The Null Device

The subliminal magic of brands

Psychology experiments have shown that subliminal exposure to brands can prime people with the attributes those brands have cultivated. For example, when students were exposed to either an Apple or IBM logo and asked to list all the uses for a brick they could imagine, the Apple ("creativity, noncomformity") group came up with significantly more than the IBM ("tradition, responsibility") group. In a subsequent experiment, candidates primed with the Disney logo behaved more honestly than those primed with the logo of E! Channel (which, I believe, is a celebrity-gossip cable-TV channel in the US).

The practical consequences of this are interesting: if this is to be taken at face value then, by the sheer power of subliminal conditioning and marketing, brands do have magical properties, and branded products would perform better than physically identical unbranded ones. A brand logo is a macro, a tightly-encoded package of ideas, instantaneously decoded by appropriately conditioned consumers (and that means all of us; given the studies showing that young children learn to recognise brands before they learn to read), and priming has been shown to work. (In one experiment (previously mentioned here), students were asked to sort words, and then surreptitiously timed as they walked down the corridor on leaving. Those given words relating to old age—including, memorably, "Florida"—walked more slowly than those given youth-related words. Another experiment showed that exposure to alcohol-related words increased men's sex drive.)

Putting these facts together, it seems that using an Apple computer would make you more creative, even if you work in the same version of Microsoft Word you could as easily use on Windows, though so would having an Apple iPod, and Nike shoes could make you run faster than generic trainers of exactly the same composition, and so on. It's not necessarily even limited to brands, but could extend to any perceptible medium associated with qualities or values. It'd be interesting to see whether, for example, if one took two groups of students and, after surreptitiously exposing half of them to Belle & Sebastian and the other half to 50 Cent, asked them to play a game, whether members of one group would be more aggressive or competitive than the other.

Anyway, this finding could be seen as a justification for big brands' steep markups of otherwise average products: they're not exploiting a gullible public, they're selling the psychological magic of their brand. Though if you don't want to pay the markup, you could just as easily clip ads out of papers and tape them around your cubicle/kitchen/locker/wherever, which might get you a similar result, at the risk of making you look like a tragic. Just keep reminding yourself that you're not a gullible dupe or an unpaid human billboard, but a cunningly rebellious pirate, sticking it to The Man by stealing his magic without paying.

I wonder, though, whether candidates subliminally exposed to craptacular knockoffs of Apple products would experience a boost of creativity or a drop in IQ.

There are 1 comments on "The subliminal magic of brands":

Posted by: hot soup girl Thu Mar 20 00:55:49 2008

Er, that "I Love My Mac" video was a bit frightening.