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Advertising: what you don’t know gets you

Advertising is a nuisance. We tune that stuff out. Right?

Well, yes. Right. Which turns out to be exactly what gives it its power. If we didn’t tune it out, it wouldn’t work.

A while back, 1997 to be precise, there was an article in Nature showing that subliminal messages (i.e. below-the-threshold messages, tuned-out messages) influenced product choice more than conscious ones (via Mindhacks).

This study was done by Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester. They played traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

Disbelief is the usual reaction to the idea that we could be unaware of something that touches us, literally or figuratively. But even in the literal sense, I know I’ve had the experience of being involved in an activity–building a rabbit hutch, for instance–and later finding I had a cut that I didn’t notice earlier. The conscious mind may be elsewhere, but stuff still happens.

If disbelief is set aside, and for the sake of argument we accept the idea that we could be influenced without knowing it, there’s a feeling of malaise. It’s nasty to think of mind parasites getting under your skin like that, without even knowing you’ve been infected, and steering your actions while you think you’re in some kind of control. It sounds like a cheesy sci-fi movie. Can’t be, we say to ourselves. Too silly for words. Meanwhile, we’re out there, buying the French or German wine, as per instructions.

If advertising could really be “tuned out,” companies and politicians wouldn’t spend billions of dollars on it. In the case of commerce, one might say it doesn’t really matter. What’s the worst that could happen? We might eat, or smoke, or starve ourselves to death, but that’s a personal “choice.” In the case of politics, it matters a great deal. Everyone has to live with the elected leaders. There’s something very repulsive about having leaders foisted on us based on which one is best at subliminal hypnotism. That’s not a democracy. It’s a seance.

We might retain more free will if we admitted that we don’t always know when it’s being quietly taken away. Then we’d start noticing all the million things we have to tune out, just to get through the day. It would be awful. We might get sufficiently uncomfortable to realize that advertising is a lot more than a nuisance. It’s a way of making us to do things, not necessarily against our better judgment, but without any judgment at all.

Technorati tags: advertising, subliminal, collective unconscious, free will