Feature Stories


Unconscious Consumer Behavior in Marketing

By Amy N. Dalton, Associate Professor, Department of Marketing, HKUST Business School

Simply asking consumers how they are influenced by different elements of the marketing mix, including products, brands, retail stores and salespeople is a largely ineffective approach.

That’s because consumers are often unwilling or unable to describe the nature of the influence with any degree of accuracy. Indeed, we know that marketing - and other aspects of our environment - can affect psychological experiences and behavior so subtly that individuals can fail to realise what is happening. Moreover, a sizeable body of research, conducted over several decades, now suggests that much consumer behavior happens unconsciously and is something they can’t control.

If that is the case, though, how can we know they are being influenced at all? To study that, we rely on priming, the technique researchers use to track unconscious effects in the laboratory and in the “real world.”      

The technique is based on our understanding of how the mind processes and responds to aspects of the environment. The basic theory is that mere exposure to these aspects temporarily activates, or primes, associated mental concepts. These can include memories, emotions, attitudes, goals, stereotypes, and character traits.

For example, you might walk through a shopping mall and pass the retail store H&M. This mentally activates the concept “H&M” and others associated with it, such as “trendy” and “inexpensive.” In this way, primed concepts influence our immediate thoughts, judgments, feelings and behaviors.

So, if just after passing H&M, you are asked to estimate how much you will spend next time you buy clothes, you will probably mention a low figure, given that activating “H&M” has also brought to mind the associated concept “inexpensive.”

In fact, this is precisely what my colleagues and I found in a series of field studies where we spoke to consumers in shopping malls. We also found the opposite occurred when we stopped people walking past relatively expensive stores. The latter group estimated they would spend significantly more on their next clothing purchase. Importantly, in all these studies, the consumers were unaware that the store they happened to be walking past was influencing the amount they were apparently willing to spend.

Such effects are an example of supraliminal priming. It describes how priming occurs in the real world, where people are consciously aware of an environmental cue - a retail store - but unaware of its influence on them.

In contrast, laboratory research often relies on subliminal priming. That is where people are unaware of an environmental cue, yet still influenced by it. For example, we see this if test subjects are seated in front of a computer monitor which flashes an image of a brand of drink for fractions of a second, while they are working on an ostensibly unrelated task. The image is below the radar of conscious perception, but this subliminal exposure to the brand increases the likelihood that, subsequently, it will be selected ahead of others.

Researchers rely on subliminal priming techniques for a simple reason: if participants can’t consciously detect an environmental cue, then they certainly won’t be aware of its effect. Therefore, subliminal priming is the “gold standard” for demonstrating that marketing cues can affect consumers unconsciously.   

We relied on these techniques in a series of laboratory studies to compare the unconscious influences of brand logos and slogans. We conjectured that a key difference is that slogans are seen as “persuasion tactics” and, consequently, should not produce a typical priming effect.

This hypothesis was based on some of my earlier research. It showed that subliminal exposure produces so-called reverse-priming effects if people perceive a threat to their autonomy. For example, consider a student whose mother is always encouraging her to work hard at school. If this student is subliminally exposed to the word “mother” while simultaneously working on a test or assessment, she will persist longer and perform better.  

Suppose, though, that the student perceives her mother as highly controlling. Rather than boosting performance, subliminally priming “mother” will cause performance to drop significantly, even below baseline levels. Because her mother is perceived as a threat to autonomy and freedom, the subliminal priming triggers oppositional behavior.

The critical thing is that this behavior is dictated by psychological processes which operate entirely unconsciously. The student is unaware that the concept “mother” is active, that concepts related to her personal autonomy are too, and that she is behaving in an oppositional manner.

Building on this research, we predicted two things. The first was that consumers unconsciously respond in an oppositional manner to brand slogans, which they perceive as persuasion tactics. The second was that they respond in an assimilative manner to brand logos, which they fail to perceive as persuasion tactics.

That is, we predicted that slogans produce reverse-priming effects, while logos produce priming effects. Consistent with this, it was found that subliminal exposure to the logo for “Walmart,” typically associated with saving money, reduces consumers’ subsequent spending. But exposure to the company’s “Save money. Live better” slogan increases subsequent spending. The same pattern holds true when we compare logos and slogans associated with luxury brands, but with a twist. There, subliminal exposure to logos increases spending, while exposure to slogans reduces it.  

Our research relies on subliminal priming techniques to show that unconscious influences can be based on many different aspects of an environmental cue. Therefore, the can affect consumers in ways that marketers may not intend.

When it comes to brands versus slogans, the key point is that “the medium is the message.” This may be bad news for marketers, but it is good news for consumers, who are exposed to countless marketing messages on a daily basis. Even the simple act of entering a supermarket can involve an untold number of cues and potential priming effects, ranging from brand displays to discount signs and even the cashier’s friendly smile.

Much research remains to be done in the area of unconscious consumer behavior. So far, though, our results suggest that people develop defence mechanisms that also operate automatically, without the need for conscious guidance. These mechanisms protect consumers against the effects of persuasion tactics by unconsciously triggering oppositional responses.

We are currently working to extend these findings by examining the role of brand liking. Early results suggest that subliminal exposure to a brand one dislikes also produces a reverse-priming effect.