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Food for thought: Subliminal marketing (with extra cheese)

Posted by: Rosie Cordingley on 18 October 2017

Knowing your target audience and what motivates them is only the beginning. Subliminal marketing is a whole other level that you should probably be reading up on, despite its ethics being up for debate.

Back in my university days, we tested the effect of accent on taste perceptions of cheese. Bear with me…

We found that when eating exactly the same cheese and listening to the same recorded text whilst eating it, people who ate the cheese whilst listening to the text spoken in a French accent rated the cheese as a lot more tasty than those who listened to the same text spoken in a South African accent.

Why? Well, that’s a good question.

When you hear the French accent, a French ‘stereotype’ is subconsciously activated: we’re talking great wine, maybe some garlic, and a national love of great-tasting cheese. The French accent made people think of high-quality French cheese, and that made what they were eating taste good. The South African accent just made it taste like the pretty average cheddar that it really was.

It’s not just me though

Dijksterhaus and colleagues (1998) found that if you show people pictures of professors before they take a test, they perform better than average; but if they are shown pictures of supermodels (stereotypically not-so-clever), their test performance is worse than average. Illusionist Derren Brown also has some interesting findings (see embedded video below) on how you can influence people’s thoughts through subliminal messages, and there are a load more studies you can read up on.

What am I trying to say with all this?

Well, marketing is all about motivating your target audience, finding ways to get them interested in (and loving) the product, service or company you’re promoting. But 95% of decision-making is subconscious. So it’s useful to know there’s a whole other level above ‘traditional’ marketing techniques, ways to activate the subconscious and shape people’s thinking before you’ve even started talking about what you’re selling.

But here’s the problem

No one can decide on how ethical this kind of marketing and advertising is. If you can influence the way someone thinks about your work without them realising you’re doing it, that’s pretty powerful stuff, but it’s also a recipe for a PR nightmare. People need to agree to be subjected to these ‘mind games’ or there’ll be outrage when they find out what you’ve really been up to.

So, for now, we’ll be sticking to great copy, great design and great big ideas. Subliminal marketing is just something we should all bear in mind, and it’s a field of study we should really keep an eye on.

On an entirely separate note, we’re thinking of doing a cheese-themed lunch at Fox, any recommendations?

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