Selective retention and subliminal perception in marketing

A stark demonstration of the power of consumer brand beliefs is the typical result of product sampling tests. In “blind� taste tests, one group of consumers samples a product without knowing which brand it is, whereas another group of consumers samples the product knowing which brand it is. Invariably, differences arise in the opinions of the two groups despite the fact that the two groups are literally consuming exactly the same product.

When consumers report different opinions between branded and unbranded versions of identical products, it must be the case that the brand and product beliefs created by whatever means (e.g. past experience, marketing activity for the brand, etc) have somehow changed their product perception. Examples of branded differences can be found with virtually every type of product.

For example, one study found that consumers were equally split in their preference for Diet Coke versus Diet Pepsi when tasting both on a blind basis. When tasting the branded versions, however consumers preferred Diet Coke by 65% and Diet Pepsi by only 23% (with the remainder seeing no difference).

Selective distortion can work to the advantage of marketers with strong brands when consumers distort neutral or ambiguous brand information to make it more positive. In other words, beer may seem to taste better, a car may seem to drive more smoothly, the wait in a bank line may seem shorter, and so on, depending on the particular brands involved.

The selective perception mechanisms require active engagement and thought by consumers. A topic that has fascinated armchair marketers for ages is subliminal perception. The argument is that marketers embed covert, subliminal messages in ads or packages.

The consumer is exposed to a world of information about new products, new services, and new uses for existing products, new ideas and new styles. His attitude towards this literal bombardment of information is peculiar. He may ignore certain pieces of information, whereas he may actively seek out some other information. He may read certain messages, but he may not digest them. He may merely overhear some message about some product and it may register in his mind. In other words, he filters the information in a rather unconscious manner.

When the consumer takes a buying decision, no rigid rule binds him. Sometimes, the decision is taken on the spot. That does not necessarily mean that it is an irrational decision. Sometimes he may decide after a long search after evaluating the various alternatives available and after reassuring himself with the opinion of those who have already purchased the product. Still, he may subsequently feel that his purchase was impulsive or even foolish! He may go to a shop after having taken the decision to buy a product; but he may not buy. For no apparent reason, he may postpone the purchase or even drop the very idea of purchasing the product.

Consumer’s perception is selective in the sense that he perceives and retains only what he would normally like to. This selective perception is actually his defense mechanism. Consumers are not consciously aware of these messages, but yet they affect their behavior. Although it is clear many subtle subconscious effects can exist with consumer processing no evidence supports the notion that marketers can systematically control consumers at that level.