You go to the supermarket and stop by some shelves offering French and German wine. You buy a bottle of French wine. After going through the checkout you are asked what made you choose that bottle of wine. You say something like “It was the right price”, or “I liked the label”. Did you notice the French music playing as you took it off the shelf? You probably did. Did it affect your choice of wine? No, you say, it didn’t.
That’s funny because on the days we play French music nearly 80% of people buying wine from those shelves choose French wine, and on the days we play German music the opposite happens
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. Similar experiments have shown that classical music can make people buy more expensive wine , or spend more in restaurants .
Is this manipulation? There’s no coercion, all the customers are certainly wine buyers who are probably more or less in the mood to buy some wine. But they have been influenced in what kind of wine they buy and they don’t know that they have.
What would be the effect, I wonder, of having someone stand by the shelves saying to the customers as they passed “Why don’t you buy a French wine today”? My hunch is that you’d make people think about their decision a lot more – just by trying to persuade them you’d turn the decision from a low involvement one into a high involvement one. People would start to discount your suggestion. But the suggestion made by the music doesn’t trigger any kind of monitoring. Instead, the authors of this study believe, it triggers memories associated with the music – preferences and frames of reference. Simply put, hearing the French music activates  ideas of ‘Frenchness’ – maybe making customers remember how much they like French wine, or how much they enjoyed their last trip to France. For a decision which people aren’t very involved with, with low costs either way (both the French and German wines are pretty similar, remember, except for their nationality) this is enough to swing the choice.
This priming affect is, I believe, one of the major ways advertising works . Simply by making it more likely for us to remember certain things, we are more likely to make decisions biased in a certain way. There’s no compulsion, nobody has their free-will wrenched from their conscious grip. There’s just an environment shaped a certain way to encourage certain ideas. And how could anything be wrong with that?
Refs & Footnotes below the fold:
 Adrian C. North, David J. Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick? (1997). In-store music affects product choice. Nature, 390, 132.
Adrian C. North, David J. Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick? (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selections. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 271-276.
 Areni, C. S. and Kim, D. (1993). The influence of background music on shopping behavior: classical versus top-forty music in a wine store. Advances in Consumer Research, 20, 336-340.
 North, A. C., Shilcock, A., and Hargreaves, D. J. (2003). The effect of musical style on restaurant customers‚Äô spending. Environment and Behavior, 35, 712-718.
 For ‘activates’, read ‘primes’. See Hacks #38 and #81 in ‘Mind Hacks’ or look up priming in any cognitive psychology textbook
 This is my first-pass conclusion. I’d love to be convinced otherwise. Get in touch if you know of any evidence otherwise.