10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 10

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In our 10th and final installment, I want to wrap up our discussion by reviewing a topic near and dear to my heart: automaticity. Automaticity in the consumer environment refers to actions that occur without thought, and often refers to the process of priming, which is activating a concept without conscious awareness. Priming is quite common, and advertisers often depend on the automatic effects of priming in their advertising. For instance, product placements in TV shows or movies are meant to be subtle while activating a desire for the product, or creating associations between the product and something you enjoy (i.e. the show or movie). Such methods are extremely effective; Tom Cruise’s Ray-Bans in Risky Business sold 360,000 pairs of the unpopular sunglasses and The Italian Job put Mini Coopers on the map, boosting sales by 22%.

You may wonder how this is nonconscious, since you obviously notice these items are present in the movies. However, priming actually refers to a 3 part process, including awareness of the environmental factors (seeing the Ray-Bans in the movie), the process of activating the concept in the brain (the associations or desires created by seeing the Ray-Bans on Tom Cruise) and the outcome (actually buying the Ray-Bans, or changing your impression of the product).1 For the most part, we are not aware of every part of this process when we have been primed.1 But, as demonstrated by the sales statistics that result from product placement, priming is a highly effective marketing technique.

One way that brands can influence consumers outside of conscious awareness is by priming concepts related to the brand’s personality. For instance, a study by a group of Duke researchers revealed that priming participants with Apple logos made them significantly more creative on a subsequent task than participants who were primed with IBM logos.2 These brand associations are so strong it even works when you prime someone with a logo that is subliminal (it’s presented so fast it can’t be seen even if you are looking at it directly).3 However, in real life, most primes are supraliminal (you can see them, but you don’t realize their impact on your thoughts and behavior).3

Other people can also prime us, as we discussed in the Dasani priming study reviewed in our day 3 post. As in that study, behavioral mimicry can be the outcome of experiencing a prime. Behavioral mimicry occurs when one person behaves in the same way as another person without realizing it. This happens when you notice you are sitting the same way as another person, or you take on an accent when talking with someone from another place. Within the consumer realm, this can happen when you make the same choices as other consumers. One study found that watching another participant eat only goldfish crackers or animal crackers encouraged participants to eat the same snack and ignore the other option when both were provided.4

Automaticity is always at work in the consumer realm, but, for the most part, consumers are unaware of these influences and behaviors. Automatic processes like priming lead consumers to make decisions that are influenced by other consumers and marketing appeals. Many of the topics we have discussed during this series operate automatically, from forming impressions of products to being influenced by the behavior of early adopters. As always, an educated consumer is a savvy consumer!

Happy Holidays, y’all! Thanks for reading and see you in 2015!

Note: You may notice how often I cited Tanya Chartrand in this post. She is one of the foremost authorities on priming and automaticity, as well as a professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. You can find more information on her research at her faculty page.

  1. Chartrand, T. L. (2005). The role of conscious awareness in consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15(3), 203-210.
  2. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  3. Bargh, J. A. (2002). Losing consciousness: Automatic influences on consumer judgment, behavior, and motivation. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 280-285.
  4. Tanner, R. J., Ferraro, R., Chartrand, T. L., Bettman, J. R., & Van Baaren, R. (2008). Of chameleons and consumption: The impact of mimicry on choice and preferences. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(6), 754-766.
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