Borrowing from my own model and from Robert Heath’s brilliant book, ‘Seducing the Subconscious’ the latest version of our holistic Perception Model traces two routes by which advertising or information generally, can influence perception & feelings and effect behaviour change. The top, blue route, is one in which the advertising engages attention and is processed consciously.
The lower red route allows the advertising to slip into our psyche unconsciously, and Robert’s analysis shows how it can connect with already embedded brand associations and provide unconscious validation of the brand. It is more difficult to say with any certainty that new attributes or properties of the brand can be added to the unconsciously embedded brand, but there is no proof that they cannot. So we might be influenced to update our inner sense of a brand without knowing it! The insistence by some of the world’s most successful brand on repeating their advertising or investing in point-of-sale so that we see their logos every day suggests that brand owners and advertisers believe in the efficacy of this unconscious processing.
When we consider this unconscious route in perception we can compare it with Kahneman’s System One thinking. Like any heuristic this route offers a way for a brand or commercial to influence us without our knowledge, leaving us to respond perfectly automatically, sometimes unaware that we have witnessed the brand at all!
Taking the blue, conscious route, here an advertisement can trigger thoughts and concepts – among them counter arguments – anything from ‘I don’t believe that’ to ‘my brand is just as good’ to ‘they would say that wouldn’t they, they just want my money!’ I want to point out here that engaging people’s attention – the ideal of the AIDA (Attention Interest Desire Action) model – is not without danger. It may be better to slip under the net of consciousness.
Instinctively, the best qualitative researchers have always known of the power of this red, subconscious route. As early as 1988 Wendy Gordon and I conducted an experiment where we asked people about their recall of advertising, then hypnotised them and asked them again. One of the commercials we tested this way was the Hofmeister Beer, ‘Follow the Bear’ campaign, featuring a laddish if slightly geeky man in a bear costume who represented the brand in a swaggering walk. It is easy see that young lads might have been unwilling to openly admit to copying this rather absurd figure. But of course the unconscious contains no such rational counter argument! He might have looked manly and confident to the recesses of our psyches! Certainly the campaign was successful at the time.
Predictably many market researchers missed the point: they assumed we were suggesting that we hypnotise people as a market research method! We were not. These were consenting volunteers in an experiment, not market research respondents! We simply wanted to demonstrate beyond doubt the existence of an unconscious store of brand impressions, as Robert has confirmed in his latest book.
Today, 30 years later, I suspect that the outrage from the research profession was as much driven by resistance to evidence that challenged the idea that you need to create awareness and recall if advertising is to work. If that notion is inaccurate and advertising is processed largely without attention, then all that effort testing propositions, creative routes, strategies, benefits, cut-through, could be largely for the benefit of the advertising and research industries in their attempts to rationalise & justify the value of their solutions to nervous clients. In other words, it is a placebo!