A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research reports findings of research into the incredibly creepy phenomenon of priming and its relation to brand names. This is the abstract:
This article first examines whether brand exposure elicits automatic behavioral effects as does exposure to social primes. Results support the translation of these effects: participants primed with Apple logos behave more creatively than IBM primed and controls; Disney-primed participants behave more honestly than E!-primed participants and controls. Second, this article investigates the hypothesis that exposure to goal-relevant brands (i.e., those that represent a positively valenced characteristic) elicits behavior that is goal directed in nature. Three experiments demonstrate that the primed behavior showed typical goal-directed qualities, including increased performance postdelay, decreased performance postprogress, and moderation by motivation.
The implications are pretty clear: Brands do far more than affect what consumer decisions we make. They don’t simply lodge the name of a product in our minds. They have a wider sphere of influence, changing all sort of behavior: this is why it makes sense to talk of a consumer society defined by the level with which it is saturated by brands. Brands become associated with behavior and can then elicit that behavior subliminally, since, as the paper notes, “behavioral-priming effects are known to result from automatic processes, requiring no effort, intentionality, or awareness.” Resistance to behavioral branding is futile; we are affected by logos whether we want to be or not.
The paper theorizes that brands may trigger goals of self-fashioning and prompt behavior along those lines, efforts to achieve a desired ideal self.
Via associations with desired human qualities, goal-relevant brands may acquire the ability to trigger these ideal-self goals and shape behavior. For example, the athletic brand Nike is associated with traits such as ‘active’ and ‘confident.’ These characteristics are generally seen as positive in American culture, so Nike likely plays a motivational role for many people, symbolizing desirable future or alternative selves. In the case of Nike, then, we would expect that brand exposure could lead people to pursue goals to be confident and active.
A key question is how brands become associated with certain traits. If this is completely under marketers control, they have tremendous sway over our consequent behavior, possibly over our goals themselves. Logos may not always have the social meanings that their designers intended—they are open to determination by popular usage. But those meanings are more under the sway of commercial determination than other repositories of social meaning—more money is spent via marketing to control those meanings (they are not mere reflections of the public will or mood) and make the symbols more prominent in culture, crowding out other alternatives. The authors of the paper argue that “billboards, product placements, and celebrity endorsements all contribute to the relatively implicit construction of brand representations over time, and to the automatic association of brands with desirable human qualities. Given people’s lack of success at understanding and correcting for external influence (Nisbett and Wilson 1977; Wilson and Brekke 1994), we predict that these brand-trait associations – shaped over time and outside of conscious awareness – will impact behavior in a nonconscious fashion.”
In their research, the authors found that for brands to affect behavior, they need to be associated with behavior that the subjects already found desirable. So the secret to avoiding having brands manipulate us, perhaps, is to aspire to be no one.