links, Brain Branding Story Grows Legs.

  1. Alex says

    Has there been any research done on how long the positive feelings towards that particular ideograph last? Obviously, the point of this is that getting the logo out there as often as possible is desirable – but if advertising is to be organised into campaigns, it would be interesting to know when the results of that campaign are likely to start tailing off.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Alex, I haven’t seen data that shows the duration of this phenomenon. I’d add that the effect is strongest for unfamiliar symbols, like the ideographs. Hence, a newer brand might have more to gain than a brand like, say, Marlboro. In another study of subliminal emotion (which may not be particularly relevant to the image/branding topic), the effects were short-lived – about a minute. Here, though, the key effect seems to be creating familiarity, which might be much longer lasting than a fleeting emotion.


  3. chadwick says

    Gaining as much positive familiarity is obviously the main point here, but subliminal messages seem to have a rather broad definition. I’m not to sure when exactly it was, but I’m sure it was Coca-Cola who used extremely short flashes of the brand image, which (at the film theatres) resulted in an increase in Coca-Cola purchase during a break, or after the film. This caused a restriction on how few frames per second were allowed to be used in motion (film/television) advertising. The reason I have brought this up, is that it seems to me that the effect of this kind of subliminal messaging has a very different result to building familiarity, and would surely follow different pathways in the brain. Now this kind of subliminal advertising is completely different to sexual subliminal messaging. When do we cross the line? Surely a 2 frame advert would be considered more subliminal than “sex” cleverly put amongst iceblocks in a print ad. The 2 frame advert watched over and over would still go past the conscious mind, which does not apply to the print ad. So could someone tell me why something that isn’t completely subliminal (such as sexual ques that are actually there) is given the same title as short frame rate ads, when there is clearly a big difference in the way these adverts are taken in?

  4. Sean says

    First, my regards on your excellent website.

    However, a nitpick on word usage here: Chinese characters should be termed”logographs” (representing words) than ideographs (representing ideas). Although a select few characters retain a more or less 1/1 concept of idea meaning, they are far more commonly used as and more accurately considered simple representations of words, not ideas. Indeed, any familiarity with Chinese character usage will quickly dispel the thought that a single characters represents a single or related group of ideas any more than the string of letters in “Leave” only represent ‘the generally flat, green photosynthetic portion of a bush, tree, or other plant.’ It would be a minor issue if the perception of Chinese characters as a primitive pictographic or ideographic system as opposed to our (‘logical’) phonographic representation wasn’t such a pernicious and persistent mythology in English-speaking minds.

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